Make It Work: The Grounds

An illustration of two people reaching out towards each other

Hong Kong member Simon Wilson on creating a ‘COVID-responsible’ event venue to celebrate in safety

By Gavin Yeung   Illustration by Alva Skogg     Wednesday 28 October, 2020   Short read

In Chinese, the word for crisis is comprised of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Encapsulating this philosophy is The Grounds, a socially distanced event venue on Hong Kong’s iconic harbourfront that is singularly of the moment. Developed by Hong Kong members Simon Wilson and Michael Denmark during the early months of the pandemic, The Grounds is one of the first event businesses to tackle the dilemma of how to gather large crowds in a time that actively discourages them. The answer: socially distanced pods arranged around a main stage that strikes a balance between the joy of in-person experiences while maintaining social health and responsibility. 

Due to open to the public in mid- to late October, with a preview for Soho House members happening prior, Wilson discusses the process of conceiving The Grounds during a time of unprecedented upheaval.

Life in ‘the before’
‘I did large-scale food festivals in Australia and Hong Kong, and most recently I worked for an international sports media company selling media inventory for in-flight TV. But two things that don’t go together in a pandemic are airlines and live sport, so I was made redundant in May. Going from where I was, working in this very glamorous international business to being essentially out of work was bad, but things have taken a massive turn.’

The big idea
‘Through my network in Hong Kong, I was able to connect with my collaborator and business partner, Michael Denmark, who operates the Hong Kong Observation Wheel and is also a Soho House member. There was a real sense that we needed to do something, as the last 18 months have not been particularly kind in terms of social unrest and then social distancing. We asked each other: what would be an event of the moment, what do the people of Hong Kong need right now, and how do we make a business out of that? And that’s how we came up with the concept for The Grounds.

‘We want to create a hub of activity on the harbourfront; something a bit safer and more structured to socialise in. Consumers won’t be able to move around the space, but we can move the content around for them to enjoy. For example, with a gin festival, you can order from a selection of 50 gin and tonics to be delivered to you, while on stage someone is educating you about their gin, like where it’s from and the best way to enjoy it.’ 

Taking the leap
‘It’s going to be a work in progress. We’ve got to be flexible and manage expectations both of the customer and our partners. It’s everything from the guy who builds the screen to the beer supplier, to the people who are selling the tickets and consumers who are buying them. For the consumer as well, if we have to close due to another wave, we’d have to honour any tickets that they have purchased and move that content later on. We don’t want people to miss out because of something beyond their control.

‘We’re going to open with two weeks of outdoor cinema. It’s a nice entry point for the venue to give people an enjoyable experience and a nice outdoor environment for understanding the safety protocols. After that, we’re planning to launch a music concept we’re working on called Bounce, an interactive quiz format called GotGame in collaboration with another Hong Kong member and DJ, Ben Cullen, and a sports events with live broadcasts.’

The response
‘We’ve had a great reaction from event production professionals in Hong Kong, who rallied a lot of support and were willing to be more flexible with their terms and how they work with us as an event organiser. That’s enabled us to bring this project to market. By the time we get to October and November, people want to be doing things; I think there’s a real pent-up energy to be having experiences in a safe but responsible way.

‘Once we open the venue, we think more event organisers will be coming to us about different events. We’ve already been approached by several parties who are asking what their event would look like in our format, and we’re working with them to give them the platform to do it. Consumers want variety, so we want to provide a touchpoint for everybody in terms of something they can enjoy and look forward to.’

Life in ‘the after’
‘We’re very fortunate in Hong Kong. I feel like we are three to six months ahead of everyone else in the world, in general, in terms of the freedoms we have. We’re creating the environment to socialise responsibly and have seen people respond well to [safety measures], whether it’s wearing a mask, using hand sanitiser, or maintaining social distancing. So, hopefully the people of Hong Kong will see what we’re trying to achieve and buy into our concept.’
Interested in becoming a member?