Corona Impact Series: How the chronicle of a storyteller from Dalston turned into a virtual tale
In this series, City A.M. looks at the financial and economic impact of the ongoing pandemic on a range of small and medium-sized businesses across London. This week: How a creative provider of experience in East London was pushed to go entirely digital overnight, without losing its authenticity and immersiveness.
“As Covid hit and the bottom fell out of the live events industry, 95 per cent of our pipeline dropped off and we had to rewrite our future,” Daniel Hemsley, managing director of immersive entertainment company Swamp Motel in Dalston, shared with City A.M.
Launched in 2017, pre-pandemic the agency specialised in bringing immersive theatre to brand experiences and corporate events, for brands like restaurant chain Dishoom and Resident Evil owners Capcom.
The idea was to bring a theatrical element to marketing campaigns, creating experiences that transported audiences to another time or place, giving them a role to play, with theatre-quality performance and storytelling, to cut through and make a lasting impression.
But then a real drama began to unfold in the UK and around the world, in March of last year, so the team at Temple Street in East London had to rapidly rethink their business plan.
“Our business was built around transporting audiences into rich stories in beautifully designed environments staged in incredible locations,” Hemsley explained.
“Creatively, we draw liberally from a theatrical toolkit to pull audiences in, fusing performance with everything from sprawling sets and snow machines to photo-real Hollywood zombie prosthetics and performing animals,” he added.
But overnight the firm had to switch the whole operation from physical to virtual, without losing any of the power of the experiences.
“That meant taking all the tools and tricks that were previously at our disposal and reinventing them for a new environment: the internet,” Hemsley pointed out.
Hemsley admitted there was some nervousness around whether people would want to partake in an immersive experience online, but they were confident the early appetite for Zoom quizzes was not going to get the nation through a pandemic.
It took just weeks for Hemsley, together with founders Ollie Jones and Clem Garritty, to thrash out the new-look Swamp Motel, which has developed organically ever since.
With their virtual experiences, which take place online using everyday technology, they created an entirely new entertainment stream – part true-crime interactive detective game, part escape room, part immersive theatre – for both marketers and consumers, blurring the boundaries between digital and physical, reality and fiction to powerful effect.
The team, many of whom had to adapt heir skillset to meet the sudden switch to digital, create the experiences using a tool they can “play with, adapt and build on” to enhance the sense of reality that is integral to the success of the experiences.
Hemsley, who speaks warmly of his team as they “have taken this totally unexpected challenge in their stride”, is now in a position to expand the business and is looking to hire a mixture of theatrically-trained, marketing and tech experts.
“Creatively, our roots are very much in the theatre and it’s been devastating to see the impact of the pandemic lockdowns on the industry. That we are now able to offer comparable work to dozens of stage managers – hopefully on a long term basis – feels like we’re able to give something back to an industry we love,” he said.
The Kindling Hour
This month sees the release of The Kindling Hour, the third in a trilogy of online experiences that Swamp Motel created as a consumer-only offering, the combined ticket sales of which is in the tens of thousands.
Hemsley is philosophical about the challenges of the past year.
“Creative storytelling is at the heart of our business and lockdown just pushed us to use digital tools as well as theatrical ones to tell those stories,” he said, “and to switch our stage from warehouses to websites, creating experiences in the metaverse rather than the physical world.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say it’s been a blessing, but it has led us down a path we’d never have come to this soon in our journey, and we’ve uncovered a huge appetite for virtual immersive entertainment,” Hemsley added.
“Plus an additional bonus is we are able to get our work out to a much larger audience, instead of spending months preparing an event that a few hundred people will take part in, we are now able to keep it open for much longer, for tens of thousands of people.”
Once normal life resumes, Hemsley is confident that Swamp Motel’s business will continue to run in both physical and virtual worlds.
With the expectation that more brands will turn to digital events, he expects to see experiences like these become realistic options for film or TV premieres, product launches and game releases as a way to include audiences not restricted by geography.
“We’ve been blown away by the number of people who have participated and we seem to have proven a market for this type of entertainment,” Hemsley said.
He concluded by revealing that “we’re now also in discussions with some amazing global tech and entertainment brands about how we can create something similar for them, whilst also navigating the possible return to live later this year.”