When it came to showcasing its innovative, award-winning ctrlX AUTOMATION in a hybrid press conference, Bosch Rexroth turned to an industry leader known for its technical expertise and extensive inventory of leading-edge technologies—SmartSource, an ABCOM Technology Group company.
In the age of COVID-19, traffic flow and timed entries are critical elements to creating an environment that supports social distancing and safety. It’s no surprise then that ticketed pop-ups and drive-ins for consumers have been among the first event types to kick off successfully this summer. Among them: entertainment-inspired superfan experiences that show no signs of hitting their peak. Here’s a look at a few programs that cropped up over the summer.
The Sixth cocktail bar in Chicago has transformed its space into a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”-inspired Instagram environment dubbed “Honey, I Shrunk the Pop-up.” The pop-up, which opened Aug. 26 and runs through Nov. 1, offers seating outdoors or indoors as well as 14 movie-themed cocktails and food by The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group chefs. The space is decked out in oversized décor, large-scale movie scenes and socially distanced photo ops. Reservations are required for 20 guests inside and 10 guests outdoors at a time. More info here.
Coming this October, Netflix will immerse fans in a “Stranger Things” experience following the delay of the series’ fourth season with the Stranger Things: The Drive-Into Experience. The event will transport Los Angeles-based consumers to the year 1985 from the safety of their vehicles. Activated in partnership with immersive theater company Secret Cinema, the event is taking place at an undisclosed location in Los Angeles and will accommodate groups of 24 cars that will navigate through replica sets and scenes enhanced by live actors, A/V and other special effects. Tickets go for $59 per car. Read more here.
Saved By the Bell
The “Saved By the Max” pop-up restaurant platform launched in Chicago several years ago by an event planner who recognized the superfandom surrounding “Saved By the Bell” has returned. In August, the pop-up announced its reopening with locations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Over five days, fans could reserve takeout meals for $22 of the “Bayside Preppy Pack,” which included the “Bayside Burger with The Tigers Tator Tots” as well as themed to-go cocktails. The L.A. location offered outdoor seating. Read more here.
Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Airbnb is back with another immersive fan experience, this time with the actual mansion filmed for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Starting Sept. 29, residents in Los Angeles County have the opportunity to book a one-night stay at the mansion in October for a group of two for $30—an homage to the show’s 30th anniversary this year. During their stay, guests will explore rooms decked out in series-inspired décor. Fans who can’t make a reservation can sign up for an Airbnb Online Experience featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff himself. Read more here.
The general stage experience is a moment in a show that sets the tone for the event, that spotlights leadership rock stars and conveys messaging that leaves attendees with a clear roadmap for the event and the brand. Through the rise of LED and livestreaming, how these stages are designed and operate is evolving rapidly. Throw in a little pivot with virtual and hybrid events in the mix, and the concepts, builds and execution of these environments becomes even more nuanced.
To get a clear picture on what it takes to set the stage in modern events, we turned to three experts in the space for their perspectives on what’s trending and how what we know about design is changing in the virtual landscape. Your peek behind the curtain begins now.
Over the last few years, the green movement has infiltrated not just show operations but stage and design, too, as clients aim for fewer physical builds and set their sights on technology that is immersive and reusable. The result is a cinematic, rather than a scenic, backdrop.
“We have this outrageous resolution of LED now—it is so bright and so beautiful—and we have this expansive playground, because we can do custom sizes,” says Robin Gold, head of production at The XD Agency.
Designing for an active audience.
Presenters are getting closer to their audiences on stages that stretch out into seating and satellite stages and they’re interacting with them through smart medallions, wristbands and devices that allow audiences to get involved through polling or lighting effects.
Anamorphic illusions are also helping to activate the audience—special effects that, for example, make the audience feel as though a wave is going to crash into them from the screen.
“For the live event especially, we like to think about an aesthetic that’s going to evolve and develop as the presentation goes on,” says Julie Schneider, executive creative director, The XD Agency. “You get that big moment in the opening, but midway through the keynote, something is happening that will raise the anticipation level.”
Focusing less on scale in virtual.
While an enormous theater calls for expansive screens, when designing a main stage for a virtual experience or a broadcast, bigger is not always better. The bigger you go, the smaller your speaker will be—and their presence and delivery is important.
Everything you do must be designed in the context of the 16:9 screen ratio at home. But that’s not to say you can’t have any fun. LED cubes or LED floors that interact with physical movement on top of them can add drama to a presentation broadcasted through a screen.
“Think about camera angles and the placement of the content at home. A TV director is really critical versus a live show director. It really is a different animal, and TV is a closeup medium,” Gold says.
Keeping the (virtual) interest level up.
Embrace various short-form content, backdrops and cameras angles to keep your virtual viewers interested and engaged. A few techniques that could help elevate a main-stage presentation: Green-screen effects that allow the presenter to be part of the total image, and mixed reality graphic overlays with animations that float in and around the presenter.
In the months since the pandemic hit, many event teams have returned to production studios to film main-stage experiences, but don’t discount “remote” staging or backdrops completely.
“Apple did their World Developer Conference in their campus and included beautiful shots, and it was somewhere that we could never get to go, which made it very interesting, compelling content,” says Mark Shearon, founder/managing director at Proscenium.
Embracing the nuances of LED.
LED stands for light-emitting diode, and it’s easy to forget that screens can serve as lighting features as well as canvases for content. An effective, LED-inspired experience should involve a mix of experts and skillsets. “People, like animators, scenic and environmental designers working together as a team, and understanding how those things can work together, is super important,” Shearon says.
And don’t forget that with LED, new media servers are being used all the time and new plug-ins and add-ons for being invented. “It’s keeping up with not only the actual LED product but what drives that product is super important as well.”
Storyboarding the shoot.
As live events make a come-back, the backdrop behind presenters will be just as critical as the full set—just like they would be in a close up IMAG shot in the room. Camerawork becomes even more critical to tell the complete story, according to Chris Simmons, vp-creative at Leo Events.
“Unless we are delivering the experience in virtual reality, the set must work through a series of camera moves and cuts. We want to maintain the sense of theater, but program for the frame,” Simmons says. “For instance, one view might be of the entire set, but then you can cut to a close-up of the set with the presenter and a content window over their shoulder. Then we follow that with a full screen video to make certain the message is of the most importance.”
Part of Ford’s storytelling strategy involved an archive tent where attendees could view relics from the Bronco’s history.
Automotive launches often feel homogenous, but following the Bronco’s 24-year hiatus, Ford knew a standard press reveal for the vehicle wouldn’t do. So on Aug. 11, the Bronco’s 55th birthday, the automaker delivered a series of small, COVID-friendly ride-and-drive experiences at the Holly Oaks off-road vehicle park in Michigan. In groups of no more than 12, members of the media experienced a keynote address, off-road rides in new and heritage vehicles and journeys through two tents showcasing Bronco memorabilia and merchandise. The objective: To highlight the capabilities of the all-new two-door, four-door and Sport models, and to introduce Bronco as Ford’s outdoor lifestyle brand. In other words, buckle up.
Having halted production on the Bronco since 1996, Ford started formulating the vehicle’s comeback campaign in January of 2017. In November of 2019, the brand began to build buzz for the big reveal, debuting a racing prototype at the Baja 1000, a competition that the original Bronco had won 50 years earlier (fun fact: it’s still the only production four-by-four vehicle to win the race). And by August of this year, Ford was prepared to reveal its new family of vehicles to the press (Imagination handled).
The launch event kicked off with a keynote that focused on the Bronco’s revival and its deep roots in the American automotive space. The address was followed by the big reveal moment which showcased the three all-new vehicles in their “natural habitat” via a choreographed sequence in which they raced down a steep cliff face and back up the other side of the canyon to greet the audience.
Next, it was time to experience the vehicles first-hand. In pairs, attendees rotated through six stations that gave them a chance to ride in various Bronco models through rugged terrain. Vehicles included the new two-door, four-door and Sport, the Baja 1000-winning Bronco, the Bronco R and a classic 1971 model. (The race-edition vehicles were driven by professional racing driver Shelby Hall and off-roading expert Cameron “The Desert Assassin” Steele.) Each of the featured vehicles was outfitted to simulate different customer scenarios, including fishing, extreme off-roading, towing and a taste of a forthcoming Bronco “Off-Roadeo” experience.
“We wanted to keep everything engaging and at every 15-minute interval, we rotated so that everyone’s getting this very immersive experience that’s not just about the vehicle, but about storytelling,” says Jiyan Cadiz, North American icon communications and media relations manager at Ford.
Outside of the off-road experiences, the media could explore two safari-style tents. One served as an archive tent hosted by Ford’s archives and heritage brand manager Ted Ryan, and his team. The space featured never-before-seen concept designs and other relics from Bronco’s history. The second tent showcased a full-size foam model of the Bronco R, along with customized Bronco merchandise that will be available for purchase.
It’s worth noting that Ford had its social distancing ducks in a row throughout the event. Masks and temperature screenings were mandatory, social distancing was in place and vehicles were sanitized after every ride. “It should have been a very catered experience and come across very thoughtful with respect to our current state of affairs,” says Cadiz.
In the wake of the pandemic, Cadiz says the team had to ask itself things like “do we really need to spend that kind of money” and “ do we really need to design a program that way?” Having to reimagine its event campaigns has helped the brand align its priorities and step outside the norm.
“Everyone wants to do things a certain way because that’s the way we were comfortable doing them before,” Cadiz says. “But it’s nice to have this moment to really rethink our priorities and decide what can we live without. If you don’t take advantage of that, it would be a miss.”
Attendees rotated through six stations that gave them a chance to ride in various Bronco models across rugged terrain.
Technology experts talk data, logistical challenges and having a seat at the table
They say using technology for technology’s sake isn’t a winning strategy, but what if it’s not even an option? A study conducted by Eventsforce revealed a lack of technology expertise in the event industry, with 47 percent of respondents reporting they have limited skills to make confident, informed decisions around their event tech investments. The study, based on answers from more than 145 event professionals in the U.S. and UK, also found that 91 percent of event marketers consider tech an important part of the job, but only 48 percent consider themselves to be tech-savvy.
What’s the industry to make of this data? We tapped a group of event technologists for their insights on the state of event tech and where their roles are headed.
Every single expert we spoke to drove the point home: the tech team on any live event needs to have a seat at the table from day one. Working in silos is no longer an option if you want to build a seamless experience.
“People might have the perspective that, ‘Oh, this is probably really boring for you to sit through.’ But being involved from the beginning connects a lot of dots for me, and I can see solutions to other challenges you have that you didn’t realize might have a digital component,” says Jon Eichorst, director-digital strategy at Wilson Dow.
EVENT TECHNOLOGY IS NICHE
Most of the tech experts we spoke to got their start in technology, then later learned how to merge it with the event industry. Indeed, being a successful event technology professional requires marrying tech savvy with a deep comprehension of the event space. Mastering one area of expertise without the other won’t cut it. Why? For one, live experiences tend to take place in environments that are considered “harsh” for many technologies, and an event technologist knows which ones will work outside of a controlled setting.
“You have to understand the environments in which we operate… we’re not always in air-conditioned, dust-free, four walls and a floor spaces where this technology is going to be deployed, and we’ve got all the power requirements we need,” says Paul Duffy, evp-client services and agency operations at Next Marketing. “Our frustration comes from the fact that we’re being served up technology solutions that as soon as you put it in the back of the truck or under a tent, all of a sudden nothing works.”
DATA IS EVERYTHING
From helping to inform future event strategies to enabling personalized experiences, data is an extremely powerful piece of the event puzzle, and its significance will only continue to grow. Really, data should be a tech expert’s best friend.
“Any brand that’s spending a lot of money on tech at their events needs data as a return on investment, and to understand how to extract information from that consumer. You can learn so much from an event if you’re just tracking that information,” says Megan Stewart, lead producer at OA Experiential. “When someone is registering their QR code, let them choose out of three options for their main profile color that will show up on screens throughout the experience. Have fun with a Buzzfeed-style quiz—people will tell you everything about themselves to find out which Disney princess they are. You can ask questions that are more playful and fun; it doesn’t have to be like a survey.”
Duffy agrees, and points to the power of data to identify consumer behaviors.
“The No. 1 thing that event technology is really bringing to the table is better reporting,” he says. “That’s everything from getting cleaner data from the consumer and having it uploaded immediately, to understanding whether they engaged with this touch screen, and here’s the pieces of content they engaged with, and here’s how long they engaged with each piece. And here’s the sequence in which they engaged with the. All of that allows us to build a better experience that is actually better suited to what the customer is really looking for.”
“You have to understand the environments in which we operate… we’re not always in air-conditioned, dust-free, four walls and a floor spaces where this technology is going to be deployed, and we’ve got all the power requirements we need.”
-Paul Duffy, evp-client services and agency operations at Next Marketing
OPINIONS ON TECH ROLES VARY
While some agencies swear by in-house technology experts, others say it should be a mix of internal tech specialists and outside vendors. There are also conflicting views on whether the industry is in need of more technology expertise.
“Imagination was one of the first companies to have a department dedicated to event technology, but these days I think it is more common to see technologists on teams,” says James Castro, associate production director at Imagination. “There is a need to bring [vendors] on for specific events, especially at the scale and complexity of events we are seeing now.”
For Eichorst, it comes back to eliminating silos. “It’s easy for there to be this gap between how far the tech provider can go and how far the marketing client can take it,” he says. “If you understand both of those perspectives and can fill that gap, there is a hole to fill in the marketplace for that type of engagement in developing projects and endpoints for clients,” he says. “You kind of need to be an inch deep and a mile wide and then you bring in support that can take you that mile deep for those areas or those technologies that you might be combining to create a transformative experience.”
For the team at Next Marketing, creating a dedicated event technologist role won’t be on the agenda any time soon. “We’ve really not been able to justify in our heads and minds what that person would do on a daily basis,” says Duffy. “Instead, we’ve relied more on third-party vendors who are playing heavily in that emerging technology space and are not competitors of ours that would ultimately serve as partners to us.”
THE FUTURE IS ‘INVISIBLE’
Everyone we spoke to agreed—the most effective technology today, and moving into the future, is the kind that attendees can’t quite put their finger on. The kind that creates a seamless experience in the background but is more or less “invisible” to the attendee.
“The new trend in tech is having it be in the background,” says Stewart. “For a while it was having that huge VR setup and all these screens. But creating an amazing environment where people can move around like they move through the world with the [tech] package in the background enhancing the experience is really
Eichorst agrees. “As tech matures, the winning equation is one where the tech you interface with that requires the least amount of you to deliver its value,” he says. “That’s kind of the golden point we’re going to where that tech layer becomes almost invisible and I can interact in an environment as a human would and still get that value. I think eventually we’ll get there, but it’s a number of years off before we get to the point where it’s that fluid.”
According to the Eventsforce survey, 56 percent of respondents believe there will be an emergence of a new breed of event professionals whose job is exclusively focused on technology. Time will tell, but we can’t wait to see what’s next.
The Amex Fan Cam invited tennis buffs to record their cheers at home for a chance to show up on screens across the US Open grounds.
When COVID-19 struck, brands from A to Z began delivering virtual experiences, many for the first time. But for American Express, the scenario presented an opportunity to build on its previously established digital event chops. Having activated a hybrid model with its “Unstaged” livestream concert platform a decade ago, and with a wealth of standalone virtual experiences also under its belt, the brand was well-equipped to step into [?] the virtual realm in the wake of social distancing. The proof: Since March, Amex has produced 40 virtual cardmember events in five different countries, many of which sold out within 24 to 48 hours. Talk about expanding your reach.
Access to virtual cardmember experiences varies from paid tickets, to paid tickets with proceeds going to charity, to complimentary access, and the offerings run the gamut. With culinary serving as a common passion point among cardmembers and with a global dining collective at its disposal, for instance, Amex provides culinary discussions and demos guided by leading chefs. The experiences are supplemented by boxes sent to attendees either ahead of time to enhance the experience or as a curated thank-you gift for participating. Cardmembers can watch Massimo Bottura talk about and demo his famous upside-down tart, for example, or see Mario Carbone whip up his renowned rigatoni carbonara.
Another example involves the brand’s efforts around the US Open, including a virtual experience starring tennis legend and Amex partner Venus Williams, who recently participated in a Q&A and discussion about her rise to fame, and preparing for the Open, which ended Sept. 13. Another US Open digital experience worth noting: The American Express “Fan Cam” enabled fans anywhere to record their cheers and submit them for the chance to be featured on 9 LED screens on the grounds of the tournament. Through the experience, cardmembers also gained access to directly ask their favorite players a question, which could be incorporated into an on-court post-match interview.
“What I’ve found so interesting is that cardmembers seem to have the same passion for speaking with some of these talents online as they would meeting them in person,” says Anthony Warnke, global director-premium events & experiences at American Express. “They’re just as excited to have the opportunity to be able to type in their question or to raise their virtual hand to be called upon by Venus William to answer a question. So, seeing that energy from cardmembers that we saw in live events in the virtual experiences is really amazing.”
Naturally, pulling off dozens of virtual cardmember experiences in a relatively short period of time has provided American Express with a wealth of expertise. Here, we break down the brand’s five tips for building an effective virtual event strategy targeted to consumers.
Through its in-person events and activations, American Express caters to cardmember passion points like fashion and sports. And while those are still areas that customers care about, their needs have shifted in the wake of the pandemic. Amex has evolved along with them, designing some of its virtual cardmember offerings to adapt to a new set of expectations.
“What a cardmember ultimately needs today is something that’s important to them—like Uber Eats or shows for their kids to watch on television or to be able to play on their iPad—but it’s not necessarily what they would have been interested in pre-COVID,” says Warnke. “What’s been so refreshing for us internally is that the company has been very forthcoming and open for us to think, ideate and innovate so that we can change what membership means to customers in this time.”
Leverage existing partnerships.
As Warnke puts it, people aren’t experiencing the pandemic in a “bubble;” we’re all in it together. For Amex, that means supporting its partners, in addition to cardmembers, by transitioning partnerships on physical events to partnerships on virtual ones. And it’s been a win-win—Amex makes good on existing contracts and supports partners who may be out of work, and cardmembers receive top-notch virtual event instructors.
“If you think about chefs and the closure of restaurants, or you think about fashion and the ability for designers to be able to produce a new collection, knowing that certain things can’t cross borders, we really started there as far as supporting our customers by producing virtual experiences that pertain to them and pertain to their lifestyle, but then also supporting the partners that we had already agreed to support. And making sure that we were backing our commitments to our previous agreements with those partners, and rethinking and reimagining how the live event could be the virtual event,” Warnke says.
Elevate the virtual experience.
A virtual experience doesn’t have to be inferior to a physical one, and in some cases, it might even be better. American Express leverages this concept to deliver a level of exclusivity in some of its virtual offerings that likely wouldn’t be feasible in the flesh. As a pre-COVID sponsor of Harper’s Bazaar’s 150-year celebration and exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, for instance, Amex transitioned its in-person sponsorship into a virtual one by offering a digital tour of the showcase guided by former Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey.
“That exhibition almost closed down as soon as it had opened because of COVID, so what we’ve been able to do is put together this amazing virtual tour that I almost think is even better than going in person because you have Glenda Bailey literally voicing over and walking you through that entire exhibition,” Warnke says. “That is not something that you would get if you just walked through that space on a day-to-day basis.”
Looking ahead, Warnke sees American Express adopting a hybrid event model that leverages the best of both the physical and digital worlds (when it’s safe to do so, of course).
“There’s no replacement for being able to be front and center at a Beyoncé concert or smell the grass at Wimbledon,” Warnke says. “There’s never going to be a replacement for those type of experiences. But I do envision a world where we as American Express—because our customers will evolve and there will be a need for them to continue to have and seek out virtual content—will have a very robust platform that involves both live experiences and then virtual content that either could come out of those live experiences or live on their own.”
Let your audience guide your next steps.
For Amex, what the exact balance of physical and digital experiences will look like down the road depends on its cardmembers. If they want more of one type of experience over the other, the brand will adjust accordingly.
“At the end of the day, the customer will drive which direction we want to go—our customer is going to be our North Star,” says Warnke. “And our innovation in this state is really going to come from us assessing their needs and thinking through how we can meet those needs in a creative way. That’s really the business right now.”
In the age of social distancing, engaging consumers from the safety of a vehicle, in one form or another, is one of the ways event marketers are getting experiential programming back on track. While some have relied on drive-in experiences that keep attendees inside their own cars, others have turned to nimble mobile tour vehicles that can house shoppable merchandise, sampling experiences or light activities for small groups of people. With more brands hitting the road these days, we dug into the archives to round up seven experiences that centered on unique builds to inspire your next mobile tour strategy.
Large gatherings are out, but experiential is still in. Just because you can’t host big events doesn’t mean you can’t find clever ways to reach consumers. One way to make it happen? Capitalize on stunts. They’re impactful, shareable and, ultimately, good clean fun. And here’s the really good news: there’s a wide world of socially distant stunts waiting to be activated. Indeed, you don’t have to be in close contact to deliver a memorable brand moment. To get you started, we rounded up six stunt strategies to consider in the COVID-19 era.