Escape rooms, strippers, and foodies: How unexpected businesses went digital in lockdown

Many companies have adapted to survive, but what about those still dealing with the impact of the pandemic? 

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When coronavirus lockdown started, Tristan Mills considered closing up shop. But he quickly came to the realisation that he had to try to make things work, or he would never forgive himself. “I am not a quitter,” he tells me. So he and his business partners took a leap of faith and moved the company online.  

But how do you move a male stripping business online?  

Mills has worked in entertainment since he left school, including his own career as a stripper in shows across Europe. His company, Adonis, provides cabaret-style entertainment, male strippers and drag queens for events ranging from club nights to hen dos. Closing down would have had a devastating impact on the self-employed acts on his books, as well as on his own pocket.  

Mills and his business partners gave themselves ten days to save the company. They cannibalised one of their websites, set up some online shows, and planned a big Saturday Night launch, an hour-long extravaganza with six of their best acts. In the end, the show ran on too long but the night was a hit. They realised that the business could work online.  

The pandemic has disrupted businesses in ways that no one could have foreseen. Most businesses do not expect to recover from the coronavirus crisis within the next year, a recent New Statesman survey found.  In April, according to figures from the Office of National Statisticsat least one in four UK businesses had temporarily closed or stopped trading due to the coronavirus outbreak. Almost two in five (38 per cent) businesses still trading said that their turnover was substantially lower than usual, while 41 per cent said they were reducing staff levels in the short term. Nearly half were working from home. Many companies went digital to survive, including some that you might not expect.

The British Chamber of Commerce runs a weekly tracker on what is happening to businesses across the country. “We’ve seen an extraordinary shift from the way that businesses have operated”, says co-executive director Claire Walker. According to the Chamber’s research, over half of businesses have adopted new way of working at home or using video conferencing, use of online sales platforms has increased by 40 per cent, and delivery services by a tenth.  

For some businesses this shift has been more difficult than for others. Office-based industries faced obstacles in setting up remote IT networks. But for "real life" customer and public-facing industries, such as leisure, hospitality or events, the shift has been more challenging.

An escape room is as “in real life” as you can get. The whole premise of this entertainment trend is people being locked in an actual room together and working out how to escape. Andrew Ingle from TimeTrap Escape Rooms had to look quickly at how his business could stay afloat through lockdown.  

“Ninety to 95 per cent of our income would be from people coming to our venue and playing our games”, he explains. When they were hit with a wave of cancellations in March, at the start of lockdown, they went into “hibernation” until they could figure out what to do. They thought about creating their own online games and puzzles, but did not have the resources.  

Miles away in Brighton, however, another escape room operator was working on the same problem. They had developed an online game and were making it available for re-sale. It helped Ingle that the community of people who run escape rooms work together. “It’s quite a nice industry to be in” he explains, with people sharing tips and best practice. The online game has kept money coming in and allowed Ingle to work on developing other parts of the business, such as puzzle trails and online experiences.  

By the end of July, they re-opened. They have just released a new outdoor game, called Professor Pooch’s Adventure, a puzzle quest around Reading, where Ingle’s company is based. People can follow this trail while maintaining social distancing.  

Many companies have been able to innovate, adapt and launch new products, using the furlough scheme to keep their costs down while their businesses change, according to the British Chamber of Commerce. Young Foodies, which supports small food brands, had to overhaul its whole business model when the pandemic hit. The firm places products in shops, cafes, and workplaces. But when these premises closed for lockdown the company had to find a new way to get the goods to the consumer.  

Founder Theadora Alexander held a number of webinars with 50 of the brands Young Foodies supported. They were all “looking for a way out”, she says. All of them were telling her the same things: “Amazon won’t take me, Ocado – no one can buy through it now, and everywhere else is closed”. Over a three-week period the company built and launched an online shop, Mighty Small, where all of the brands could be bought in one place, rather than each of them setting up their own website and delivery.  

“We’d never actually sold the brands we helped”, Theadora explained, “we’d always worked behind the scenes to hire their teams, run their supply chains, operated on the businesses and support businesses”. The response has been good, in part a result of the public mood to support small business during the crisis. Other small businesses have also leant support, she adds, with several buying up gift packages for their own staff, and independent retailers looking to buy in bulk through Mighty Small rather than wholesalers. “The walls have come down in the past few months and the business community [are] just working together as much as possible to get everyone through it”.  

Walker is concerned about a growing divide between businesses that have been able to adapt and those still coming to terms with the impact of the pandemic. Firms that were essentially able to “pick up their laptops” and work from home with established systems have been less affected. Walker believes the government needs to put together more specific sector support packages, particularly for industries like hospitality, tourism and leisure to level the playing field post-pandemic.  

At Adonis, Mills is enthused by the speed with which the company has changed. “I am still buzzing at the fact my team have managed to turn everything I’ve dreamed of for a cabaret show into a live performance online”, he said. “This new project is giving me a buzz, I’m feeling like I’m 20 years old again”. Adonis now offers 30 acts, and going digital means they can do international shows. Their new systems have even made bookings, invoicing and payments easier. “There’s nothing worse than admin when you’re a male stripper”, he says.

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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