When Refinery29 launched 29Rooms in 2015, we set out to create a physical manifestation of our brand — reflecting the topics our audience cares about most, our commitment to celebrating diverse creative voices, and the engagement we strive to ignite with brands and our audience. We wanted to turn the ultra-exclusive New York Fashion Week experience on its head with an event that was open to all and encouraged participation in a new type of space that sparked imagination and content creation.
Since then, 29Rooms has inspired thousands of people in real life (IRL) and millions more online by giving them the ability to immerse themselves in creativity and engage with artists, causes and brands in ways that, before the experience of 29Rooms, were rarely seen.
As a concept, 29Rooms was a tough sell at first (as new, untested things often are), and we were lucky to have partners that believed in our vision and were willing to experiment with experiential marketing.
By putting our audience center stage, sparking conversation and encouraging play, we have inspired a new world of opportunity. For brands and collaborators, we have created a different type of marketing and advertising format in a time when more and more consumers are avoiding traditional interruptive messaging in favor of experiences along the new customer journey. This is a pathway to real exposure: people-powered marketing rooted in authentic real-world settings.
Creating 29Rooms was—and sometimes still feels like—uncharted territory. We took a lot of risks and learned tons along the way in order to elevate the experience each year to fuel positive change, cut through social noise and push boundaries.
Three things that have remained constant since day one are the value of our audience, the importance of telling stories that matter and the opportunity for self-expression in igniting positive change.
Put the audience center stage
At 29Rooms, we build the space, but it is our visitors who power it. We always hoped the audience would respond, but it wasn’t until opening night in 2015 that we truly saw the magic come to life. One of our branded rooms was created in partnership with Disney, celebrating the launch of @MinnieStyle on Instagram during New York Fashion Week. We designed the room in collaboration with the artists, Confetti Systems, and it featured a tinsel maze that wound into a stage area where guests could create stop-motion videos and flip books using Minnie-inspired props.
A line formed, and people began choreographing their dance moves while they waited. When they reached the stage and performed for the camera, everyone in line cheered. In that moment, they were the stars of the show and, at the same time, had become brand advocates for Disney. With every performance and social interaction, we injected a sense of pure fun into the brand.
Meaningful IRL moments
This year, our Gender Neutral room, created in collaboration with Jill Soloway’s Topple and artist Xavier Schipani, took guests back to the familiar sanctity of a high school bathroom, where they were able to listen to first-person stories about gender identity from artists, filmmakers, actors, musicians and influencers like Roberta Colindrez, Rhys Ernst, Alexandra Grey, Amos Mac, Bashir Naim and Pidgeon Pagonis. Through intimate spaces like this, we were able to bring important issues to the surface in a way that created empathy and understanding. We were also able to tap into multiple senses and emotions, and create a dialogue and sense of community around highly personal moments of self-discovery.
At the core of 29Rooms is creating an environment where attendees can express themselves and challenge conventions. We bring together culturally credible artists, brands, causes and our audience to play alongside each other in the space.
These unique combinations of talent spark passions, inspire possibility and fuel creation of all kinds. In 29Rooms, guests have made music videos, held fashion shoots, shot art films, taken wedding and engagement photos, and so much more. All of this has created the ultimate canvas for creation, a level of connection that breeds engagement, and the permission they feel to play creates a lasting connection long after they’ve left.
I talk a lot about risk-taking and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, both in my personal life and at work. 29Rooms was one of those risks, and watching it grow over the last three years is proof that risk-taking is worth it.
Be the spark, live with heart—and turn it into art.
Albie Hueston (@albie_alexander) is creative director of experiential at Refinery29 and co-created the viral event experience 29Rooms in 2015.