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Friday, March 12, 2021

Highlands Grad Is Entrepreneurial Spirit Behind Last Call Trivia

Highlands High grad and successful entrepreneur Adam Johnston says the belief he could do pretty much anything he set his mind to was instilled in him from an early age.

by Robin Gee

"Whatever I’ve wanted in life, I’ve gone after it. That was something instilled in me by my parents," said Adam Johnston, Fort Thomas native and the force behind Last Call Trivia, a popular and successful company that runs hundreds of trivia night events in bars and restaurants across the country.

Johnston said his family gave him the belief that he was capable of doing anything he set his mind to do. Speaking of his father, who passed away a few years ago, he said, "The greatest thing my dad ever gave me was the belief I could do and be anything in this life. I’ve always had that. I’ve always attacked everything full force."

Carving his own path

A 2000 grad and former receiver on the Highlands football team, he planned to study marketing in college. He actually entered Georgetown College on a vocal music scholarship.

Although he didn’t plan to pursue it as a full-time career, Johnston had fallen in love with musical theater and knew he somehow wanted to fit it into his life. "In my sophomore year I saw ‘Rent’ for the second time at the Lexington Opera House. While I know I enjoyed it the first time, this second time I saw it, it changed my life. I left there thinking 'this is what I have to do.'"

Even in college, Johnston did not let "no" stop him. While the school had several courses in theater and intermittent musical theater classes, it did not offer a musical theater degree. He wanted to minor in musical theater, and so he approached the board of directors to request they create a degree program. He pled his case and brought with him a curriculum plan. In the end, he earned his marketing degree and also became the first Georgetown graduate with a minor in musical theater.

After graduation, Johnston said his plan was to go a larger city, perhaps Chicago, and work his way up the corporate ladder. Yet, after an internship at Toyota in Hebron, his uncle, Gary Schrader, who was coaching football at Boone County High School at the time, asked him if he’d stick around for a bit and fill a spot as a receiver coach.

"It was a great opportunity, I really enjoyed it," he said, but the plan was still to head off to Chicago for a corporate career. In the meantime, he took a job as a bartender, where he met another entrepreneurial spirit, Drew Turner. The pair decided what they needed to do was go West and start their own bar.

Finding a new niche and filling it

After a time in Phoenix, they returned east and ended up in Charleston, SC. They were talking to investors and suppliers for their business. They had also started going to a weekly trivia night at a local bar. Johnston said one night they just looked at each other and said, “hey, why don’t we...?” and the idea that would become Last Call Trivia was born.

In 2007, Cincinnati didn’t have much in the way of trivia games in local bars, and they landed a contract with Applebees soon after they started, Johnston said. With a few more contracts around town, they were off and running.

The company hired a team of writers, developers, staffing and recruitment. Before the pandemic, they had about 250 part-time employees who ran the trivia games in bars across the country. Turner moved out to Portland, Oregon, and helped spread the company to other states.

Then the pandemic hit. "We didn’t know if our company would survive. It was really scary and some of the darkest times I’ve had in my adult life," Johnston said. "We knew somehow, we’d be okay, but we didn’t know what the future would look like. Maybe some of the bars would not be around any more."

They had to furlough many of their employees. Yet, it did not get Johnston down. He knew he could "pivot," adapt, and that is what the company did. He had to give up his office in Newport, but slowly he’s been able to bring back staff and return to some of the bars across the country.

For the love of trivia

People expect Johnston to be a "trivia master." He admits he’s far from that, but he does love it and says he is most drawn to how the activity brings people together. He said he enjoys the synergy that takes place within a trivia team.

"It’s that time between when the question is asked and the answer is given. It’s that magical moment. You and your team are talking back and forth. You may not know the answer, but one person on your team gives you a nugget that leads you to something else and all of a sudden you get it. You take a wild guess, the host reads the answer and you go crazy! It’s that connection, in your mind, yes, but also connecting with friends, other people you meet."

The collaborative spirit that happens while playing trivia is what makes it so special, Johnston said. And he notes with pride how many people have met and formed relationships through his trivia events. Some have gotten married, started families. He’s been to weddings and funerals of people who were regulars at his shows.

What’s next?

During the deepest part of the pandemic, Johnston did what entrepreneurs do, he started rethinking his business, coming up with new ways to spread the love of trivia even farther. 

Ever the entrepreneur, he started thinking up new business ideas as well and approached one of his furloughed employees to try a completely new direction, a project selling and making candles to be crowd sourced through Kickstarter. While that business idea did not unfold in the way he’d hoped, he said, "I did learn I want to do a candle company. I’m exploring a number of niches."

For Last Call Trivia, he has many ideas and new directions. The one thing Johnston said he puzzled with during the pandemic, was how to tap into new markets, to bring the love of trivia to those who don’t or can’t go to out to the bars. He wants to bring trivia into people’s homes and into their places of business to help build teams and connections.

One project is a trivia card game. "We’ve been exploring and have come up with one set of cards you can play two ways — quickly or strategically. But we are going to take our time...When you look at other trivia card games out there, it’s just cards with questions printed on them. There’s no strategy, no way to add other levels."

The company is working on software to aid in this, as well as providing information and encouragement and support through podcasts, a blog and website. He said he hopes to provide a variety of input for people to develop their own games and to explore the whole world of trivia. He plans on adding tips and information through a series of interviews on his site that feature expert players.

Johnston hopes to give players a place to keep track and to improve their game. Players will be able to log on and track their progress, discover their strengths and their weakness areas. After all, Johnston says, trivia is simply a great way to learn new things in a fun way.

When asked what one can do to improve their game, he said just show up and play. It’s certainly the way to improve, but the real goal, he said, is not winning, but having fun, learning and making connections. 

For a list of current trivia events, see the Last Call Trivia Schedule

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