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How one hospitality business was saved by its online arm

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 18 May 2021

ICAEW Insights explores how an immersive-experience bar-restaurant business was able to extend its bricks and mortar business model online, boosting revenues and building brand awareness.

The UK’s hospitality sector sustained huge losses, equivalent to nearly £80bn of sales in 12 months of COVID, following lockdowns that saw restaurants, pubs, bars, hotels, attractions and other venues close from mid-March of last year, according to UKHospitality’s quarterly tracker collated by CGA. Simon Allison, Head of Marketing for hospitality business Inception Group, felt the brunt of this drop in sales as revenues hit rock bottom when the first lockdown was announced in 2020.

“We were heavily bricks and mortar operations and had no other sides of our business, we didn't have a delivery business and we didn't have a retail arm at that time”, said Allison. “When we were forced to stop, revenues went to absolutely zero, literally zero, which hit us hard.”

Inception Group operates in London and has 12 venues currently from a mixture of cocktail bars, semi-immersive, restaurants and a nightclub which currently remains shut. The kind of brands they have are immersive: for example, cocktail bar Mr Foggs serves up a Victorian-style experience playing on an ‘Around the world in 80 days’ theme.

“We offer people escapism,” added Allison. “The catchphrase we have internally is that you might not remember the drinks last night, you might not remember the food, but you’ll remember the way we made you feel.

“We've always wanted to have other arms of the business such as delivery and retail. But we were always nervous about doing it because one of our unique selling points was offering experiences you can't recreate at home. We've been saying that for the last 10 years now, if we suddenly say to people, we're sending this box to have our experience at home then that’s quite disingenuous.”

Bricks and mortar to online

Inception Group instead chose to put together cocktail and pizza-making kits, murder mysteries and exploratory experiences to be enjoyed at home which would capture some of the experiences offered at the closed venues. To remain true to their original business model of offering an experience ‘you can’t recreate at home’, they combined these kits with Instagram live events to get as close as possible to the real thing. This pivot in business strategy meant that by supplying a ‘virtually live’ event in conjunction with their food and drink sent out, this would complement rather than substitute their business.

“Pizza-making parties, which we did three days a week, became Instagram lives, alongside murder mysteries which also became an Instagram Live event. I was so proud because it was at a time where we had no cash to spend or play with, but we managed to find the cash to still keep the communications channels going. So that was a great decision. And now those experiences at home actually grew really well, especially around key date events and Christmas, so much so that long term it will remain a part of our business”, he explained.

Allison credited the lack of budgets and the short space of time the business had to put new operations in place meant they were more willing to speed up processes and become more efficient through bypassing the bureaucracy, which has had a good effect on the business.

Lessons learned on a business and a personal level


“I think we were too narrow in terms of all our revenue being taken in venues”, he added. “I also think if we develop the online subscription models around our online products, for example, gin tasting, this would have helped to boost our great brands and decent following through a loyal customer base. If we had walked into this situation with other revenue streams, it would have been immeasurably better, and now that we have them it's given us a degree of comfort.”


While ensuring the business stayed afloat through focusing on communication to the customers and consumers, Allison realised his top priority should have been to communicate effectively internally to staff members. He said it has been a learning curve and although they are set up much better to communicate with staff now, in the beginning it was tough because there was a balance between communicating speculation which changes daily or communicating the unknown which could scare workers. There were situations where people were genuinely scared about the impacts the pandemic would have on them financially, but the company addressed that by looking at personal circumstances.

Looking to the future and easing of lockdown restrictions, Allison said: “As long as we can get through the next three or four months of trading with bookings going as well as they appear to be, things will look really rosy. The thing that we're very fearful of is further lockdowns or restrictions. If they happen it will be a problem.” 

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