How pop-ups can prop up business

As seen on London Loves Business Here

From pop-up shops to pop-up bars and restaurants – can businesses benefit from the trend sweeping London?

Dates will never be the same again. Long gone is the back seat of the Odeon and dinner for two at the local Indian. Hell, even a trip to the ice rink at Somerset House no longer cuts it. (If that’s where you’re planning on taking her/him, seriously, you need to think again.)

London’s pop-up craze has a lot to answer for. A “pop-up”, in case you haven’t heard, is typically a restaurant, retail outlet, or art production that occupies an unused building or outdoor space temporarily. Pop-ups can last a couple of days or up to several months.

Whether it’s watching Flash Gordon underneath the Hackney Wick flyover, dining at the temporary French Laundry restaurant in Harrods, or letting a theatre group perform in your brother’s house, the pop-up craze has opened doors to new commercial opportunities for businesses everywhere. (While putting added pressure on dating.)

Pop-ups can be spin-offs of established businesses and brands, or the efforts of people working together for the first time, sometimes to test the water for larger-scale ambitions.

We decided it was time to examine the business case behind the trend.

Using pop-ups to market a brand

Jeremy Rucker of Hotel Retail specialises in helping companies put on pop-up events – or short term retail as he prefers to calls it. Just 18 months old, Hotel Retail grew out of an intiative called Virtual Shop Windows, a programme that helped councils rejuvenate high streets.

 “You can directly engage with the client base, which you can’t control when your product is elsewhere”

Jeremy Rucker, Hotel Retail

“Three years ago empty shops became a considerable problem for councils,” explains Rucker. “Certain councils received £55,000 to address empty retail. We dressed over windows with virtual shops to give the impression of a busy high street and received a lot of publicity off the back of it.”

The company dressed over 1,500 windows before moving into the setting up community events. Business was booming. And then the grants dried up. Luckily for Rucker, the pop-up phenomenon had caught on outside of the public sector; what had started out as a grass roots movement to regenerate areas was becoming fashionable, marketable and commercial. Rucker saw an opportunity, and Hotel Retail was born.

Hotel Retail’s first project was to create a pop-up shop for the hosiery label Pretty Polly. “They were launching a new product at that stage called Legs 11. It was all about finding the best pair of legs in the country to wear their tights,” explains Rucker.

To launch the campaign, Pretty Polly chose an empty shop in Knightsbridge and timed the pop-up to coincide with London Fashion Week. The shop was open for one week only, but over 1,500 people came through the shop, says Rucker. That helped create a huge amount of web traffic to Pretty Polly’s website.

Rucker believes that for e-tailers and brands like Pretty Polly (that doen’t have shops but sells through concessions), putting on a temporary shop is vital for increasing brand presence. It provides the company with an opportunity to access its client base.

“You can directly engage with the client base, which you can’t control when your product is elsewhere,” he says.

Alongside Pretty Polly, hordes of well-established retail brands, restaurants and bars have turned to the pop-up model in order to target new consumers, but what about the other way around?

Going solo with a pop-up

James Tregaskes decided to turn his home into a gallery in 2008. The result? He is now a well-established art dealer and art consultant.

James Tregaskes’ home gallery, First Floor Projects

“It was during 2008 when things weren’t great financially,” says Tregaskes who had already worked for numerous successful galleries.

“The [low] cost was an implication but I also wanted to offer something in a residential location, something with a more personal setting and context.” Tregaskes set himself a maximum of £1,500 – £2,000 to turn his small Chelsea flat into a gallery. Making use of the clean white walls, high ceilings and simple wooden flooring, he chose to exhibit emerging young artists and has since made a name for himself in the art world. Interestingly, he doesn’t think of it as a “pop-up” gallery because it doesn’t “pop-up all over the place”, but he does believe its success is down to the trend in temporal, alternative uses of space that pop-ups have brought about.

“I think people wanted something that was temporary and that was word of mouth. People are actively hunting out things that are hiding in people’s houses, alternative and very personal.”

Big brands and Michelin-starred chefs have caught on to this more “intimate” approach too. Bombay Sapphire put on pop-up bar outside Somerset House last year while Michelin-starred chefs Angela Hartnett, Richard Corrigan and Jason Atherton cooked dinner for lucky diners fortunate enough to win tickets to a four-day restaurant inside three pods at The London Eye.

Fusing pop-ups with property leases

Riding high on the wave of the pop-up culture are Leo Lawson-O’Neil and Miranda Davis. Through their company, Creative Network Partners, they have just finished transforming the roof top of Netil House, an East London 50,000 sq ft office building that’s home to 94 studios and a host of small and start-up businesses.

The result is a spacious roof bar called Netil360°, primed to host 15 separate pop-up events.

The newly opened pop-up space, Netil360°

Three years ago Netil House was up for redevelopment, but developers pulled out in the wake of the financial crash. Instead, Creative Network Partners stepped in and secured a 15 year lease. Now they’re capitalising on trends again.

“The original plan was to put on a launch party that would introduce the industry to Netil House”, explains Davis, the company’s creative director. “But once we laid the roof, we realised that this was a beautiful space that could go a long way. So we came up with the idea of doing a medieval festival event, and got a temporary events license.”

The first event took place last month and was hailed a massive success. Punters came from all over London to sip mulled cider, watch bands and relish the “après ski roof-top delight, the winter wonderland,” says Davis.

Netil360° was born. The events license granted to Creative Network Partners allows them to put on 15 events. It’s early days, but Lawson-O’Neil and Davis have plenty of ideas for future events and hope to rent the space out privately during the Christmas party season.

The project took significant investment, but by the time all Creative Network Partners’ 15 events have been held, it should break even, says Lawson-O’Neil. And they’re already thinking about next year, where they plan to turn it into a “longer term experience”.

Would Netil360° have worked four years ago, before the trend for pop-ups overtook London? “I think we’d have been outside the market,” says Davis. “The thing about pop-ups, their temporal nature, is really interesting. Consumers are more interested in experiencing than buying now.”

But it’s not always plain sailing…

With so many big names jumping on the band wagon it’s no surprise that so many businesses want to have a go at pop-ups. But it’s not always plain sailing. The temporary nature of pop-ups means there is little scope for the savings and efficiency afforded by long-term planning.

One waitress, who wished not be named, said the central London restaurant where she worked lost a “considerable sum” after the owners decided to have a go at putting on a for-one-night-only event in Shoreditch.

“In terms of PR and profile it was fantastic for the restaurant,” she said. “The atmosphere was great, it was busy, it should have been a fantastic event but in the end the overheads were just too high.

“After hiring the catering equipment, drafting in extra staff and paying the location’s relatively high rent, the event wasn’t sustainable – they wouldn’t do it again,” she said.

Before diving into the pop-up trend, businesses would be wise to consider their objectives and budgets. If PR and marketing are the objectives, pop-ups can create wonderful hype around brands. But when it comes to pure profit, sustainable businesses models based on long-term supply chains and overheads tend to be more efficient.

Of course, for those looking to experiment with a new business idea or direction for a brand, the face-to-face interaction with consumers, in an environment that is exciting for all, is pretty hard to beat.

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