Experiential marketing pros are hopeful that physical events will bounce back in a post-COVID-19 world, and many anticipate Q3 and Q4 of 2020 will be the moment for a resurgence.
Organizers of advertising festival Cannes Lions and music festival Coachella share this mindset, as they’ve postponed both events until October rather than canceling them outright. (Update, April 3: Cannes organizers have canceled the festival, which was originally rescheduled to late October. The next edition won’t be held until June 21-25, 2021.)
However, brands, agencies and companies that provide experiential marketing resources could face a permanently changed, shaky landscape once it’s safe again to create physical experiences for the public and for event and conference attendees. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has cleared, or drastically changed, the calendars of IRL projects for experiential agencies and their brand clients, leading to inevitable staff layoffs and shifts in priorities as virtual pivots become a temporary new normal.
The overall impact that coronavirus will have on experiential marketing is uncertain, but those in the business of creating live experiences may face an initial reality of getting back to doing what they love while overcoming internal and external obstacles.
Companies brace for an initial lack of staff and resources
Erica Taylor Haskins, co-founder of New York-based event design and production agency Tinsel Experiential Design, faces a common situation for many event agencies across the U.S. right now. Her company, which produces public activations and corporate events for brands like Spotify and Samsung, had its spring and summer calendar wiped clean due to client cancellations; their next scheduled event isn’t until September.
To be proactive and protect the business, Haskins has had to cut staffing to just her and her co-founder, with the company going operationally dark for the foreseeable future. Once it’s safe to plan and hold physical events again, companies such as Tinsel may face an initial lack of staff and resources to execute new projects.
“Our hope is when life is back to normal, we can reinstate our team members to the roles they were in. But I imagine there will be a lot of companies that won’t have the cash flow to support their core team as it was,” Haskins said. “They might be working with a skeleton crew and less staff and resources they’re used to operating with. Or they might just have just a time obstacle of having to interview, hire and train new people. It won’t be as simple as pressing Play and getting back to the way things were.”
Layoffs have extended to agency partners as well, including shops that design, build and offer graphics for brand experiences. Pink Sparrow, a New York- and Los Angeles-based experiential design and fabrication shop, had been working on multiple builds for brands—including one for a major activation at Coachella—which were postponed or canceled.
Shaun Edwards, managing director of the Pink Sparrow’s L.A. location, said the company had to drastically downsize its staff to just a handful of craftspeople. Edwards said while events are on hold, the shop’s current business is making personal protective equipment for healthcare workers fighting COVID-19. It’s also working on builds like branded storefront vestibules for contactless purchases and hand sanitizer kiosks for essential businesses’ patrons to use as they enter and leave.
Edwards said the postponed activation builds are sitting in storage at both of the company’s studios, and the hope is they’ll be used in some form once it’s safe to hold physical events again. However, the issue Edwards and Anthony Santiago, managing director of Pink Sparrow’s New York studio, foresee—as everyone scrambles to make back lost revenue—is a high demand for fabrication shops lacking staff, paired with inflated pricing of materials they source from event rental and prop companies that are also struggling to stay afloat.
Jessica Reznick Martin, president of brand experience agency We’re Magnetic—which produces activations for brands such as Facebook and Instagram—said while many companies have had to downsize, her hope is many people, including full-time freelancers, will be looking for work once events pick back up.
“Whenever companies are ready to start operating again, hopefully they’re going to be able to find talent,” she said. “A lot of people were freelance before this situation, and they will need work. Hopefully these agencies will be able to pick people up, even if it’s in a freelance capacity at first.”
Marketers and planners may have to adjust to new consumer mindsets
Marketing analytics company Performance Research recently conducted a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers about how perceptions of the pandemic will affect engagement with live sports and entertainment events. The survey found that 44% of consumers will likely attend fewer events once they’re cleared as safe to hold, and 63% said event health safety will be a higher concern for them than it was before the pandemic.
Ben Hindman, co-founder and CEO of event marketing automation platform Splash, said experiential marketers will need to prepare to shift pre-event strategy and physical formats to reduce the initial fear among attendees. He said the way attendee data is collected will change, and brands will need to communicate this to their audiences prior to holding an event.
“When we come back, from a data standpoint, giving some level of data prior to going into an event is going to become more important to create a level of safety. Things we used to think were absurd, or intrusive, could end up being pretty normal,” Hindman said. “For example, If you want to attend an event, you might have to be tested [for COVID-19] or allow someone to take your temperature before entering.”
Hindman also said that at first, brands and agencies might consider creating and promoting more intimate, exclusive event formats with fewer people. If Coachella still happens in October, Hindman said, brands could pivot to hosting houses and activations for smaller groups.
“I believe the formats of these events will involve finding new communication styles, through intimacy, personal connection and exclusivity. If I were crafting marketing messaging, I would be pushing to get attendees to connect with each other in advance,” he said. “The event planners I know who are thinking about events in September and October are thinking deeply about reducing travel risk and reducing size.”
Reznick Martin said agencies and their clients need to consider that consumers will probably want to gather locally and in smaller groups first, before attending regional or global gatherings.
“My hope is we bring forward a time for real connections. If you look at it from a brand perspective, of how we can help people as we move through this together, there will be a time when it’s right to host a dinner for 25 people,” Reznick Martin said. “We talk a lot about how the currency in this day and age is the emotional connection between a consumer and brand. Nothing will be more emotional than brands providing ways for people to safely and slowly start getting back together.”
There could also be a major reconsideration of physical layout and design elements. Pink Sparrow may have to rework some of the builds that are on hold, including for Coachella, based on whether the brands want to make changes for health and safety reasons.
Edwards said experience design could shift priorities to consider health and safety once the pandemic is over. Along with hand-sanitizing stations, he said, brand activations as a whole may shift toward more hands-free design elements. For example, there may be fewer touchscreen elements or stations like ball pits. In general, he said, organizers might consider staggering attendance depending on the type of activation.
2021 could be a more realistic option
Coachella organizers set firm dates of Oct. 9-18, but organizers of the postponed L.A. Pride, which was set for the beginning of June, have yet to announce a new date. Other events set for June, including Governors Ball and CMA Fest, have been canceled this year with plans to return in 2021. And international sporting events like Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics have been pushed to 2021 as well.
Jeff Consoletti, founder and principal of event production and entertainment firm JJLA, which helps produce brand activations for larger events like Coachella and L.A. Pride, advises organizers of festivals that attract thousands of people to wait and see what the further impact of COVID-19 will be on their host cities. He noted that currently, many local government and public health and safety agencies are putting all their time and resources into the crisis, which doesn’t have a specific end date.
“My concern is, even if the health component is under control, do municipalities have the resources to handle 100,000 people coming to their city for an event?” Consoletti said. “I’m not sure right now is the appropriate time to announce new dates when we’re still trying to learn what’s happening. To reschedule an activation or trade show is one thing, but a large-scale parade or concert that’s public or free might be something that will have a bigger toll on the community.”
Reznick Martin said for the time being, her company has shifted its marketing strategy for clients to focus on virtual and no-contact experiences for later this spring and summer. But it still has activations on hold for larger events such as Cannes slated for the fall. She said whether major fall events actually happen depends on how seriously society takes social distancing mandates.
“If people stay home and give our public health and government systems a chance to do what they need to do, I do think it’s possible that at the end of this year we’ll start seeing events again. But they will be regional,” she said. “Events that require global mixing will probably start in the first quarter of 2021. I hope there will be a normal schedule of events in January and February, like CES, Sundance and the Super Bowl.”
Consoletti also views a move to 2021 as more realistic for certain events in what could potentially be a crowded second half of 2020. He noted there could be a situation where events such as film premieres and awards shows like the Emmys blur with live sporting events or conferences.
“I think we’re just going to see a lot of traffic, or we’re going to see a lot of people make the decision to take a knee and hold off until 2021,” he said. “This might not necessarily be for budgets’ sake, but to go bigger in 2021.”
Companies able to stay afloat aim to stay creative and pragmatic
While companies in experiential marketing have had to temporarily scale down staff and shift efforts to alternative strategies, some are still preparing for a physical event resurgence by checking in with clients that have projects on hold.
Consoletti said he’s been trying to stay as actively engaged with his clients as possible to be extra prepared for when events bounce back.
“I understand brands can have a different approach or spending freezes. But if you know you’re trying to develop an activation that’s set to travel to a trade show or festival this fall, why are we not thinking about the creative that goes into that now?” he said. “It’s about getting the ideas on paper, the graphic design process going or the rendering process moving. Staying engaged and giving clients options for ways they can engage with services we don’t think about that often is top of mind for us.”
Reznick Martin added the proactive approach helps fabrication or graphic printing shops that agencies partner with; certain businesses may be in a situation where employees can safely create sets for postponed projects. Edwards said some of the remaining staff at Pink Sparrow have the ability to rework or finish builds for postponed projects at their studio spaces while social distancing. But he noted that they don’t have to go into the studios if they wish to self-isolate at home.
“If these companies have builds, for example, we would encourage them to finish those builds with their vendors and throw them in storage,” Reznick Martin said. “When events come back in October, the work has been done and agencies don’t have to rely on that shop to rush it through with everyone else. We’re proactively doing this not just because we think it’s a good idea for our clients, but it’s also a support mechanism for businesses we want to help keep alive during this time.”
Although Haskins’ business is at a standstill, she said she’s maintaining client relationships by consistently checking in with those who have rescheduled projects for late 2020. She said her hope is when events come back, agencies and brands will have a reinvigorated outlook for what they want to achieve with their IRL experiences.
“There is going to be a falling away of companies across all categories, and not everyone will come back from this. But for the companies that do stick around, I’m hoping they have built strong relationships with their clients and made sure they had cash flow to have a safety net,” Haskins said.
“I’m hoping what comes out of that will be elevated events, across the board, in quality of service and creativity,” she added. “There’s going to be a little bit of a reckoning as to what events look and feel like and what actually makes sense for people to invest in.”