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Looking Sharp

Anneliese Townsend

Anneliese Townsend

 

“Never attempt to catch an axe.”

That’s one of a handful of rules printed above the targets in each of the 12 lanes at the Agawam Axe House. And while that’s just good common sense, said Anneliese Townsend, founder and co-owner of this intriguing business, this reminder is there for a reason.

“You would think that would be pretty obvious, but, in fact, it’s a natural instinct to put your foot out and try to stop something coming at you, so we have to remind people that it’s an axe,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, since she opened the doors in January 2018, no one has tried to catch an axe.

But many have tried to throw one.

Indeed, this unique enterprise, said to be the first of its kind in New England, the only one in Western Mass., and one of just six currently operating in the state, has seen, well, a sharp rise in interest since it opened, and the numbers — of both participants and revenue — continue to grow.

The venue has welcomed a wide range of constituencies, from companies large and small that are looking for a new and different kind of team-building exercise (a large contingent from LEGO was in recently) to birthday, bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (axe throwing has become popular among women, as we’ll see); from leagues that compete weekly to individuals, many of them professionals, who are looking to blow off a little steam and rid themselves of some stress.

There are many days when Townsend will see all of the above.

“It’s absolutely massive, and it’s getting bigger every day,” she said of the sport of axe throwing, which she was introduced to while on a trip to Montreal with her boyfriend (and now business partner), Bob Manning.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’” she recalled, “and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

the Burn Battle

The Agawam Axe House hosts a number of leagues and fund-raising events, such as the Burn Battle, which raises money for the American Cancer Society. Participants in last year’s ‘battle’ are seen here. The 2022 edition is set for Oct. 2.

They went to such a facility, but because they were with Manning’s children, they could not partake — it was an over-18 activity, and for obvious reasons. But Townsend was certainly intrigued, and upon returning to Western Mass., she did another Google search, this one to find axe-throwing venues near Agawam.

The closest one she found was in New Jersey. Instead of driving there, this entrepreneur — she’s been involved with an ice-cream shop and some other ventures in this community — eventually decided to open her own facility.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’ and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

And from the day it opened, it’s been a hit. Or, as participants in this activity might say in this sport, it has stuck.

Business is brisk, and as the sport gets more exposure — from ESPN 8 or from the many who have already tried it — Townsend expects it will only continue to grow in popularity.

When people try it, they find that it’s not nearly as hard as it might look, and it has become a proven stress reliever — at a time when many are having issues with stress, for one reason or another.

“We have a lot of doctors from Noble Hospital [in Westfield] who come in,” she said. “They’re the most stressed people out there.”

This writer tried it, and, after a few throws to get a feel for it and stop trying to ‘flick the axe,’ as Townsend put it, managed to stick a few. Hundreds of other people have done the same, and that’s why Agawam Axe House is more than on target with its business projections.

For this issues and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with Townsend about the sport — and business — of axe throwing, and why she believes this is anything but a fad.

 

Gaining an Edge

When asked about axe throwing, or hatchet throwing, which is a more accurate description of the implement being used, as a leisure activity, Townsend described it as “a Canadian thing,” meaning that is where it started and is perhaps most popular.

She said urban axe throwing became a sport — and a business — in 2007 with the opening of Backyard Axe Throwing, or BATL, founded by Matt Wilson. It has grown from there, and there are now hundreds of venues across Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe, and elsewhere, with more opening their doors every year.

Indeed, Townsend, a native of Australia whose parents still live there, said she keeps urging them to open an axe-throwing business in Sidney. They haven’t, but others have, much to her consternation.

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House show off their axes, and their enthusiasm for the increasingly popular sport.

There are now actually two bodies governing the sport and promoting it on a global scale — the International Axe Throwing Federation (IATF), which the Agawam Axe House operates under, and the World Axe Throwing League (WATL).

Overall, the sport is catching on at many levels, everything from tournaments, including the U.S. Open, staged by the WATL — which took place in July in Minneapolis, with the finals airing on ESPN — and the International Axe Throwing Championship, which took place in June, to amateurs picking up the sport in places like the Agawam Axe House.

As for the business of axe throwing … getting off the ground was relatively easy, said Townsend, explaining that she acquired the location, secured the necessary permits (a liquor license was sought initially but not granted), and found insurance — a necessary but expensive item in this business sector, to be sure — through a company in Chicago that specializes in writing policies for axe-throwing establishments.

And, as noted, things got off to a fast start, and the company quickly built up some momentum.

But COVID brought things to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020, as it prompted the closing of all indoor sports facilities, said Townsend, adding that she and Manning eventually gained permission from the town to operate a few lanes outdoors, enabling the business to survive until restrictions were fully lifted in the spring of 2021.

Since then, business has been steady, with healthy amounts of new and repeat business, with both being vital to the success of any sports-related business.

Visitors to the Axe House, which now also boasts ‘foot bowling’ — bowling with a football — can use ‘house’ axes or bring their own, although it must meet certain specifications, especially with the size of the head and the material for the handle; it must be wood to control the amount of bounceback.

Many who partake, especially those in leagues, do own their own axes, which typically run for $80 to $90 — much more than a hatchet off the shelf at a hardware store would cost — and some go for as much as $200 to $300, with customized handles.

“That’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

But otherwise, the sport is very affordable, with lanes renting for $25 per hour, per person.

Townsend said axe throwing is growing in popularity for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it really is much easier than people think and doesn’t take any real strength, agility, or athletic ability in order to excel. It’s been called the ‘great equalizer’ by one facility owner interviewed by USA Today. And Townsend agreed with that assessment.

“The reason many people don’t try it is because they assume you have to be strong, you have to be able to throw it fast, you have to have some throwing ability,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than one could imagine; people come in every day and say, ‘I’ll never be able to do it,’ and four or five throws later, they’re sticking it.

“It’s all about where you stand — I can make anyone stick it,” she went on, adding that instruction for first-timers is part of the package. “And that’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

What’s more, you can do this yourself or in groups of all kinds — leagues, a gathering of co-workers, those bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (Townsend had two of them scheduled for the approaching weekend when she talked with BusinessWest), and fundraising events.

These include the upcoming Burn Battle, the second annual women’s tournament, slated for Oct. 2, that will raise funds for the American Cancer Society.

“Girls from all over New England and far away as New Jersey and Philadelphia come and throw and compete,” she said, adding that one of the bigger surprises thus far is how popular the Axe House, and the sport, has become with women. She estimates that perhaps 65% of customers are women. She’s not exactly sure why, although she has some theories.

“I think many women know that this is women-owned; the assumption, when you hear ‘axe throwing,’ is that it’s going to be a gentleman teaching you how to throw axes. I think that women find out it’s me, because I’ve been on the radio a few times, they’re much more comfortable coming in and trying it out,” she said. “Also, it’s an outlet — for everybody, not just women.”

Looking ahead, Townsend said there are no immediate plans to add additional locations or expand beyond Agawam. The immediate focus is on growing the business there and continuing to build the customer base by promoting the sport in any way she can.

 

All You Could Axe For

As for some of those other posted rules, they include “never run with an axe,” “no trick shots,” and “do not hold the axe by the blade.”

There is another rule — participants must wear close-toed shoes (again, for obvious reasons). Some show up not aware of this stipulation, said Townsend, adding that the Axe House has shoes (Crocs, actually) for rent.

“We call them shoes of shame, for obvious reasons — you weren’t smart enough to wear close-toed shoes throwing sharp objects,” she joked, adding that fewer people have to rent them these days, yet another sign that people are becoming aware of this activity and what it’s all about.

Suffice it to say this business venture is paying off, and that participants are not only sticking it, but sticking with it.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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