In-Person Brand Experiences Are Making a Comeback—If You Have a Car

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The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the experiential industry this year, forcing brands to cancel pop-up events and agencies to lay off staff and close entirely. But as Americans get used to living with public restrictions, in-person events are returning—for those with access to a car, at least.

Brands such as Freeform, HBO Max, Impossible Foods and Uber recently created pandemic-friendly drive-thru experiences where guests were required to wear masks, arrive at specific times and stay inside their vehicles. When executed safely, event pros argue that drive-thrus are an effective way to leave a positive impression on consumers who have spent most of 2020 “attending” events on their laptops or phones.

“It’s good for the industry that brands are starting to think outside the screen,” said Lizz Torgovnick, CCO and co-founder at event planning company Sequence Events and an Event Leadership Institute instructor. “The difference now is there are going to be natural limitations to how many people can experience something safely. Continuing to redefine safety is going to be key.”

In September, WarnerMedia executed its first hybrid physical-virtual premiere for HBO Max’s comedy film Unpregnant following months of virtual premieres for the streaming service.

Eileen Quast, vp of events at WarnerMedia, said the company had a “robust internal debate” about whether or not to do a physical premiere and ultimately decided it would be the most effective option to maximize consumer reach.

“Less has to mean more because of the complexities of Covid-19. It’s about quality over quantity,” Quast said. “To keep things safe, we simplified it to three activation areas.”

The brand tapped experiential shops CH Creative, Joe Lewis Co. and Little Cinema to produce the event at the Americana’s rooftop drive-in theater in Los Angeles. Without leaving their cars, guests could stop at a roller coaster replica, a roadside convenience store and a green screen video station.

The hybrid premiere garnered 373 social posts and more than 75 million social impressions, with 385 guests attending physically and 916 virtually.

Experiential marketers need to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local regulations and communicate detailed safety protocols for production crews and guests. HBO Max’s premiere cut production crews in half and staggered setup times. Attendees were required to get a temperature check upon arrival, and arrival times were also staggered. The venue capped capacity at 100 cars.

Uber is renting out cars for fans to watch outdoor performances at the English National Opera.Lloyd Winters/Courtesy of English National Opera

Quast said it was also necessary to allocate a “Covid-19 budget” to provide onsite testing for staff and compliance officers to ensure attendees were following the rules.

Freeform held a drive-thru experience instead of its Halloween House. Deena Beach, vp of marketing strategy at Freeform, said after determining its indoor concept wouldn’t be feasible, the Disney-owned network and agency partner MKG started rethinking the event concept in June.

“Halloween is about getting out of your house and interacting, and we know people need something to fill this year’s void. Experiential removes the barrier of a screen and creates a direct connection with our audience,” Beach said. “We’re creating events with barriers and buffers but trying to make them seem nonexistent. It’s a strategic challenge.”

The brand created Halloween Road at Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles, offering fans contactless trick-or-treating and parked car photo ops.

MKG’s West Coast head of production Laura Gavin said their main safety priorities were developing extensive staff and crew guidebooks, providing ample sanitation supplies and choosing a venue with open-air space.

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