ICEBAR London’s Marketing Manager Tom Hunter talks to Theatrefullstop about the iconic venue’s appeal!
The role of the marketer is crucial, especially in a day and age where trends change at speed. But what does it take to deliver a successful campaign? A great product is key, however Tom Hunter breaks down exactly it takes to keep people talking about THAT event or product.
Hi Tom, you are the head of marketing at Icebar London which is renowned for it’s frozen aesthetic. What can visitors expect to experience at the venue?
ICEBAR LONDON is the UK’s only permanent ice bar and we partner with the famous ICEHOTEL in Northern Sweden in order to create what we hope is a truly unique -5°C experience in the centre of the city.
ICEHOTEL is built on a bend of the Torne River, 200 kilometres above the arctic circle, and one of the most pure rivers in the world. All of our ice is sustainably sourced from the river, and we use about 40 tonnes every year to build the bar plus extra to fashion the ice glasses we serve our cocktails.
We go to all of this extra effort to source our ice because it is really some of the most beautiful natural ice you’ll ever see – crystal clear but also full of natural frozen features such as bubbles, cracks and fractures. I’ve joked before that if they could only figure out the refrigeration, our ice would absolutely perfect in a gallery at Tate Modern or the V&A!
Once the ice is with us, it takes a week for our team of ice art specialists to build and shape the bar into a new theme. This year the concept is called Wild in the City, and it’s a cheeky reversal on the idea of a safari with animals coming to London to see us in our natural habitat rather than the other way around. So, for instance, we have artworks of a zebra on the famous Abbey Road zebra-crossing, penguins playing in phone boxes and a huge octopus sculpture climbing Tower Bridge.
You have a background in theatre marketing, what did that entail?
Yes, I originally studied theatre at university with the idea of making that my career, but got sidetracked when I discovered I had more of an aptitude and interest in promoting great stuff rather than trying to direct my own, which is very similar to how I feel about marketing for the Icebar by the way. It’s all about great experiences at the end of the day.
I got started in the theatre marketing world by volunteering to write direct mail letters, press releases and so on for the marketing team in the venue where I worked in the box office. I was also writing as a freelancer for newspapers and magazines at the same time, and this combination soon got me picked up and invited to join the team properly. From there, and with a couple of other jobs in-between, I moved to London and spent the best part of a decade working in a marketing agency with a huge range of different theatres as well as museums, galleries and attractions as my clients.
Naturally I borrowed all their best ideas when I moved back client-side and decided that I might enjoy a spell working in the bar business again. In many ways my career has come full circle from working as a student barman, and now back to bars again, only with a slightly more senior -sounding job title. Icebar’s setting is one of its most important elements and adds to the theatrical aspect of the venue.
How are themes decided and when does work on ice sculptors begin?
We change the theme once a year, usually in October so it’s pristine for the lead up to the Christmas holiday season, which is our busiest time of year. Discussion on new themes usually starts at the beginning of the new year. By then we’ll have had a good opportunity to see how a theme is working, which sculptures are the most popular and so on. Social media is a huge help for that as we can see all the pictures that tag us and start to see patterns emerging pretty quickly.
We start with a big concept and ideas for new ice art techniques we might want to attempt, then try and work down to detail, spacing and individual sculptures from there. So, for example last year’s Rock theme we were looking for something bombastic because it was our 10th anniversary and from there it immediately became obvious we all wanted a giant ice skull as the centrepiece of the theme. This year we wanted to go in a very different direction and came up with our Wild in the City theme. We were inspired by the idea of animal sculptures, but that didn’t quite feel like enough of a standalone theme on its own. As the thinking evolved, we focused on the fact that we’re a London venue and created a concept that works like a kind of reverse safari, with animals from around the world travelling to London on holiday to see us in our natural environment for a change.
Icebar is open all year round, with increasing popularity during the Christmas season. You’ve introduced a family session this year, can you explain what that entails?
We’ve always been open to family visits during the day, although we become a strictly over 18s venue in the evening, but we are not a family attraction in the way that, say, Legoland is. We are a cocktail bar at the end of the day.
We’ve seen so many families coming to visit us this year though, especially during holidays when the family is out on a shopping trip or similar (Hamley’s is right over the road from us) that we thought we would open up a special family-friendly session inside the Icebar before our regular public sessions start. This is sold as a non-alcoholic cocktails only session, so the atmosphere will deliberately be quite different for our guests.
So far, it’s proving very popular, although we are seeing some parents having a sneaky cocktail with us after their Icebar visit inside our adjoining warm bar. I’m very happy with that too obviously.
What makes Icebar London unique and why should people visit?
I still vividly remember the first time I saw the Icebar myself. The first thing you notice is the blast of cold, we’re usually a balmy -5°C, then of course you want to get a cocktail and you realise that the glass you’ve been given is actually fashioned out of ice itself, and then finally you take a moment and look at the volume of ice surrounding you and just how beautiful it is. I think that’s the moment I hope everyone else experiences too.
In terms of why people are choosing to visit as well, we see a lot of people coming for special occasions, first dates, birthday and celebrations. We’re a great space to have a drink and an experience at the same time, and while a part of me groans at the cliché, we’re a great place to meet people and break the ice!
For aspiring theatre PR and marketers, what advice would you give them?
Okay, so keeping it simple, I think there are three key things I would suggest are worth thinking about:
1. Make sure you understand (in detail) the difference between vision, strategy and tactics. In principle it sounds simple – vision is why you’re doing what you’re doing, strategy is the roadmap, core activities, measurement metrics, resources and so forth, with tactics being the individual actions you take to reach your goal. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of being busy, busy, busy (tactics) while not checking that activity is taking you in the right direction (strategy) or knowing why you’re actually doing half the stuff that’s making you work late on a Friday (vision).
2. Study the full marketing mix even if you want to specialise personally, and understand both how they function and support each other in principle and also specifically for your organisation. It’s important to sweat the details and keep on testing yourself and checking what you know is up to date. Taking social media marketing, for example, many people have told me they are great at social media, but really what they mean is they can post pictures to the main channels with good captions (this is not hard) and I’m surprised by how few of them have ever prepped a social media calendar or ever run a paid ad campaign.
3. Get better at copywriting. Learn the rules of grammar (and when it makes total sense to break them). The pen truly is mightier than the sword. Well, it is in marketing terms anyway, where persuasion tends to put more bums on seats than chasing people about town with a massive piece of steel in your hand.
And one more thing, in marketing and PR you will never be finished. There will always be more that you could do / could have done and even if you sell out every seat in the house for an entire run I can guarantee you is that (hopefully after they’ve congratulated you) one of the first things your boss will ask is, ‘if we were going to sell out so easily, why didn’t you price things better and make us more money?’ This is just part of the biz. You get used to it. Sometimes you even start to enjoy it, and if not at least hopefully you’ll have taken my advice on the copywriting thing above so you have some choice swearwords to hand to brighten your day!
Questions by Lucy Basaba.
To find out more about ICEBAR London, visit here…