We will meet again, but things will be different

Wildfire founder Bianca Knop on how to adapt future experiential marketing to hygiene-driven changes in consumer behaviour.

A few days ago, I sat down to watch the documentary Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert. For one hour and 45 minutes, I was able to forget about COVID-19 and be transported back to a time and place where you could get lost in crowds of people, celebrate together and enjoy yourself with little worry.

I have to admit it was a nice distraction from the current state of the world, but it was also a great reminder of the positive impact live events and experiences have on us.

It goes without saying the events and experiential marketing sectors are suffering right now. Some agencies and brands are pivoting to digital and virtual events, while others are hanging tight, but all are asking the question – what is the role of live events and experiences moving forward?

There is a continued need and appreciation for face-to-face moments: in March, Zoom exceeded 200 million daily meeting participants and social media use in Canada increased by 70%. Perhaps this will be our new social norm, but I would confidently bet many of you would quickly swap your online worlds for dinner with friends at your favourite local restaurant or tickets to a live sporting event. Events create a place and a platform that bring people together to share, engage, inspire and simply be happy, which is very hard to accomplish virtually or digitally with the same magnitude.

That being said, we will still be dealing with an audience that will have significant behavioural shifts. We will be faced with the challenge of engaging with a hyper-hygiene conscious consumer that is more uncertain and adopts a “me, myself and I” mentality,  and are less willing to compromise their safety standards for the sake of a good time.

Live events and experiences will flourish again, but when this time comes, we need to be ready to navigate within a new normal. Craig Mawdsley, chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO, said it well: “The only thing for sure is that everything has changed and those plans you put on hold can’t just be reheated in the microwave. Your success in the coming years will depend on how closely you’re paying attention right now.”

Here is what we are paying attention to right now.

Touch-free, anti-virual innovations

Tech and events have always been strongly connected. Traditionally, events and activations have been very hands on with touchscreen kiosks, communal devices and person-to-person sampling. But people might not be eager to touch a lot of common surfaces or engage in hand-to-hand exchanges. Moving forward, eye-tracking technology, gesture controlled interfaces and voice recognition could deliver engaging and fun experiences, while minimizing (literal) touchpoints. Innovative antibacterial products such as anti-microbial screen protectors and antivirus paint are additional tools that can further sanitize the experience and ease attendee concerns.

Controlling health-friendly behaviour through design

Tweaks to event or activation design can be subtle but make a sizeable impact. Consider what materials you are using for structures and props – are they easy to clean frequently? Can you create visually appealing spacing cues to control distancing? Can you build more open air, open space structures?

New protocols will also need to be front and centre. Cleaning and sanitation plans, face mask usage, controlled entry, crowd control, staff screening and training will need to be amplified. Communication and messaging within the event or activation footprint needs to clearly communicate the steps taken and processes in place to make the event space safe. Be clear and direct but not overwhelming and overbearing – we should be wary of information overload for the attendee. Trained brand ambassadors  could deliver information in a lighter and more welcoming tone than an abundance of signage.

The new importance of having a Plan B

The new reality is that information and situations are changing at a fast pace. Moving forward, we should look to create “Plan Bs” for unexpected circumstances that go beyond inclement weather or technology failures.

Just like having a “tented plan” we need to be able to pivot easily, offering remote or digital experiences to attendees in case events need to be reformatted due to new direction from health officials – which, as we have seen in recent months, changes can happen suddenly, so these plans should be simple and well thought out, as they will likely need to be implemented quickly, with short lead times.

It’s also important to carefully read contracts between yourself and vendors, venues, partners and properties. Understand the details of cancellation policies, understand the costs and timing involved and have open conversations about the potential of COVID-19 related disruptions.

Bianca Knop is the founder of Wildfire Experiential and Event Marketing, which is donating 25% of its fees for projects that have been impacted by COVID-19 to Food Banks B.C.