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Will coronavirus revolutionise live experience?

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Coronavirus has brought the live event industry on its knees. Festivals and awards have been cancelled, meetings have moved online, and it's not like the strain on the events industry is relaxing any time soon. But who says this is all negative?

If anything, the global lockdown has forced some industries to self-reflect on their means and methods. It's forced business leaders to reimagine experiences and assets, it has even forced retail to shift its decades-old focus. Perhaps it's not all doom and gloom.

We've had the chance to speak with Stuart Bradbury, managing director of brand experience agency Avantgarde London, who's eager to share some of his reflections on live events with us all.

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Photo by Ken Gerhardt

Will coronavirus revolutionise live experience?

Thanks to the wide spread of coronavirus, for Europe’s event and brand experience industry, what started with the cancellation of Mobile World Congress at the beginning of February has become one of the most challenging set of circumstances it has ever faced. COVID-19 is devastating the live industry and forcing us to question all the accepted wisdom which has helped the industry ride the experience economy wave to great success over recent years. 

There’s no denying it. Even a few months in, the short-term fallout from this is a struggle for many. But as we find ourselves having to 'stay alert' to minimise the risk of further contamination for the foreseeable, our industry has been pushed to re-evaluate the benefits of digital-only, as well as hybrid, experiences. It’s a push our industry has needed.

A time for self-reflection 

As a growing number of live events and brand experiences have been cancelled or delayed, and as social distancing rules and meeting no more than six people is the norm, many businesses in the brand experience space are being given a bit of space, an opportunity for self-reflection. We have the chance to observe and analyse the future of our industry, changing the way we have traditionally approached experiences. It is what the industry has needed to truly revolutionise, move forward. And it’ll help us come out of this stronger.

The current situation has refocused what brands and agencies in our industry should have been considering prior to the worldwide pandemic. It's brought the agenda for digital brand experiences to the fore. From the use of digital at live events, virtual events and the all-important question surrounding sustainability, now is the time to seriously consider other options when it comes to experiences and platforms, those that might have been previously overlooked and put on the back burner.

We can create virtual environments to represent the brand that would be impossible to deliver in the physical world

Those who work in live experiences will always be passionate about emotion-filled activations, that create sharable, memorable moments. But, with the increased need for digital experiences, it’s vital that now there is an intelligent translation from physical to digital experiences, which are not bound by the restraints of the physical world. For example, we can create virtual environments which represent the brand that would be impossible to deliver in the physical world. We are able to give viewers the power to co-create and choose what they want to see during an experience, whether it's simply changing the colour of a product, or being able to interact with a performance.

Future-proofing the industry

Larger group gatherings will likely remain restricted for at least a couple more months, which will be met with continued changes in consumer behaviour. People are already interacting and consuming digital differently, and as daily activities increasingly transfer from offline to online it will be interesting to see the effect this has on consumer preferences and how we need to adapt accordingly. 

We've already seen a faster adoption of digital formats for entertainment purposes, whether it's Camp Bestival taking their event online for Easter, or a virtual cheese festival gaining the attention of many, live streams and webinars have definitely peaked in popularity. There will also be an accelerated acceptance of human to machine interaction for services and purchasing, as we witness the rise of a contactless and cashless society. The pandemic has already seen an increase in over-65s shopping and banking online, as well as an overall rise in contactless payments, so the question remains whether this behaviour will continue in the future and how it will affect interaction at events. 

The positive environmental impact resulting from the lockdown has been an amazing ancillary benefit, which has encouraged organisations and employees alike to focus on sustainability, something our industry has always needed to improve on. Right now, finding workable solutions can be top of the agenda.

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Photo by Liam T. Wright

Expectations of live experiences

But the question on everyone’s lips is – how will digital experiences maintain their value for visitors and users? It's important to consider this and whether people remain willing to pay for an experience – particularly digital ones – going forwards. There's an abundance of great content, creativity and expertise being given away for free at the moment, it’s a positive product of our current circumstances. But whilst appropriate for now, we're going to be faced with a challenge when we emerge the other side. To start charging for experiences again, when the expectation is that they are free, will be no mean feat. Activations on offer will have to be cutting edge and even more engaging in order to peak the appropriate interest and justify a cost. 

To start charging for experiences again, when the expectation is that they are free, will be no mean feat.

The industry has been building the value of the Experience Economy for so long and we need to look at ways to ensure that digital experiences are not excluded from this offering, alongside continuing the meaningful involvement of keeping partners and sponsors in the mix. This might mean a subscription service model could be a way forward. For many brands, COVID-19 has been the equivalent of the free trial period that the likes of Netflix and Disney+ use, so it's about getting people to remain connected and loyal on the other side of the pandemic. In order to achieve this, the content being offered by brands needs to be ‘sticky’ and culturally relevant to the target audience. Following this, they can then demonstrate their value through connecting with consumers emotionally.

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Picture by Southpaw

The other side of the crisis

Being sociable is inherent in our human nature, and there is nothing more powerful than face-to-face communication when it comes to a live brand experience. However, I truly believe the future lies incarefully crafting technologies and storylines together to deliver more hybrid type experiences. If done well the guests won’t even notice the technology and will be fully immersed in the activation on offer. 

A hybrid experience must still follow five core principles for success: 

  • The content or experience has to be shareable 
  • The experience must tell a story and take the visitor on a journey
  • Where possible, the experience should be live, but also scalable to have a longer life
  • To encourage collaboration and even co-creation the event has to be immersive and interactive 
  • To evolve and improve, the experience needs to be measurable 

Right now, there is a huge opportunity for brands to embrace digital experiences by reaching and engaging existing and potential customers, but this isn't just relevant for the current situation we are facing. As we move forward, we'll see digital experiences becoming a part of physical brand experiences once they start to take place again, and the industry will be working on delivering new types of hybrid events.

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Stuart Bradbury is the managing director of Avantgarde London. Header Image: Imogen Hammond.
 

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