Now that all Covid restrictions are lifting in Great Britain, following what Prime Minister Boris Johnson described as "two of the darkest, grimmest years in our peace-time history", the question is whether the experiential sector will ever recover to pre-pandemic levels.
In 2020 after speaking to 12 of the top brand experience agencies Campaign calculated they had lost £56m of business. But the initial trauma of 2020 has passed and a hesitant return to live events was under way in 2021. This year with restrictions disappearing, client confidence in returning to brand experience is said to be growing.
Sarah Bryers, head of experiential at TMW Unlimited, says: "We've already seen an increase in the number of in-person projects being delivered and briefs coming from clients. We know people are craving a sense of togetherness and have a pent up desire for new (or old) experiences. Equally importantly, though, there's growing confidence that experiences and events will be able to go ahead in 2022, and budgets are returning."
For Lloyd Major, co-founder of The Park, the "bounceback" can be attributed to the recent changes to Covid-19 rules along with a renewed appetite from clients to get back into the live space.
He adds: "The return of trade shows, touring activations, gigs, theatres, and numerous festivals selling out in record time has given huge confidence to the live space and that confidence and belief has filtered through to clients too."
The London bubble bursts
Location Live, which owns location proprietary platform, lo:live worked with landlords and councils throughout the pandemic and gathered data from a time when demand was frequently changing. Data from Location Live, published in its report The Lo:Down 1.0, reveals that in 2021 the most popular city booked for activations was London, but this was closely followed by Liverpool and Manchester.
Campaign has spoken to experiential agencies to gauge how trends will continue to change in 2022. Activating only in the largest cities has become outdated. Looking ahead "the days of only activating in London are long gone", Anthony Donaldson, chief strategy officer, Haygarth Group, says.
Donaldson adds: "The last decade has seen the quality of venues and experiential spaces in our big cities like Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere easily rival the capital for footfall, engagement and creative freedom. We almost never recommend a London-only activation plan to clients and work hard to ensure we reach the greatest number of people, in the right context wherever that happens to be. I suspect that changing work patterns and technology will further drive this move from a London centric brand experience industry."
While London always has, and will continue to be, a focal point for brands for many reasons, Luke Wretham, client director at DentsuMB, says brands are "missing a trick if they don't break out the shackles of the M25."
Wretham adds: "The three major campaigns we are planning for at the moment are national tours over the course of the summer. Using the consumer insight and location planning tools at our disposal, we'll be visiting sites in cities and towns across the UK, to ensure we reach our audiences at the right times. It's very much a case of quality over quantity; after all, connecting with the one right person in the Outer Hebrides trumps reaching 10 of the wrong people on Oxford Street."
Location location location
Being in close proximity to retail centres accounted for more than 50% of the locations booked for activation in 2021 through Location Live. City squares, high streets, business hubs and markets each achieved between 5% and 15%. Meanwhile, festivals, green spaces, beach fronts, event venues and transport hubs all had under 5%.
Kevin Cavilla, chief technology officer at Location Live, explains that, historically, beaches, theme parks and leisure environments have never been that popular as locations for brand experiences due to the prevalence of overseas tourists who are outside of the brand's target audience.
"Last year, for the first time and probably the only time you could take a brand to the beach, knowing that because of lockdown every single person there was a UK citizen," Cavilla explains.
He adds: "There would be none of that tourist wastage in terms of your brand market. And that was definitely a factor in terms of why we saw so much demand for brands within beaches and leisure environments."
Last year Nivea and Cancer Research partnered on a sun safety campaign by MKTG that took advantage of changes in domestic tourism. Delivered in 37 locations a mix of beaches, town centres and other external spaces were selected for the touring activation that visited Westfield Stratford in London, Chavasse Park in Liverpool and Exmouth Beach in Devon.
Although Cavilla feels there is a possibility that brands may choose to continue to have a presence in those environments based on their positive experience, he points out that the footfall will change as tourism recovers.
Less than 5% of spaces booked through lo:live in 2021 were transport hubs, but Lloyd Major, co-founder of The Park, believes this is set to change this year due to the increase in commuters putting them back on the agenda. Although he feels the style of activations may need to take into consideration post-Covid behaviours, which will affect things such as sampling and the way that brand ambassadors interact with the public.
Andrew Casher, founder and chief executive of Hyperactive, sees opportunities at festivals as he feels that the pandemic may have permanently altered consumer behaviours around pre-2020 high-footfall locations.
"The festival field will remain well attended with guaranteed audiences, but transport hubs, rush hours and city centre locations remain down. As new post-pandemic behaviours emerge, the industry will have a keen eye on the best times and locations to activate brand experiences for maximum impact."
In 2021, Havaianas chose to engage with consumers both on- and offline (pictured). It provided a colour, flip-flop-shaped shower on the beach in Newquay during Boardmasters Festival 2021. The Brazilian sandals brand also created its own getaway with "The Havaianas Summer Island" within Fortnite, after striking up a partnership with the multiplayer game.
Looking at campaigns planned through lo:live based on sector, in 2021 food and beverage came out top with 26%, followed by health and beauty with 15% and automotive with 9%.
Luci Beaufort-Dysart, director of Hyphen, attributes this to the fact that food and beverage was one of the first industries to feel the impact of the pandemic in 2020, with leading supermarket brands switching their sampling off, and concerns growing around the handling and preparation of food. She explains that many product launches were also delayed.
Looking towards the rest of the year Beaufort-Dysart says: "We're seeing brands within the food and beverage sector, in particular, are devoting a lot of spend to experiential marketing. As Asda's retained experiential agency, we are very excited to be bringing these activations to consumers again in the spring, after nearly two years of limited activity. We have already seen a massive influx of requests from brands in this space keen to get back into stores (and car parks), as they see the value in engaging consumers at the point of purchase."
Inevitably, with many agencies diversifying their offering, and more brands leaning further into the vast array of digital experience capabilities there will be a portion of experience that may never return. There is a long list of deferred work to consider and with confidence rising now may seem like as good a time as ever to activate. What is clear is that 2022 is expected to build on the foundation laid last year and experiential will continue to evolve.