On the up · 24 April 2018

Alcotraz: Behind the bars of East London’s prison-themed cocktail bar

Shearman’s business success relies on immersive details, guests are expected to wear prisoner attire upon entrance to the venue and sit inside to metallic cells.

Inspired by Hollywood Movies and TV that have brought to life America’s most infamous prison, Alcotraz is London’s first immersive theatrical cocktail bar.

Founder of Alcotraz, Sam Shearman quit his marketing job at Cadbury to pursue his passion for immersive events.

Business Advice caught up with Shearman to find out what goes on ‘inside’ this unusual Brick Lane venue.

What is your business?

The founder, Sam Shearman.

Since leaving consumer goods I have founded Inventive Productions, a one-of-a-kind business that aims to create transformative immersive experiences that leave a lasting impression on guests. The first project for Inventive Productions was Alcotraz, London’s first theatrical cocktail bar, requiring guests to bring their own alcohol which they will smuggle into the prison with the help of the guards of Alcotraz. Once inside Alcotraz, guests (or should I say inmates) are met by our mixologists (working inmates) who will make you delicious cocktails based on the alcohol you have smuggled in but also your personal preferences. Alcohol should remain hidden from the Warden of Alcotraz whilst inside. Because of this, there is no cocktail menu as our mixologists will make cocktails based on the alcohol you bring and your own preferences.

Inspired by Hollywood Movies and TV that have brought to life America’s infamous Alcatraz prison, Alcotraz has taken the bring your own bottle (BYOB) market to new heights, with a sell-out three month Pop Up Event, over 3,000 tickets sold in one month and a Halloween Special selling out in one week. 2018 is off to a great start with all Saturdays sold for the next two months. Albeit controversial, London’s first prison-themed bar went viral, attracted guests from all over the world and made news stories from London to San Francisco with an estimated coverage reach of 964,640,000.

Inventive Productions are working on taking the Alcotraz brand to new parts of London along with the launch of a second brand new concept in London in May.

Describe the routine of the Alcotraz experience?

Once guests have purchased a ticket they receive instructions from Inmate No. 88 to bring their own alcohol for their sentence which they must smuggle into the prison with the help of the guards of Alcotraz. Once inside Alcotraz, guests will be met by Inmate No. 88, or should I say our lead mixologist who will make delicious cocktails based on the alcohol you have smuggled in but also your personal preferences. Alcohol should remain hidden from the Warden of Alcotraz whilst inside to avoid consequences.

How did you come up with the concept?

For me the answer to this question is two-fold. Firstly, as a cocktail lover and serial visitor of cocktail bars (pardon the pun), I have found that reservations inside great cocktail bars can often be cut short by overcomplicated menus. With Alcotraz, the premise was to challenge such traditional bar environments, remove the need for menus and place the power in the hands of experts to deliver personalised and exceptional cocktails based on guests personal taste preferences. Every drink inside Alcotraz is unique to guests own preferences. Without menus, this gives the gift of time back to the guest to allow them to take note of the world around them, which then combined with immersive theatre allows guests to transport to fun, creative and alternative environments. With Alcotraz guests are placed in the centre of the action and enjoy the unfolding of theatre around them. From the moment upon entrance were guests are greeted by the Guards of Alcotraz they are transported into a world seen only in Film and TV with mind-blowing attention to every little detail.

Guests are urged to hide their BYO alcohol from the actors inside.

The narrative inside Alcotraz is clearly centred around a prison, and specifically America’s notorious prison along with nods to hit TV shows such as Prison Break, Orange is the New Black and legendary films such as Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz. Alcotraz is the first of three immersive events that Inventive Productions are bringing to life centred around a historic American time-period. The second on the trilogy if you will launches in May this year.

What was key in terms of getting started?

It all started with a good idea and a huge sense of self-belief that it can work. Once I had this it was a long journey of securing funding and installing inspiration and passion in others to help come on the journey. The company now has a team of over 15 actors, a creative production wing, and mixology expertise. My expertise is not within hospitality so I have truly been out of my comfort zone from the minute I embarked on the journey on my own, therefore, critical to getting the project started was to install the same belief and passion for the idea in talented individuals who could help me. I would be lying if I said it has been easy.

What makes Alcotraz unique?

I believe Alcotraz is truly a one-of-a-kind event. It is a hybrid between a great cocktail bar and an immersive experience and I feel this is a combination that guests are really attracted to. It is naive to think in this day and age that creating another run of the mill event or bar is going to attract busy individuals, therefore, in my opinion, any new venue really has to try and challenge the status quo and deliver something truly unique. The BYO is one aspect of Alcotraz which makes it unique which combined with the immersive aspect from when guests receive their tickets online creates something truly different and exciting for guests.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when launching?

As I mentioned, my experience and expertise are not really within this field, therefore, it has been a huge learning curve for me. Without my passion and commitment to the idea and business, I do not believe it would have ever gained the momentum to get where it is today. I, therefore, feel the biggest challenge has been installing passion in others. It is a challenge I have taken with open arms and luckily, everyone who I have encountered has shared my vision. I am excited about the future and what I have in the pipeline.

Guests communicate with “The Warden” when they contact they company.

Describe your marketing technique – what strategies have you used?

I have a passion for film and television which comes through in Alcotraz but also in my marketing strategies and my future ideas.

I believe people get attracted to characters, therefore, I am committed to creating characters within each of my events. With Alcotraz, guests communicate with “The Warden” when they phone or email any questions or queries they have. Similarly, on social media, the tone of voice comes from the Working Inmate inside Alcotraz who will help make cocktails for guests if they are able to smuggle in their alcohol past the Warden. I feel these varied and committed tones of voices are a huge appeal to guests and help them feel a part of the immersive experience days, weeks if not months before attending the event.

Besides that, I have really let Alcotraz market itself. Albeit controversial, London’s first prison-themed bar went viral, attracted guests from all over the world and made news stories from London to San Francisco with an estimated coverage reach of 964,640,000.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

This is easy. Believe in yourself, your ideas and surround yourself with others who believe in you. I could not have done this without the core idea but also without the huge support I have had from friends and family. I would like to encourage others to have the courage to be resilient. I did not know the answer to all the questions at the beginning and if I am honest, if I knew how hard it would have been I may not have started it. However, once you embark on a journey if you can stay committed to the end cause then it is possible to knock any hurdles down.

What future plans do you have for the business?

Alcotraz London continues to go from strength to strength. I am working on taking the Alcotraz brand to new parts of the country.

Inventive Productions are also working on a second immersive event which is launching at the end of May. This is three times the size of Alcotraz and is by far the most ambitious immersive cocktail bar to date. Guests will be transported from the streets of West London to the streets of a new immersive world.

 

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Carly Hacon is a reporter for Business Advice. She has a BA in journalism from Kingston University, and has previously worked as a features editor for a local newspaper.

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