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How A Leading Hospitality Group Is Surviving The Pandemic

October 20, 2020 by Bryony Maiklem

No one imagined at the beginning of 2020 that the Coronavirus would have such a profound effect on everyday life. We certainly missed it off our predictions.

Covid-19, and the restrictions put in place by governments to try and curb it’s spread, have had massive financial consequences for individuals and business all over the world.

However, it’s hard to deny that in the UK, the entertainment industry has been particularly affected.

Months of forced to closure, diminished capacities due to social distancing rules, and limited trading hours with the introduction of a 10 pm curfew are some of the challenges pubs, bars and restaurants have faced over the last 6 months.

Despite the challenging circumstances, businesses are staying positive and are thinking up novel ways to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity.

We chatted to Simon Allison from Inception Group (the company behind some of the most talked-about London venues) to find out how the pandemic has changed their business and what strategies they’ve put in place to continue to bring customers quirky and memorable experiences during ‘the new normal’. If you’ve not come across Inception Group, check out this recipe from one of their top venues Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlour.

For those of our readers who don’t know Inception Group, can you tell us a bit about the organisation and the venues you own?

Inception Group has been around for over 10 years now and I think the best way to describe what we do is… offering unique, memorable and semi-immersive experiences in venues that take their brand identity/story all the way.

We started off in west London with venues like Barts, Maggie’s and Bunga Bunga, then the growth of the company really sped up when we had brands with multiple venues so the likes of Mr Fogg’s, Cahoots and Bunga Bunga.

The company is unique in the entrepreneurial spirit everyone harbours, venue names and experiences have been known to come from interns before! So, the objective is to create spaces, experiences and hospitality that offer a real sense of escapism and is memorable!!

Inception Group was absolutely flying when the pandemic hit – has this put plans for new sites completely on hold?

I wouldn’t say completely on hold but the number one and almost sole focus is getting through the immediate challenges we face right now. Our existing venues are really having to evolve in order for us to survive and then thrive again.

Right now, it’s fair to say we are not looking much further than getting through the rest of the year, but there is optimism and positivity, I definitely can see the good times of growth in the future! I actually would say the company feels a bit more like it did 5 or 6 years ago, just before our biggest periods of growth, everyone is getting their hands dirty and creativity is bubbling away.

As Head of Marketing have you felt an extra pressure to keep IG front of mind for your customers? How has your approach to marketing changed during the pandemic?

We are fortunate with Inception that we have really strong brands, whenever we feel the need to get the brands back in peoples’ minds, we revisit what the brand actually is. I think during the pandemic we made a really obvious decision now but a hard one at the time, to ensure that we made a lot of noise and visibility during the period we were closed and the run-up to reopening.

We put on a lot of content over lockdown, such as online Explorer talks, online murder mystery events, Instagram live pizza making classes, partnering with Bacardi x Deliveroo to offer Mr Fogg’s cocktails at home.

When it came to reopening the decision to embrace health/safety measures in our own unique styles with Victorian mannequins in Fogg’s and staff in beekeepers outfits at House of Botanicals, gathered amazing PR.

I think the way we have embraced it really takes me back to my early days at Inception, we are doing more guerilla marketing at very low cost for very large impact. It’s not all about putting as much budget behind social media posts, the focus is really how can we make that social media post truly interesting/compelling.

What’s Inception Group’s approach to the ever-changing situation for the on-trade during the pandemic?

Generally, I think our approach has been to be as nimble as possible in order to evolve our offerings where needed, to go above and beyond in terms of safety measures, and finally to ensure that the experience guests have is still in line with what they have come to know us for.

It’s that balance between being flexible and yet not straying too far from what our core DNA is!

How have customers adapted to the new rules and regulations in all opened venues?

The feedback I have had from venue based teams and I see in all the feedback we get weekly is that guests have been very appreciative of the measures we have put in place and guests are getting on better than ever with our teams, perhaps appreciating what they have been though.

Customers seem willing to adhere to the measures we have taken and have been an absolute pleasure to have back.

A lot of people are talking about the on-trade having entered a “new normal” – do you think the hospitality industry has changed for the long term?

I think it’s very hard to say right now how many of these behaviours will exist long term, I think there are some things that probably have changed for the foreseeable future like rental agreements and also having to balance your core business with also having a digital business like delivery, at-home experience, etc.

So in those ways, there have been long term changes but I do think you see how quickly guests have got back in the swing of socialising as they would have done pre lockdown in our venues.

As a business have you been able to pivot in any way to build alternative revenue streams or have you been focusing on planning for the future?

We had aspirations and ideas to do this during the first lockdown but with the vast majority of the team being on furlough, access to venues being challenging and budgets being cut, it wasn’t possible. However, I am pleased to say this is something we are now focusing on.

We are launching Cahoots Emergency Cocktail Rations in October, whereby you will get cocktails delivered through your letterbox that you would ordinarily have had at Cahoots. Other initiatives include offering bottled cocktails to take home before the curfew kicks in, this is proving popular already!

And of course, we are looking at Deliveroo as an option for a couple of our sites, this should be up and running in October too.

What advice would you give to other independents and multi-site operators to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic?

I think it’s so hard to say!

The main things I think I am trying to keep in mind is that there are great opportunities out there, easy to say perhaps, but personally having less/no budget and less resource generally means the onus is on each and every one of us to become more creative, taking more responsibility in that respect.

I also think if possible try to retain what got you here as much as you can, I see businesses making decisions as they are under pressure and we are the same, sometimes you need to take a step back and ask yourself, would we have done this decision pre-pandemic?

Clearly, you need to be flexible but there is a real danger you make poor decisions that will damage your brand due to being desperate. Trying to stick as closely as you can to your core brand beliefs is more important than ever I feel and offering something unique that consumers can’t recreate at home.

 

Looking to support the entertainment industry? Check out our guide to the best destinations in Oxford.

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