60 seconds with…Simon Allison, Head of Marketing - Inception Group

How was the re-opening of your business and how was it carried out in line with safety procedures put in place to allow social distancing?

The opening feels like a lifetime ago or a year ago at least. 

It was a phased reopening in terms of which brands and which venues within that brand that we looked to reopen, starting with limited amount of trading sessions, limited menus, no added experiences but since then it’s all been phased up and we have all our venues open other than our disco Maggie’s in Chelsea. 

The social distancing which is really just physical distancing wasn’t as hard for us as some venues, we are built on table service and our venues generally operate well below their licensed capacity with seating very much spread out due to design features. 

As ever we always look to turn perceived challenges into opportunities to go further with the brand, such as PPE being us putting staff into beekeeper costumes, reduced capacities meaning we add Victorian mannequins, beautiful Victorian changing screens being used to separate tables, phones being added to tables in Bunga Bunga so tables can call one another, etc…

How is the general feeling and feedback from your team members and your customers now the lockdown is over?

In venues, staff have been an absolute dream from what I understand; the pause in working life I think hit a lot of them hard in many ways but perhaps did make them realise how much hospitality and almost performing as they do in our theatrical sites is a way of life as well as a job. 

They were chomping a bit to get back to work! I don’t think the public appreciate how hard it is to wear a face mask for a long shift in a busy bar, I did it for one evening when I worked an event and I have a serious appreciation for their resilience!! 

Guests have been equally fantastic; I think they missed us as much as we missed them. The simple pleasures we took for granted we now appreciate more. 

Personally, I am surprised that the vast majority of guests seem to know the rules without being told, they seem to change so frequently and be communicated in such a haphazard way by the authorities but guests just do as they are politely told. I certainly feel that in operating businesses that create unique experiences that you can’t make at home, we have been missed and demand is thankfully very much there!

What role has technology played in supporting your re-opening plan?

It’s certainly been integral to the reopening but there have also been some revealing consequences of it. We have developed an app, led by my colleague Tom, it’s something that has been on our agenda for some time and would have taken a lot of meetings to happen, then taken 3-6 months to sort it, but due to the situation it just progressed and we made it happen, this is an attitude I hope sticks around! 

However I think the app will play different roles in different spaces, apps for ordering work great in some environments but even I who knows the menus so well, always, always ask the team on duty for suggestions based on my mood or any number of factors. 

Guests are paying for an experience and a huge part of that is the interaction with staff. For me it’s always the case technology has to improve an experience, if it’s there to make life easier for our teams it’s perhaps not enough of a reason to have it, it must make the guest experience better!! The other roles tech has played has really been around things we do ordinarily but have leant on more, like Wireless Social, e-marketing as part of the reopening marketing plan, social media…

What market trends are you seeing since re-opening?

Well a move to weekends in terms of trading patterns and of course midweek changing in terms of demand with less people working in city centres, less tourists, less theatres…

However there are some positive trends, guests are intent on booking now, we have always been based on reservations in almost all our venues, so we know how it works but we have looked to play around with sitting times, table durations, etc as behaviours trend with the rules put upon society. 

In terms of things like drinks mix I think when we reopened everyone had missed draft beer but that’s all settled down now, I believe! 

We see more and more demand for at home experience products/packages of course but for us it’s still relatively small in comparison to our bread and butter trade (although we only launched at home experiences two weeks ago). 

I think the fact we are seeing high levels of demand, above expectations, must mean that guests are moving towards venues with offer experience, are spacious/airy, and you know have high safety standards. 

What techniques have you used to build sales and re-engage customers?

We have actually looked to others early on during the pandemic and one thing I certainly saw was that a much more personal, informal voice that often came direct from founders really cut through. 

This was coupled with perhaps a lowering in production values as it were! Seeing founders and directors speak direct to consumers from their phone or a dodgy internet feed, really cut through everything else and resonated, so this is something I think we can do a lot more on. In terms of building sales, we have had to look at where demand exists (this seems to change weekly) and look to capture this with new trading sessions or opportunities. 

A good example of how we have built sales is by amending or creating new experiences that fit the guidelines we are under, and also we have looked to play around with table duration times so that we maximise opportunities depending on changes in demand. We also lost all our revenue streams when we were locked down, the first time, so we have developed and are developing more experiences we can sell separately to the core venues trading, so deliverable experiences like pizza making at home, gin safari at home, cocktails through your letterbox…

What positive lessons do we need to learn from what the industry has been through?

My hope is that as an industry we come together to really have some power and say over the rules that are placed upon us, I definitely feel that while as a sector we have totally adhered to all that has been placed upon us, the moments I think that have benefited us and we need to see more of is collectively saying no or putting together another course of action. 

It’s been great to see so many businesses and individuals come together though to share and discuss so much, that has been genuinely positive, and we have been working on a couple of collaborations that never would have been possible pre pandemic. 

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Date Published: 4th November 2020