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How the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of live experiences for marketers

Virgin Media's hologram dining experience is in the running at The Drum Awards for Experience

Branded experiences are well and truly back – though not entirely as we once knew them. Ahead of The Drum Awards for Experience on later today, our judges reflect on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of their industry over the last 12 months, and explain how a potent mixture of advertisity and innovation are changing the face of experiences forever.

The events industry has been hit harder than almost any other by the Covid-19 pandemic, but as the wealth of entries that have poured into The Drum Awards for Experience attest, brands' and consumers' appetite for live experiences remain steadfastly undefeated. As Jimmy Bennett, vice-president of marketing at Wendy’s, told us: “The ability to interact on a one-on-one basis with the consumer is phenomenal… that connection and association is hard to replicate in other ways. So we continue to come back to it. It’s really creative and we can have fun and it truly does incorporate fans.”

While the lockdowns of 2020 put events businesses in jeapordy, the relaxtion of lockdowns and emergence of new technologies have created the conditions for entirely new events divisions to be spun out in 2021. These traded upon our industry’s existing expertise, but were enabled by technology in entirely new ways. News UK, for example, has launched News Live in order to capitalise on the opportunity enabled by virtual and hybrid events.

David McLean is News Live’s managing director. He says that the endeavour builds upon the work News UK put into making its events viable and alive over the course of the pandemic: “We really quickly started focusing on technology, what technology can do for us and a virtual world. We were lucky - because we were doing some trade marketing events we had the opportunity to test without going to our real customers. We quickly found out what worked and what didn't work.”

But it isn’t just trade events that have proven flexible and innovative. Many consumer-facing events have been launched on virtual platforms like Roblox and Fortnite Creative that connect brands and audiences just as effectively as any real-world endeavour. And there is a sense that the marketing industry has yet to scratch the surface of what is possible in that area: Bodacious founder Zoe Scaman told us: “That is not the metaverse. The metaverse is so much bigger and more complex than that. It’s about 10 years away.”

As the experience industry has had to change, so too do the awards that celebrate it. The British Fashion Awards is announcing its first ever Fashion Award for Metaverse Design in 2021 – and the vast array of entries for The Drum’s own Experience Awards demonstrate that the industry is more vital and alive than ever before - despite having to overcome some huge challenges.

Speaking ahead of the The Drum Awards for Experience 2021, judge Kristy Castleton of Rebel and Soul said: “The biggest obstacle we’ve seen is not being able to physically be there to guide creative and production.

“In the last few years we have creatively directed a short film in Australia, created one of a kind tech in the UK, China and Vietnam and made a piece of content shot in one country look like it had been filmed in five… all from our apartments in Singapore.

“None of it was ideal and it made the jobs 10 times as hard but at least it came with ten times the satisfaction when we pulled it off, which we couldn't have done without our incredible partners, suppliers and team. We’ve learnt remote creative direction and production can work… but nothing substitutes the quality output of being there. We’re very excited to be getting back out there now.'”

Fellow Experience Awards judge and chief exec of We Are Family London, Poppy Reeve-Tucker, said: “I think the adaptation of the events industry has been extraordinary. The ingenuity and creativity put into action in real time to deliver events by so many across the industry with every restriction going has been nothing short of inspirational.”

Given the nature of events over the past two years it’s unsurprising that so many of the award entries this year feature technology companies prominently. Brands from Adidas to Xbox have succeeded in bringing their real-world launches to life through virtual and hybrid events. Virgin Media, meanwhile, used holograms to give loved ones 400 miles apart in Edinburgh and London a shared dining experience.

But as with any piece of marketing, the technology itself was an enabler rather than the core idea - and the creativity that underpinned those experiences was arguably stronger this year than ever. With even the smaller pop-ups incorporating Snap Lenses or TikTok into the experience, tech and events have become inextricably linked - and it’s all built upon the strong marketing idea at their centre.

In perhaps the best news, there are signs that the events industry is returning to a state of normalcy in terms of what is possible. London has seen a number of large events return since 2020, for example, with ExCeL London hosting over 25 major events since the pandemic rules were relaxed. The Cop-26 climate change conference in Glasgow, meanwhile, brought 40,000 global delegates to the UK – a mammoth undertaking which required all the knowhow of live events agency Identity, a feat the firm described as like organizing "the largest game of Tetris ever".

From the resilience of venues to the experimentation from experience agencies and platforms, 2021 was the year events emerged back into the light. While the spectre of Covid has not gone away, neither has the industry's belief that live events are well and truly here to stay.

Watch The Drum Awards for Experience live on homepage at 4pm GMT today.

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