The line between immersive storytelling and gimmick is a fine one, according to the co-founder of the London-based Inception Group. But he’s obsessive about detail – he always has been. We meet at Control Room B in a very Christmassy Battersea Power Station to delve deep into the backstory behind the some of the capital’s most exciting venues.
Gilkes and his business partner Duncan Stirling met when they found themselves double-booked organisers at the K-Bar in Chelsea. When Gilkes was just 24, the duo launched their first site under the Inception Group label with a philosophy of “more than just going for your standard drink”. He says: “We had a good sense of how to fill a place. We’ve learnt a lot over the years, so we were, truth be told, quite green at that point. But I’ve always felt like age is just a number. We were young and we had a good idea, but also a lot to learn."
Fast forward almost a decade and a half, and Inception Group boasts 36 sites as a spirited torchbearer for the experience-led movement that has gripped hospitality by the teeth. There’re the wacky Mr Fogg’s venues, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, and there’s Italian dining & karaoke mashup concept Bunga Bunga, as well as 1940s underground cocktail bar Cahoots.
And there's also Control Room B. We're here now. Stainless-steel control panels, desks and switchgear artfully loom, and faience tiling reflects the history of the site which was built post-World War II. Out back, guests are absorbed in an audio-guided tour which reveals some of the landmark's secrets. A turbine bar ascends from the centre, serving up concoctions under intriguing names like Renewable Energy and The Smoke Stack.
Battersea Power Station shopping mall, due to a bombardment of Christmas lights, feels like it's been left to marinate in a bowl of glitter. Control Room B is a calming, curious and engaging respite for the eyes.
"I get more excited about the day we start hanging pictures than I am about Christmas"
“When we first started it was sort of a two-man-band, and we’ve built a culture where we really embrace creativity and ideas,” says Gilkes. “In our view, there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Sometimes the founders are given too much credit, and actually it’s a team effort. It’s so nice seeing lots of creators from the company come up with things which work brilliantly, and it’s quite motivating for them to see their ideas become reality.”
His leadership style has evolved since the birth of the company: “As you grow you can’t be quite as hands on, and you have to let go a bit more and delegate, which if you’re a founder, can be quite difficult, but it’s definitely something I’ve got better at. But it’s also about empowering and trusting in people, and also in the knowledge that a lot of your team are a lot better qualified and better able to do things. It’s about recognising your weaknesses even more than recognising your strengths.”
I wonder if Gilkes and Stirling have ever come head to head over creative differences. But it turns that the marriage of these two minds has sparked some of Inception Group’s smartest ideas. Gilkes recalls: “When setting up Cahoots, Duncan wanted to do 1940s post-war idea, blitz-esque, and I really wanted to do this underground tube station bar. So we merged the two and made a 1940s underground tube station. Quite often, one idea leads to another, so I would never call it a clash, I’d call it a merge. You merge ideas and you end up with something better.”
Collaboration is key to good leadership, according to Gilkes. Empathy and understanding are also paramount. Another big part of leading is creating culture. “For me, that’s really important, having a positive culture where people feel valued, people can progress, people feel happy,” he adds. “We spend so much of our waking hours working, and we try, where possible, to make that a positive experience.”
But running a business has been tough at times. His biggest challenge? Gilkes utters the dreaded word: “Covid – you can’t really image a worse-case situation. "We had planned for a worst case scenario of a site being taken out of action due to a flood, fire or licensing issue. But hadn’t planned for every site to be taken out of action for the best part of a year”
There’re silver linings though, as in a way, it’s helped relativize stress for the operator as things feel like they can’t ever be as bad. He explains: “Last year, we’ve had some margin squeezes which have been really difficult to navigate. But because we’ve been through the storm, there’s turbulence, but nothing seems as bad. But that was a hellish period that was incredibly stressful.”
The pandemic was also a “common enemy” that united the sector. “My relationship with a lot of operators has got a lot closer – I’ve met people I didn’t know before, we were all very united – we were going through hell together, and I definitely feel like competitors became comrades because of that difficult time,” he says.
Another hurdle looming over the sector is the threat of AI. “It terrifies me if I’m honest,” admits Gilkes. “I don’t know enough about it but it does sound like it’s going to be one of those life-changing things. There’re obviously elements that can be used as a force for good, and it needs the right controls, so that it remains as such.”
But for his business’ theatrical and immersive hospitality, he reckons the function of AI will be limited. “A lot of what we do is storytelling, and it makes how we define our places, and people have always enjoyed that aspect of what we do. We are obsessive about detail, but the nice thing is, we’ve created a company of obsessives. Our staff really care,” he says with pride.
"I would never call it a clash, I’d call it a merge. You merge ideas and you end up with something better.”
At Inception Group site Mr Fogg’s, for instance, name plaques and pictures of the different members of the fictional Fogg’s family decorate the interior. “We actually have family trees,” says Gilkes. “Mr Phileas Fogg is a fictional character, and we’ve rewritten the stories: it's Mr Fogg's Pawnbrokers, opened by his wayward half brother Frank Fogg, or the gin parlour that was made by his theatrical aunt Gertrude who was a big actress in the day. It really helps us form these concepts in a good way.”
At Control Room B, the team spent a long time researching furniture styles of the 1950s. But due to the protected nature of the building they had to work within limitations. They wanted light up dials but had to settle for battery-style operated lights. “There were lots of challenges, but it’s exciting when you can overcome a challenge,” he says.
He adds: “You feel very lucky – we feel like we’re custodians of this amazing space, and it actually feels like a real privilege to have this at the heart of the power station – the largest redevelopment in London in a generation. It’s been really exciting to be part of it.”
In another life, Gilkes could’ve been an antiques dealer. The sites’ eclectic furniture is sourced from markets, yards and eBay, before being tweaked by the team. “We never want to be buying furniture from a catalogue because we want to create something which is unique and can’t just be generic.”
It’s important to check the scale of the furniture if you’re buying online though: Gilkes has learnt this the hard way, after finding himself with an assortment of doll’s house furniture.
“It’s my absolutely favourite thing,” he says, talking about the day the team decorate the site. I imagine it's like building a film set. Gilkes agrees. “I get more excited about the day we start hanging pictures than I am about Christmas,” he confesses.
And it is this kind of attention to detail that stops Inception Group’s venues feeling tacky: “We don’t want to feel token, we’re trying to be believable,” says the founder. “We don’t want to be gimmicky or tacky, those are the last words we would hope to be associated with. But we realise if we get it slightly wrong, it’s a very fine line between being tacky and gimmicky and not.”
And how do you avoid that? “Just absolutely making sure everything is really well thought through, well curated, well executed, so it feels timeless. There’s plenty of people that go to Mr Fogg’s and believe Phileas Fogg was a man and he lived there.”
Talking of the Power Station site, he adds: “The nice thing about where we are here is, because this actually was the control room, we haven’t tried to overlay a narrative here, because it’s such a strong one. We actually enjoyed bringing it back to life and working with that.”
He’s always thought it could be cool to do a Sherlock Holmes brand, but overall, he’s happy with his concepts, which are quite deliberately timeless. “There’s still so much fun we can have with it,” promises Gilkes. He gushes: “We’ve just done this brilliant new treasure hunt, at Mr Fogg's Apothecary we have cocktail experiments, and at Mr Fogg's residence these murder mystery nights. Here, you’ve got people going around on guided audio tours, which we’ve recorded with an actor, but then on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, we’ve got escape-room style Escape The Power Cut."
And then there’s a new Borough Market site in the works for next year. The concept is yet to be revealed, but it will be a fresh take on an existing brand, says Gilkes. When scouring locations for new sites, it needs to tick off a few boxes: it must be an area that attracts tourists, residents and workers. At Battersea Power Station, for instance, you’re covered on all bases.
Interestingly, Gilkes says that his company has earned a lot of American fans, who love anything overtly British, benefiting the company due to the strong dollar. He’d love to expand nationally into cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. While he also reckons his brands could work internationally, having a young family means all the travelling would change his lifestyle considerably.
It’s important to him to carve out space for his kids, who are five and three years old. “Anyone who runs a business will know that you don’t really ever stop working,” he says. “Children, they’re young, they don’t have a concept for that, so I try and create clear parameters and be disciplined when I’m taking holiday to be off my phone.
“We try not to bother our senior team when they’re on holiday, because we think it’s really important people have a mental break. So I’m getting better at it, but it’s challenging because you’re always thinking about work – it’s the last thing [on your mind] before you go to bed and the first thing in the morning, and you don’t really track those hours. And you know, I’m really lucky – I love what I do, it doesn’t feel like work.”
A real foodie, Gilkes tries to explore as many new restaurants as he can when he’s off the clock. He loves theatre, and walks his miniature labradoodle, Bertie, around Battersea Park every morning. “He’s so sweet, and that’s a really nice part of my day, and it’s good thinking time,” says Gilkes.
It’s Gilkes’ thinking time that is responsible for some of London’s most innovative venues of the last decade. The thrill of wonder, theatrical charm and a step back in history are promised to those who choose to venture into Inception Group's sites: adventure awaits, if you dare to seek it.