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Turning a squat into an innovation and events space for marketers – in a pandemic

At The Drum Labs, a Shoreditch squat has been transformed into a thriving events space for the marketing industry housing a TV studio, retail store of the future and, of course, a bustling bar. But creating this venue, in the midst of a pandemic, has been anything but straightforward. The Drum's co-founder and chief exec Diane Young shares the inside story.

Squatters are a surprising source of innovative thinking. When we took over the building that is now The Drum Labs, it had been used as home by some squatters. As a commercial building, it lacked shower facilities, so the occupants had removed the seat from one of the toilets, built a basic plywood platform with a hole over the toilet bowl and run a hose and shower head from the wash-hand basins to hang it on a hook in the cubicle, thus creating a rudimentary but fully functioning shower.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Invention is at the heart of The Drum Labs. We’ve taken a three-storey building in Shoreditch, a gritty commercial space, and repurposed it to showcase new ideas in marketing, media, product and brand.

The building holds an events studio space, a pop-up concept retail store, a bar and events space with terrace, a lounge space and a recording studio.

The idea came to pass when the co-founder of The Drum, Gordon Young, had a few beers with co-founder of Sharp End, Cameron Worth. In my head their beer-fuelled conversation took place in a pub, but I’ve just found out that there were no pubs open due to lockdown, so they were actually sitting outside on a set of cold steps somewhere in east London.

Soon after, I got roped in to view the building. It was dirty and smelly but there was something about it, and listening to Cam and Gordon throw out their vision for it, I was hooked. I was also hooked in to do all the more mundane tasks associated with their grand scheme.

And so it was that in June 2020, when everyone was running away from their commercial property commitments as fast as they could, I was negotiating and signing a lease for a large run-down building next door to our office in Curtain Road.

As the digital ink dried on the digital lease, we began to prepare for opening at around the end of August 2020. Oh, the misguided optimism!

Everything was a bugger to get done. Trades were hard to find, travel was difficult, our core business was facing challenges around the loss of events revenue but most of all, we soon realised that we had no idea when we would be able to open and start covering the costs of our grand project.

Sharp End’s part of the project is Cornershop, the retail concept store based on the idea that in the future your trip to your local shop will enable you to find, try and buy an infinite amount of products and services alongside your packet of crisps and chocolate bar.

The Sharp End team have made Cornershop a labour of love, bringing in top retail designers and curating a number of experiences for shoppers. They brought in Cap Gemini Invent who are the technology partners in the space and they’ve created an app that allows visitors to personalise their interactions in the store. From virtual changing rooms to connected clothes to infinite shelves and beyond, Cornershop has lots to intrigue and delight, and as the weeks roll by more concepts will be added. This week it finally opened to the public (Monday to Friday, 9.00-3.00).

In the meantime, The Drum team set up a video/audio recording studio on the top floor and we were able to make use of this in a limited way during lockdown. Our first client in the studio was BBC Worldwide.

As lockdown was finally dragging to some sort of easing, we started to think about licensing for the bar, set on the first floor with a lovely south facing terrace attached.

Once again, I got the short end of the straw. Someone needed to become a personal licensee which entails doing a course, studying and then taking an exam. Yes, it fell to yours truly. I know it’s important but it was pretty boring. I do now know some factoids such as the queen does not need a licence to sell alcohol in one of her palaces. But I need one to sell drinks in my little palace so I put in the work.

I passed and the next hurdle was to get a premises licence. Not as straightforward as we thought, even though the building had previously had a bar, run by the council themselves. Our first application was acknowledged but after many weeks of chasing, nothing else had happened. We then appointed a specialist lawyer and the pace picked up. Unfortunately we got objections from the police, environmental health and the licensing board themselves.

Within a few days I had the police coming to visit/inspect/assess me in the building. As a law-abiding citizen I can tell you I was quaking in my boots, especially with so much riding on the meeting. The reason for the objection quickly emerged. The officer had last attended the building in full riot gear to break up the drunken, brawling teenagers who had spilled out onto the street from their school prom party. This, put together with being right on the border of a zone of Shoreditch deemed to have too many licensed premises already, our prospects were dim. Fortunately the officer saw that we had a whole different approach in The Labs and withdrew her objections with only a couple of small conditions. I’d fought the law and I won.

Environmental health had their queries answered but we had to get a barrister to put aside the licensing board objections. She was formidable and picked their objections apart over eight pages of brilliance. Our licence was granted.

Step by step we were getting there. All I needed now was a venue manager to help with venue governance, support sales and run operations. I won’t go into details but what an exasperating process. I went through three managers in as many months. The role we have is highly unusual being a media company rather than a typical hospitality or venue company. While that search goes on, I’m happy to say that we now have a great bar crew including the inventor and maker of the most insanely good cocktails.

Throughout this one of the brilliant things has been working with Cameron, his co-founder Rob and the team at Sharp End, and Steve from Cap Gemini. Throughout all the challenges we have all ploughed on together and had lots of laughs along the way.

After more than 15 months of two steps forward and one step back, we finally got our doors and Cornershop open. In the next instalment I’ll share what we are doing in the space.

Diane Young is co-founder and chief executive of The Drum

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