When Will Experiential Marketing Return from the Covid-19 Shutdown?

The current state of Experiential Marketing may seem pretty grim but the truth is there are still a few projects executing.  We are still getting calls for equipment daily from optimistic marketers pitching on the hope of a quick return to normality.  However, outside of large footprint assets like double expandable trailers used in Covid-19 relief the vast majority of experiential marketing equipment has been parked and the campaigns paused.  In every conversation we have with customers and venders no matter what the topic eventually someone will ask, “when do you think it will return”.  The national debate seems to be an argument between choosing the path of saving the economy or saving the humans. However the path for experiential marketing’s future is on a single track and it is not great in the near term, but let me assure you, it will be back.  So the question remains, when?

Over six weeks ago on February 28th we had our first companywide meeting on Covid-19.  We discussed new procedures for interacting with clients, for setup/strike, and cleaning.  We also spoke with the execution staff about their comfort, concern, or possible fear of operating with this new virus entering the country.  We were honest and discussed the fact that realistically current projects were unlikely to be completed.  At that time we also discussed what we thought the best option (solely for Experiential Marketing) that the US could take.  We believed a 2-3 week shut down, while a painful thought at the time, would slow the virus which was only in a couple of states.  At that point with infections at a manageable quantity  the US as a whole along with  Experiential Marketing could snap back.  However the US did not shut down and within 7 days of that meeting all our projects quietly rolled to a stop.  Just over a week later the first shut downs began.

Double Expandable trailers create large impact and leave a memorable impression.

Double Expandable trailers are one of a few asset categories in demand during the Covid-19 breakout.

In March, based rental requests, the consensus seemed to be that things would start up again in July.  This fueled some business for fabricators. Companies wanted to have assets ready late June for the snap back in July.  Transport companies, including our own, were concerned about servicing the influx of work.  It genuinely appeared that the capacity of the experiential industry as a whole would be exceeded by the demand for tours and events starting in July.  This actually created issues around how to fairly reserve staff and equipment for projects without a firm start date.

In the last two weeks the landscape has changed.  The idea of of a snap back in June is fading quickly as the realities of the timeline for vaccine or therapeutics sinks in.  Even the most optimistic marketers (and this is a pretty positive group) are starting to wonder if June is realistic.

From our vantage point the only way we get a snap back recovery at this point is if a scientific breakthrough stuns the world.  That would obviously be the best thing that could happen for everyone and every industry.  However a background in logistics dictates that while it’s ok to hope for the best, always plan for the worst.  Without a breakthrough the path back to “normal” in our industry could be a slow process that may be drawn out over 1-2 years regardless the paths taken by states and federal government.

Within 7 days all our projects rolled to a stop.

So what will happen, when will Experiential Marketing return? 

The quick answer is that Experiential Marketing exists right now in the form of “Good Will Marketing” and distastes relief.  Along with marketing trailers being used as mobile command centers, labs, and hospitals, there are tours out there servicing hospital workers, first responders, and other essential industries.  There should probably be more.  The risk a hospital worker faces in the hospital pales in comparison to the risk of grabbing a free cup of coffee or snack.  (please note this is not without hurdle, tour staff and execution needs additional training and protocols to not be part of the problem.)

Perhaps as stay at home orders are lifted but social distancing guidelines remain the next phase of experiential could simply be the  “Marketing of Joy.”  Custom assets and glass boxes that can move around cities without physical interaction with one goal, make people smile.  Remember the glass walled box truck driving around Chicago in February with a beach scene inside complete with some young bathing suite clad models to promote a new tequila?  Something like that aimed to make people smile.  These could even be made interactive but we will leave the ideas to the agencies.

As social distancing guidelines ease this summer or fall the next logical step is hyper local marketing.  This got very popular around 2010 when there was a rush to execute at local farmers markets and local street festivals.  These community events will have smaller crowds and not require tours to travel interstate.  Footprints and assets will be small.  They may event be largely informational at first. 

During this time small B2b tours may begin to resume.  B2b programs will have an advantage over consumer based events due to effective guest size.  A cost effective B2b tour with a medium sized trailer can have a meeting participant size of under 10 people whereas a consumer tour requires visitors in the hundreds or thousands to be cost effective.

So the answer to when will experiential marketing return is that it never left.  It has scaled back and awaits creativity and the opportunity to do what it does best, connect with people, serve people, and in tough times, help people.  While large scale events may not be an option in 2020 there will be opportunities this summer. There may be additional restrictions in the fall but along with creativity Experiential Marketing’s other great attribute is flexibility.  Success in this industry is and has always been achieved by companies that are creative and flexible.