What’s Your Poison? The London Dungeon’s Tavern Experience

“We wanted to shake up the whole gift shop concept, ” says General Manager Steve Blackburn of the London Dungeon’s newly opened London Dungeon Tavern.

Described on their website as ‘vibrant, decadent and decidedly dodgy’, the Victorian-themed attraction has turned retail into an interactive experience.

We spoke to Blackburn about the gift shop that’s getting in on the action.

Every (Merlin) day is different

Blackburn’s route to the London Dungeon has taken in many of Merlin’s prominent attractions in the steve blackburn gm london dungeons merlin entertainmentcapital: “I started at Madame Tussauds in 2001 selling tickets on the door, ” he says. “I’ve worked in most of the Merlin attractions in London – every day is different – you get to meet loads of people – and the best thing is that you get to see how much people enjoy themselves.

“We give people a bit of a release from their normal day-to-day lives which is very cool, so that’s why I enjoy the tourism industry.”

The London Dungeon, which made the £20m move to County Hall on the South Bank in 2013, has been operational for over 40 years. It shares its new home with other Merlin attractions including the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and the Coca-Cola London Eye.

“I’ve done various operations-based roles at the London Eye and at the Aquarium, ” says Blackburn. “I spent some time in Madame Tussauds Vienna, I also spent some time at Chessington World of Adventures as Director of Operations and I’ve been at the London Dungeon since January 2015.”

A scare attraction? No fear.

Blackburn clearly enjoys the historical aspect of the attraction, the chance to shed light on some of the less well-known figures from what he calls ‘London’s murky past’ such as Mrs Lovett who ran the pie shop supplied with ‘meat’ by demon barber, Sweeney Todd.

“We get to educate people and we get to give them a really good day out, ” he says.

Frightened guests at London Dongeons

He is keen to differentiate the London Dungeon from ‘gory, scare attractions’: “The big challenge is that there are lots of scare attractions going up at the moment – they’re two a penny around the capital and outside in some of the counties nearby. We have to keep maintaining that we’re not one of those scare attractions.

“Our challenge is to remain faithful to the horrible historical truth and enable people to understand that we’re not a horror maze.

“We focus on telling the stories of our host city’s murky past. You’re going to come here and learn a lot about London’s history.”

Of course, he’s quick to add that there will be thrills along the way. “Yes, it’s going to be dark and things will make you jump, you might even come face to face with Jack the Ripper…”

The London Dungeon maintains a regular schedule of seasonal shows to encourage repeat visits.

“We are extremely busy at Halloween which is good fun and we have very long opening hours and that is our core time. We do loads of seasonal shows so, every peak season, effectively we put a new seasonal show which gives us something to talk about but also gives people reasons to come back.

“We’re coming up to January/February time where again people don’t see us as an attraction to visit in those periods, particularly Valentine’s Day, although we’re going to be launching our new seasonal show ‘Wicked Women’ which will be telling the stories of some of London’s more fearsome female figures from February through to Easter.”

Christmas, he admits, is more of a challenge.  How do you make the Dungeons Christmassy?  “That’s why we replicate what would have happened in those eras and do a seasonal show.”

Even at Christmas, historical accuracy is important: “Of course, Christmas was abolished by Cromwell, so we have just followed what was done at different times.

“In 2015, the Tavern was our big Christmas show and in the Tavern we had a Christmas tree decorated with traditional Victorian Christmas decorations, we had stockings on the fireplace etc.  In the rest of the Dungeons there was snow all over the place and everything was made to look like a winter’s scene.”

london dungeon visitors get on a boat

Targeting the ‘Go For It’ families

Bearing in mind the nature of the attraction, who would Blackburn say is his core audience?

“We recommend no guests under 12 years old and aim for that core teen market.  Teens generally are embarrassed to do stuff with their parents but, for our attraction, what we’ve found is teens WANT to come with their parents here because there are some fun chances to see their mum and dad get scared, and even be put in the dock or the torturer’s chair.

“Although we’re not a scare attraction and we don’t do any of the gory stuff, there is that perception that it’s going to be dark and there are going to be things that will make you jump (and there are) and teens sometimes don’t want to do that with their friends.

“We call them Go For It Families. We want those families that want to do something different, who want to experience something a little bit more interactive and fun than a museum and want an exciting day out.”

Retail is obviously an important revenue stream for the Dungeon. Why did the venue decide to create the Tavern as a shopping experience?

The Tavern – retail reimagined

“We wanted to shake up the whole gift shop concept. We wanted to do something a little bit more engaging and on brand for our guests that is in keeping with the Dungeon experience. The pub is a staple of London’s culture and has been for hundreds of years.  It’s something of a novelty with guests from other countries who just want to visit a pub in London. What we’ve enabled them to do is visit a Victorian pub in London, made internationally famous by depictions of Dickensia-era films and stories.”

So, how does the Tavern fit into the visitor journey?

“The guests finish their experience – they go on our last drop ride which is our last main show of the experience and they have the opportunity to buy one of their photos, ” says Blackburn.

“Then, they go through a door into what they’re expecting to be a gift shop and they’re greeted by a member of staff who gives them a coin, effectively a token. That person then says to them, “Go to the bar and get yourself a drink and the drink’s on us”. They go to the bar, hand over the coin and select what drink they want – which could be a Victorian gin cocktail with elderflower or lemon or a Victorian real ale which we’ve named Gallows Ale, or an apple juice for the youngsters.”

tavern at london dungeons by theme3

What makes this so different from the usual quick nose round a gift shop is that the customer can then go to a table, sit down and is still ‘in the experience’.

“Depending on where you sit, you get a very different experience, ” says Blackburn. “There are one or two actors who roam around the space and, wherever you’re sitting, they will tell you a story.”

The story, says Blackburn, might be one about the Landlord’s sister or the Aldgate Pump – a pump which poisoned hundreds back in the Victorian era. Or, it might be about the Beer Flood which killed more than the Great Fire of London when a brewery tank burst and inundated the street.

“It’s very in-depth and very on brand for us and we keep that experience going right until the very end.”

By giving guests the opportunity to sit down and have a drink, dwell time has increased by around 20 minutes: “We obviously don’t tie them down, so if they want to grab a quick drink and go, they’re more than welcome to. If they want to change seats and hear different stories even better. They can have a sing along as well because we do have a piano that plays itself and we have a landlord and landlady who encourage guests to join in.”

london dungeon tavern by theme3

Tavern-themed merchandise

How does the retail element work?

“We’ve had a specific merchandise line designed for us. You can go to most Dungeons attractions and pick up the normal souvenirs but from us you would get things that fit with this experience, so you can buy one of the Tavern aprons, a Tavern dishcloth.  You can buy a specially designed Penny Dreadful front cover – Penny Dreadful were the old magazines in Victorian times which told the gruesome stories about Jekyll and Hyde and Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper and all those nasty characters of the time.

“So, we’ve had some posters designed which we sell framed. You can buy the cup that you drink your drink out of. So, yes you can still buy things and yes, you can still buy your souvenirs and we still have keyrings and pens, but we’ve made it as unobtrusive and premium as we can. This is more about the experience and what we can offer the guest than trying to make money.”

A generous brand

While revenue hasn’t necessarily increased, Blackburn believes what’s more important is that the Tavern adds value to the whole guest experience.rat at london dungeons

“We’ve gone from having 200-300 lines of souvenir products to about 10 lines where actually we are more focussed on the experience and delivering, on a typical day, 3800 drinks in 8 hours, than trying to push as much sales as we can.”

Blackburn says this creates a more complete experience: “Instead of coming off the drop ride and that’s the guest’s immersive experience finished, we now have the ability to keep that experience going right until the very end, which keeps guests out of their normal world until that point.

“We tell people “bring out your phones, take photos, enjoy and share this experience, ” which you can’t really do in the rest of the dungeon. So, people get to sit there and they can tweet and go on their facebook and the reactions have been really positive.

“We’re trying to make ourselves be seen as a really generous brand because we’re giving something away just so that people enjoy their experience more, which I think is rare in most attractions in London.”

Customer feedback is beginning to suggest that this strategy is working.

“We have a touchscreen at the end of our attraction so, in the Tavern, there is an iPad that is housed and themed really well and guests can give feedback on the Tavern part of the experience as well as the experience as a whole. Our KPI Results for this area have been really strong since we’ve included the Tavern.”

Managing customer flow

A potential problem with encouraging people to sit down at the end of the tour is managing customer flow.

“The challenge is that we need to get every single guest a drink. So, the way we work is we can have 45 guests in a group and the group generally moves round from show to show every 6 minutes, so we need to potentially serve 45 people every 6 minutes. They need to sit down have their drink and start moving on their way within about 20 minutes.”

Blackburn says this operational plan is working. “We have had absolutely no issues. We’ve spent a lot of time in the set-up of the Tavern.  My Head of Operations used to be an F&B manager over in sister Merlin attraction Chessington World of Adventures, so he understands the complexities of how to serve so many people so quickly, in such a small space.

“So, the set-up was key – we’ve set it out in such a way that we are confident that we can get through every guest. If we were going to have issues, we’d have encountered them by now, and we’ve simply not had them.”

actors at london dungeons do the last supper

The actor factor

Of course, no matter how well designed and planned, the real key to the success of the experience is the quality of the actors who bring it to life.

“With shows that are scripted, the actors need to deliver those shows in a certain way, but the Tavern now enables them to improvise a little bit more.  They all understand the brand and the brand values, so they understand that they are a landlord or landlady in a Victorian pub and they need to stay on brand.
“They are very good at what they do. They’re professional actors and very well trained, and as a result the reactions from guests are very good. The actors aren’t in your face. They’ll come and sit at your table, so it’s not the case that you have to stand and watch another show. They’ll play cards with you, so it’s very low key and guests get a chance to wind down a little which is what our aim was.

“We want people to have that moment where they can stand still for a second and have that drink and relax after their experience on the adrenaline-fuelled drop ride and then move on.”

tavern by theme3 at london dungeons

Experience design by THEME3

Experience design and build specialist, THEME3 created the Tavern for the London Dungeon. The UK based company has delivered projects for a wide variety of clients including LEGOLAND, Madame Tussauds and Warwick Castle.

“We came up with the concept and spoke to THEME3, ” says Blackburn. “Ailsa [Easton, Creative Director] there used to work for Merlin as one of the creative directors for the Dungeons brand, which was great because she understands the brand and the challenges and demands of operating an attraction that welcomes thousands of guests a day. We worked very closely with THEME3 and had regular meetings and daily phone calls at some points just to make sure we got this right.”

Blackburn’s response to THEME3’s work on the project is unequivocal.

What THEME3 have delivered is exceptional… a really well-themed experience which ticks every box we needed operationally and for the guest experience, as well as just looking very authentic.”

wall of tavern at london dungeons by theme3

THEME3 also assisted in designing the themed merchandise.

“The Penny Dreadfuls were designed by THEME3 which is really positive.  The way we display our merchandise, they assisted with that as well – we have a couple of Victorian bookcases which fit with the theme and we can use them to sell our products rather than just being theming which is great.  Even around the bar you don’t see the till points – everything is hidden and very immersive which is a great tick in the box.”

THEME3 also had to contend with County Hall’s status as a listed building which means that development within it has to adhere to certain restrictions. For example, a separate shell has to be constructed within the building’s existing rooms for each attraction.

“We’ve got a landlord and have to follow regulations and work with Lambeth Council to deliver everything that they request and we had a project manager on site who did all the liaising and fed back to THEME3.  The fact that Ailsa also helped set up the Dungeons in County Hall back in 2013 was a plus because she understands what limitations we have in the building.”

Future plans

So, what of the future? Are there any immediate plans for further development at the London Dungeon?
Blackburn says not in the short term: “I think for now we’re just going to focus on how we get this the london dungeon exteriorcompletely right. So, we’re going to keep using this unique immersive space for seasonal events and takeovers. We may do late events where we can have private events hosted in the Tavern. We may put different shows on potentially throughout the year in that space alone.

“We’re trying to work out really what we do for Valentine’s Day just using the Tavern because it’s a great space for people to come and meet each other and have dates. We will work out concepts for key dates in the year and have some really good events.”

Blackburn says that, with capacity for around 140, there’s a lot of interest from private and corporate clients to use the Tavern as a venue for their own events.

With that in mind, does Blackburn see the concept being rolled out across other Merlin Dungeons or attractions?

“I think there’s probably scope to.  We need to see how this beds in and ask does it work? Are we getting the right results and are guests enjoying it?  If they are in the long term I can see there is potential for this to be rolled out in different places.

“I love working for the London Dungeon, ” he says. “It’s a really fun brand.”

Images: Courtesy London Dungeon and THEME3