How London Cocktail Week rose to the challenges presented by Covid-19

London Cocktail Week: Hendrick's delivered virtual and in-person experiences
London Cocktail Week: Hendrick's delivered virtual and in-person experiences

When lockdown hit in March and people were told to stay at home and leave only for essential purposes, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, London Cocktail Week organisers Siobhan Payne and Hannah Sharman-Cox did not anticipate just how much their drinks celebration would have to change.

With the event occurring annually across the whole of October, their initial reaction was that it would be fine, then "it slowly started to become apparent that the 'cocktail village' might not be feasible", Payne says.

"We were in this unique position that we speak to a lot of consumers and brands; we provide a platform for all these bars. We had a position that meant we could help the bars that we work with."

After their hospitality partners voiced the opinion that going ahead with London Cocktail Week would be extremely beneficial, the pair reimagined the festival that they had been producing for the past 10 years. The pop-up cocktail village would be scrapped, and brand experiences would take place in existing bars, creating another reason for consumers to be enthused to visit. Consumers' new habits of staying at home were also considered with at-home cocktail kits now making the event more accessible than ever.

While London Cocktail Week's aim continues to be to showcase high-quality bars and drinks to consumers, this year the prices have been levelled across the board at £6 per cocktail. Payne explains: "We are taking the price barrier away for the month, so consumers can see what differences it does make to go to really nice bars and order really nice cocktails so that then, in future, they might do that and pay full price."

Sharman-Cox embraced the new direction: "It renewed our sense of purpose and vigour. It's not what you expect after a decade of business to have a fresh vision on something but once we decided [to host the festival], it was about how we maximised the opportunity for our partners."

Hendrick's Gin, which has been part of the month-long festival, produced four events, including a virtual experience for consumers at home. The events were: the "Hendrick's Gin Tini Bar", an in-room cocktail experience at Sea Containers hotel; a "Tini Martini experience", cocktail-making at the Connaught Bar; "Hendrick's Air", a virtual tour with cocktails of the home of Hendrick's Gin; and "The Last Dance", a session for trade, celebrating cocktail history at the Sea Containers hotel bar.

Charlotte Philips, UK brand manager at Hendrick's, says: "Considering this has been such a trying year for consumers but also our friends within the trade, we felt even more compelled to offer these much needed moments of delight.

"Navigating ever-changing restrictions, but also tapping into evolving trends, we proposed a spectrum of experience for all to choose from, exploring how to create 'in real life' experiences (adhering to all relevant government guidance), as well as deliver differentiated virtual experiences (through a live broadcast from our Hendrick's Gin Palace), that bridge the physical and virtual (linking premium cocktail deliveries to the activity). All the while, supporting the trade, with all proceeds directed to our partners."

Whisky brand Laphroaig wanted to present its cocktail with an experience that enabled consumers to visit its distillery at a time when many consumers are not travelling. Jim Robinson, managing director at Warp & Woof who delivered the "Laphroaig Library" experience (pictured below) at Oriole, a bar in Farringdon, says: "We needed an experience that would fit perfectly into Oriole's premium style and would educate and excite consumers in a covid-safe way. The Laphroaig Library achieved both of these objectives."

The 30-minute, virtual-reality experience combines views of the brand's distillery and Islay, where it is based, with peaty smoke and a Laphroaig cocktail. It also provides an opportunity for consumers to give their feedback in line with the Laphroaig brand campaign "Opinions welcome", which was rolled out this week (26 October) across TV, VOD and social.

"Now more than ever, it's crucial for brands to continue engaging with consumers, and London Cocktail Week is the perfect platform for this," says Katya Kolesnik, marketing manager at Laphroaig owner Edrington-Beam Suntory.

She continues: "By using virtual reality, the Laphroaig Library at Oriole created an immersive experience consumers crave, in a safe and engaging way. This safe space created an opportunity for consumers to experience Laphroaig's polarising liquid and share their opinions."

Diageo brands Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray No. Ten, Villa Ascenti, Talisker, Ketel One, Copper Dog, Bulleit and Roe & Co have been featured throughout the festival.

Experiences include: "The Green Room", four nights of curated music and gin brand Tanqueray at Nine Lives; "Whisky House", three whisky-themed experiences for Johnnie Walker at King's Cross venue, Goods Way; and a partnership with pre-made cocktail company Drinks Drop, to combine an at-home, virtual-reality bar tour with cocktails from three London venues.

RPM, who delivered the last of those experiences (pictured below), captured the surroundings of the bar along with a walkthrough of cocktails being prepared by a bartender. The videos could then be watched wearing a Google Cardboard VR headset while having a drink.

Simon Earley, global head of World Class, Diageo says of it: "When we see opportunities to do something innovative and exciting that enables people to enjoy themselves at home safely and supports the industry, we want to make that happen."

The at-home element is something that Payne and Sharman-Cox are keen to continue into next year, after finding it enabled them to open up London Cocktail Week for consumers to enjoy across the country. "It was a real pleasure to do and definitely something that we'd like to continue with," Sharman-Cox says.

She continues: "Suddenly we can reach a much bigger audience, which is amazing for us but also for bartenders who make the cocktails, so the initiative was keeping the industry supported as much as possible."

Looking into a post-Covid future, the pair share hopes that a change in pace might just make consumers appreciate the art of a cocktail more than ever. Payne says: "I guess time will tell but we wondered will, after 2020, people value their night out a little bit more?"