Agencies exploring creative ways to deliver experiences in uncertain times
Last Monday, when most of New York City’s 27,000 restaurants were starting to put away tables and lay off staff, there was an unusual amount of activity inside Nolita’s Peasant restaurant, where owner and former Iron Chef winner Marc Forgione was chopping and sautéing without a single dining patron present. There were, however, two cameras, along with a lighting and a stage crew, all trying to maintain the requisite six feet of “social distancing.”
In the place of private events with Forgione, the 30-minute “digital culinary experience” is being sold as virtual clients hospitality: a virtual cooking class with a top chef. By late last week, Google and three other companies had bought packages ranging from $15,000, for which the recent production was a test run, to about $25,000.
“We’re recreating every model we had success with in live events into the virtual space, whether that‘s culinary or unplugged singer/songwriter sets,” said Will Steinberg, co-president of the New York experiential and hospitality firm Zinc Agency. “One company’s looking at a virtual NFL draft event.”
“I’m certain the only business hurt more than sports is the restaurant industry,” said Lonny Sweet, a former sports marketer, whose Connect Group, NYC, represents Forgione and nine other chefs, all of whom have been shuttering eateries and dismissing employees.
“And I’m just as certain culinary and sports will be a big part of the recovery.”
Forgione’s cooking lesson for a classic Bolognese sauce was the genesis of whatever the next phase will be for those at experiential and event agencies, all struggling to find ways of attracting people to their particular passions virtually, when their raison d’être — gathering crowds — has been deemed illegal by state and local governments.
“The nature of our business is social — it’s what we do — and ours is a VERY social business,” said Chris Weil, CEO of Momentum Worldwide, one of the largest experiential marketing shops with offices around the globe. “But when limiting gatherings is clearly the right thing to do, now it’s got to be about postponement and moving what you can to digital, AR, VR, streaming or whatever. One of our clients was going to launch a product at South by Southwest. Now, we’re trying to launch it in a digital world.”
Greg Busch, president of Bespoke, a Charlotte agency where around 60% of the business is event/experiential, was with clients at the SEC basketball tournament in Nashville when it was canceled March 12. “The demand for content as an important part of a sponsorship has been escalating, so this just accelerates that trend,” Busch said. “We have some clients that have just paused everything, and others that are starting to look for the right messaging tonality.”
Chicago-based Intersport’s event business includes large NCAA Final Four events, like the State Farm College Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championship, American Family Insurance High School Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championship and the Dos Equis 3X3U National Championship. Of course, those have all been shelved, along with a host of other client events and hospitality, now reaching into the third quarter. “Any event or experiential/mobile marketing platforms planned for Q2, we’re seeing if we can make them a virtual experience and lean on our strength on the content side,” said Intersport President Brian Graybill. “We’re looking at things like whether we can turn a culinary program into something with a giveback message. There is so much uncertainty now. … The only way we emerge from all of this is loads of compassion, creativity, and a lot of communication — internally and externally.”
Replacing the high touch and distinction of an event won’t be easy to accomplish online. Those participating in Forgione’s program will get to cook along with him digitally and ask questions as they do. They’ll get food kits with the ingredients and the ever-important swag bags, with autographed cookbooks, along with aprons and cutting boards.
“Clearly, this is not a good time to be assembling masses,” said David Grant, president of sports and entertainment at agency MKTG. “But maybe this is really good time to do something personalized. Could we replace a hosting experience in a suite with a famous athlete with a personalized video greeting delivered digitally? … That’s the kind of stuff we’re working on.”
Said Steve Dupee, CEO at BeCore: “I wouldn’t call this period a freeze, as much as it’s an analysis. This is such new territory, everyone’s scrambling to figure just what are the right things to do. When things like Coachella got postponed, we can deliver those experiences later, which may or may not be true with sports events, and may or may not coincide with a client’s marketing calendar. We’re also looking at the math differently with physical events; will a larger amount of smaller, local events accomplish the same objectives? This is a time when you find out how important relationships are in this business.”
“The majority of our clients are telling us they’re shifting things to Q3 and 4, so I don’t see it as a death sentence, depending on how much of your business is experiential, and if your agency has the resources to endure through all of this,” said Darren Marshall, chief of staff at rEvolution. “Potentially you can move those dollars to another area, like esports; right now, that’s the last man standing.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.