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In-Person Experiences Will Come Back Stronger Than Ever Post COVID-19

The experiential and events industry has been ravaged financially by mass cancelations and postponements, causing thousands of lay-offs and widespread business uncertainty. There has been a dizzying use of the word “pivot” as companies scramble to reimagine their events and physical stores digitally or virtually. BrewDog has lined up a series of virtual events including beer tasting, homebrewing masterclasses, live music, pub quizzes, and comedy, while daily Chipotle Together lunchtime hangouts on Zoom are drawing 3,000 fans.

However, not all experiences can – or arguably should – be digitized.

Experiential moments are designed to evoke the senses and connect people on a more human level. Can you imagine viewing Refinery’s 29Rooms maze-like art experience through a live stream, or the truly immersive production Sleep No More without the physical company of others? It’s clear nothing beats the magic of IRL, even if that means dealing with crowds jostling for the perfect selfie.

Nobody knows how the next few months will play out, but China offers a glimmer of hope, with relative normality gradually returning to the country.

As John F. Kennedy noted, “crisis” in Chinese carries two elements. Danger. And, Opportunity. No matter the difficulty of the circumstances, at the heart of each crisis lies hope for a better future.

Setting the stage for a new normal

For now, we must be patient and hope the impact on our industry is temporary, using this time to think about how we can evolve in-person experiences to ensure we return stronger than ever.

Revive human connection: When the crisis recedes, many of us will want to put virtual happy hours, online yoga, and binge-watching behind us and head to cafes, bars and events to catch up with friends – and finally meet that guy from Hinge. This makes creating time and space for conversation at events critical, such as analogue zones that help attendees stay present, which in turn incites serendipity.

Keep it real: Contemporary audiences will demand more authenticity through deep, impactful experiences. So now’s the time to analyze who our audience really is and how we can improve their lives. Our core mission and real-world purpose must shine through, so that branding isn’t the main focus. If we’re working with influencers, let them be themselves. Let’s collaborate with partners in more thoughtful ways and integrate them from the outset. Let’s create casual and spirited environments that make people feel inspired.

Know when and how to digitize: We’ve seen brilliant advances in technology, from live-streaming and social-casting to next-gen augmented and virtual experiences. But it’s vital the goals dictate the platform. What’s the story we want to tell and how can we capture our audience’s attention? How can we focus on community and create that feeling of togetherness, without overwhelming? What does success look like and how will we measure it? Are we giving our audience a truly meaningful and unique experience?

Test and learn: Running large events takes big budgets and months of planning. Post pandemic, brands wanting to connect with their consumers will likely prefer smaller, intimate gatherings that provide a brilliant opportunity to test and learn new approaches and ideas to roll out when appropriate. This also allows us to trial new technologies to extend reach and find more unique spaces to make events really stand out. 

Embrace mindfulness and wellbeing: Hustle-mania phrases born out of millennial angst, like “you snooze, you lose” and “grind now, shine later” may fizzle out, as we realize the importance of time spent recharging. Expect to see more events incorporating “brain breaks” to inspire creativity, outdoor activities to let off steam, and clean eating to keep attendees sharp.

Support small businesses: Local businesses bring growth and innovation to our communities and economy. When seeking vendor support, look first to small, independent companies that are likely suffering the most. Use this downtime to reach out to new experiential agencies, production houses, caterers, etc to develop relationships and scope out capabilities.

Re-consider the need for travel: As it turns out many meetings could have been an email or Zoom call, it’s now our responsibility to question whether it’s critical to jet from New York to LA for a pitch, or fly from London to Dublin for a meeting. Let’s follow Greta Thunberg’s lead and consider a flight diet, putting pressure on employers to follow suit.

Waste not, want not: Sustainability will continue to top the agenda, so seriously consider how we can do more to reduce our impact, from banning single-use plastics and digitizing swag to offering charitable donations, providing leftover food and drink to local communities, and offering more plant-based catering. We should question vendors and each other, ensuring we’re all doing our part.

Keep it clean: Whether you’re doing it singing Happy Birthday or your national anthem, it’s safe to say you’re doing it often, and this newfound hypersensitivity to hygiene will persist. This means not only making hand-washing more accessible, providing anti-bacterial sprays, and improving cleaning regimes, but also designing event spaces to reduce crowds, increasing ventilation and having a plan to deal with suspected cases – and ensuring insurance policies incorporate satisfactory cover.

Immerse the senses: Bowing, elbow bumps and footshakes may be more appropriate currently, but when multi-sensory events eventually become the antidote to digital overload we should look to blur the boundaries between these experiences and more traditional events to create something more memorable for guests.

Let the chaos fuel your creativity: A coronavirus culture is emerging, with brands devising imaginative ways to provide support. Dyson has developed the ‘CoVent’ ventilator, KFC has partnered with nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack to provide meals for kids in need, and the Mattel Playroom delivers activities and tips for children, to name just a few.

 If we can combine creativity, technology and humanity in the right way, we will once again be a truly unstoppable force. As experiential agencies, we should continue in this spirit by thinking even further out of the box with every brief, keeping innovation and dexterity front of mind, whilst embracing the positive change experienced during this crisis, to move the industry forward for good.

This article was published by the Vendry