Inside the business taking storytelling to a whole new level

As far as innovative uses of storytelling go in business, Inception Group takes some beating. The brainchild of co-founders Charlie Gilkes and Duncan Stirling, the nightclub, bar & restaurant operator prides itself on immersing customers in unique and theatrical storylines...

Inception Group venues are designed to bring people on immersive and unexpected experiences. A great example of which is one of their latest spaces in Covent Garden - inspired by mobster films, it’s accessible through an industrial meat locker, where guests ‘negotiate’ with a butcher to enter.

Having promoted the brand through pop-ups at events such as Queen’s Club tennis championships and Henley Regatta the pair oversaw sales of £14 million in 2016, chalked up a place on the Fast Track 100 and now boast a staff of over 300. We spoke to the guys to get a better understanding of what storytelling means to their business.

What role does storytelling play in your business?

Charlie: It's fundamental. All of our venues are based around telling a story, they are all conceptual and we try to push the boundaries further with every new opening. We want to create spaces in which our guests can truly escape and  feel as though they are stepping into a completely different world. It is really important that they  feel as though they are part of the narrative and that our focus on attention to detail makes it seem completely believable.

As a general principle, why is storytelling an important skill for entrepreneurs to master?

Duncan: It is the basis for every successful business in my mind. It is about creating the way in which people perceive you, and it is always fun to play with people’s perceptions and expectations on what you will deliver next. As a general rule, storytelling is what builds your brand, and gives it personality. This is especially important in our industry with so many exciting places opening daily. A story is about making sure your venue has context and stands  out from the crowd.

When we opened Mr Fogg’s Tavern, after such success with Mr Fogg’s Residence, we wanted to continue with the Phileas Fogg’s narrative but with a new twist. We imagined his Aunt Gertrude was a great actress of the day and had died leaving her theatreland apartment to Phileas, in which we created the upstairs and more refined Mr Fogg's Gin Parour and that her lifelong retainer, Fanny Mcgee had been given the downstairs to run as a rowdy tavern.

Read: How not to tell your brand's story

Your venues offer up unique immersive experiences, is taking people on a journey or telling them a story an important part of creating the experience?

Charlie: The reality is, is that without our guests there would be no experience so customers are the focus of the story. At the end of the day, it is about having fun and giving our customers something they can’t get anywhere else. Making them a part of what we do seems natural to this. At Cahoots, for example, guests are transported to a post-war abandoned underground tube shelter and at the newly opened Bunga Bunga in Covent Garden we wanted guests to enter a completely different world from the  moment they walked through the meat locker door.

What one piece of advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to use storytelling as a way of communicating with their customers?

Charlie: It's very important to fully believe and be immersed in your concept and the story you are telling, otherwise you can't expect customers to buy in to it.

Have you had any storytelling failures that you've learnt from along the way?

Duncan: Yes, we have experienced failure on a both macro and micro level. On a macro scale, we once created a storyline for an entire venue that was too niche. It was a storyline that only appealed to a very small community and therefore really limited our market. We subsequently changed the story and completely turned that particular business around. On the micro level we once created a storyline for a menu in one of our venues that was so complicated that even people in our own company couldn't understand it, so we couldn't possibly expect our customers to understand it. We now market test all our storylines before we take them to our customers.  

What does the future hold for your industry?

Duncan: I think we will see more and more places which give an entire experience in one venue, so dinner, drinks and a show, it is not just about the drink or dish anymore, which is what we hope to deliver with Bunga Bunga Covent Garden. I think that is what people are looking for, and it sets us new challenges every day on how we can create something like nothing else out there.

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