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A shot in the arm for the experience economy or a false dawn?

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15 February 2021 feels like it might just shape up to be the perfect balance of perspective and possibility for the UK. For some, they will be waking up having spent the previous day the furthest apart from those they want to be the closest to. They say love conquers all, however in 2021, it appears Covid-19 might just be an exception. For this Valentine’s Day, couples who live apart were set to spend 34% less than a year ago, with 26% not spending anything at all and a mere quarter scheduling a video date.

Alas, on the same day a glimmer of hope will flicker and 15 million of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens will have felt the touch we’ve all been craving. The UK is set to have reached a momentous landmark in the national vaccination programme.

A boost not just for consumer mindset, but for industries and businesses up and down the country that have been brought to their knees over the last 12 months.

Normal service resumed, does the protection of some authorise permission for all? Not quite, but with each dose, we are edging closer and closer together to the people, the experiences and the ’normality’ we so love and greatly miss. But after this period of sustained abnormality, what does normality exactly mean any more? What will be the social and behavioural implication of this milestone be, and how will it impact experiences?

Experiences: absence makes the heart grow fonder

Despite living with restriction and distance, our passion for experiences seems to have been reinforced and reaffirmed. But not just that – more acutely, the role they play in all our lives has become more important. Momentum’s proprietary global research study showed that consumer demand for experiences had actually grown from 76% in March 2020 to 81% in October 2020. However, fast forward a year, while the desire remains, consumer attitude and expectations feel a little more considered and little less frivolous.

When it came to the key factors of influence regarding future attendance to live experiences, the study showed that understandably 82% prioritised health and safety as their primary consideration. The chance to spend time with friends and access to reduced capacity venues followed closely behind. So it seems that despite the anticipation, the return to live will be more of a tentative procession at the consumer’s own pace. We won’t be seeing a charging stampede to relive moments gone by. After all, they do say only fools rush in.

Limitation breeds adaptation

Despite our yearning for days gone by, brands still managed to level-up experiences during the pandemic. Virtual not only stood in when live was inaccessible but stood out. Repackaging the concept of participation by blending the richness of live with the connectivity, access and reach of digital provided a portal for brands to reconnect with experience-starved consumers on new levels.

Initially driven in part novelty, part necessity constricted access to the outside world made people grow more accustomed to attending experiences through digital channels. Covid-19 restrictions vaulted consumer adoption of digital technology by five years in eight weeks, with 42% of global consumers having attended an online, virtual or hybrid experience since March 2020. In contrast, just 17% have attended in person within the same period.

The adoption and subsequent shift of behaviour have been seismic. Best-in-class examples include Verizon allowing greater access to Super Bowl using Fortnite and American Express partnering with Alicia Keys and others to stream live, interactive concerts, as brands transported their audience into digitised passion worlds of possibility and proximity. Unsurprisingly for a fledgeling medium, however, virtual hasn’t been without its critics. Consumers referenced video exhaustion and connectivity issues, while passive participation and not feeling fully immersed came through strongly also.

With over 47% of consumers stating they still are missing the energy and interaction that comes with attending in-person and digital hybrid experiences becoming the norm, the challenge brands will face will be to ensure they deliver the feels as much as the form.

So what does this mean for the future? When the government’s orders were to stay at home, brands had us right where they wanted us. From Netflix’s icy-grip (are you still watching?) to sofa-bound concerts, we had nowhere else to go. As consumers tentatively move forward and firmly at their own pace, how can brands ensure that they still reach us when we’re no longer within a 2m reach?

It will be about conquering the blended world, the ‘normalcy’ and humanity of being able to be close to our nearest and dearest again, combined with the thrill and limitlessness of technology that brands have proved they can deliver. Consumers have proved they can thrive in hybrid worlds as they’ve waved their animal crossing avatars off on adventures, but now the lens has shifted. Consumers want to be the ones immersed in those futuristic landscapes, making new exciting and connections with brands – but this time with their dearest and nearest.

Tim Walsh is UK head of strategy at Momentum Worldwide.

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