Campfire 18: How To Entice People… Back To Live, Back To IRL Reality

We believe in co-creation and collaboration here at the WXO – which is why for the last few months, we’ve been asking our members and others in the Experience Economy about the issues keeping them up at night. 

Unsurprisingly, one of the topics that keeps rearing its head is: how do we return to live events after the pandemic? How do we make people feel safe and comfortable in a live atmosphere? And with the rise of different Covid variants – and continually changing restrictions in response – how do we even begin to plan with any degree of certainty?

As the experimental re-opening seems to be following the path of a rollercoaster all around the world, it feels like the right time to take these questions to our Campfire. From hyper-localisation to hybrid events, here are a few of the ways our experience experts plan to tackle the big move back to live.

1. But first… is there even a problem here?

Although the anxiety surrounding the return to live events is certainly understandable, some of our Campfire wondered if it was actually warranted. Are people really avoiding live experiences – or are they actually desperate to get back through the doors?

Yoram Roth, the founder of the NeueHouse co-working spaces and the Fotografiska museums around the world, falls in the latter camp.

“We’ve had absolutely zero problems getting anybody to come back at all, whether for work or cultural events. Everybody’s in the mood. Our audience is fearless. They’re hungry for cultural experience. And so they’re there.”

Yoram Roth

And while Yoram might be dealing with younger, or at least “generationally younger”, customers, on the other side of the world in New Zealand, Rebecca Paul is experiencing the same thing – although when it comes to getting international visitors in, the logistical challenges remain a problem. Nonetheless, maybe the solution is as simple as “if you build it, they will come”.

2. Don’t just offer a service – provide an experience

Although we welcome this positivity, we also think there are definitely some learnings to be taken away from the events of the last year. One, as pointed out by Dennis Moseley-Williams, is that after so many months of getting all the information and products we want seamlessly online, when customers return to offline, we need to offer them something more than that.

“We have lived through a crazy, unprecedented time. And yet everything we ever wanted can get delivered to our door by eight o’clock tomorrow morning. So from now on, it can’t just be about the information. Because we’ve already taught our audience that we can send it to their inbox at their convenience. It cannot just be a service. It has to be an experience.”

Dennis Moseley-Williams

(For more insights on this exact topic, check out Campfire 4: The Difference Between Services And Experiences, and Campfire 5: How To Transform Services Into Experiences.)

In the context of a conference, for example, it’s no longer what we can teach people, but who we can help them become. This will remain the case nine months from now, even if “normality” has otherwise resumed. Event organiser Charlotte-Amélie Veaux wishes that conference organisers would be brave enough to act on this understanding.

“They know that they have to create an experience, but they’re so afraid of taking the leap, trying new stuff and going out of their comfort zone after losing so much money. How might we convince them to be braver?”

Charlotte-Amélie Veaux

We’d argue that proving the ROX, or return of experience, is the big challenge for experience designers faced with similar challenges – more on how to do this in Campfire 9: Measuring The Value Of Experiences and Campfire 35: Time Is Money, Or A New Way To Measure ROX.

Moseley-Williams also added that in this new context, your competitors aren’t just related businesses – they’re wherever consumers are spending their time and attention.

“Your competitors are Netflix, Xbox, TikTok. We have to get people off the couch. That’s the universe we all move in.”

Dennis Moseley-Williams

However, to neatly come back around to his original point, these couch-based competitors might provide an amazing service, but they can’t necessarily compete with all the elements of a live experience. As Stefan Weil says, “even though you can get Deliveroo, it doesn’t mean you don’t need restaurants.”

3. Instil a level of trust in your customers

After so many months of uncertainty – and so many concerns around hygiene and safety – Kevin Dulle pointed out that we need to instil trust in our customers that we’re handling everything for them the way we should. Or to take it further, Kelly Vaught wondered:

“How might we assure customers that we’re going to deliver on the experience we’re promising them?”

Kelly Vaught

Although it’s a question that currently remains unanswered, the WXO has a working group and is in the first stages of forming a certification for the Experience Economy to help address this gap – send us an email if you’d like to be involved.

4. Modulate your experience to accommodate the demands of the moment

A recurring idea was that experience designers will have to learn how to use their space differently, whether that means managing density, capacity, or moods.

On the former, Tom Ancona said:

“You need to modulate how you move through spaces in a way that’s more comfortable. Having fewer people can actually be much more enjoyable. Through managing density, you can open up new possibilities.”

Tom Ancona

There’s a fine balance to this – if you look at the example of wilderness or wildlife tourism, the number of people allowed in the space can upset the experience, and on the flip side, sometimes you need a crowd to create an atmosphere. However, by thinking about where intimacy is more appropriate than scale and playing with variables such as how long the experience lasts, perhaps you can still make an experience profitable with smaller numbers. 

“You need to redefine the carrying capacity of whatever venue you have. Then you might be able to raise your price, because you’re giving a more personalized experience.”

Bob Rossman

We can also modulate the “mood” of our experiences throughout different times of year or even times of day. Tom talked about the difference between inspiration, learning and convenience, and understanding which is appropriate for each moment – and that sometimes these can come together or overlap.

Sadly, one thing we can’t modulate is the weather – something experience designers will increasingly have to consider as they move experiences outdoors, as Heather Gallagher is currently doing.

“It actually has the potential to have a lot of longevity, because over the next couple of years, every time people sneeze, it’s going to be a thing. It’s forced us to develop a business model that has that kind of flexibility built in.”

Heather Gallagher

5. Go hyper-local to get around supply chain issues

After a year of mass disruption to global supply chains, many businesses are reevaluating their reliance on large, global shipping and delivery companies like Amazon and Home Depot and refocusing on local suppliers. Justin B is working on three events in New York, Chicago and LA, and using three different local teams for them all, in the same way that Meow Wolf choose to use local artists in their events.

“We’re going back to a hyper-localized mode of production as a hedge against the trauma of uncertainty, supply chain issues, rising material costs, international mandates, government – all that stuff. Focusing on local solves it all. It brings up new challenges, of course, but it definitely hedges against some of these problems.”

Justin Bolognino

The border closures in New Zealand mean that Rebecca Paul has also had to consider local supply chains.

“It’s a great problem to have, because now we’re having to be creative with finding people here locally that can produce and think outside the box to get it done. It’s actually a really positive thing that will change the way we work in the future and support local businesses.”

Rebecca Paul

6. Create hybrid events that are equally immersive online and offline

The question of how to do hybrid events really well pops up in our Campfires pretty much every week – you can also read Joe Pine and Alessia Clusini’s take on the subjects here.

Ivna Reic and Kevin Dulle had an interesting idea to break the distance between live and online in a classroom setting by pairing people up, one in the classroom, and one online. 

“The live person basically becomes the proxy for those who are online in their group. So when it comes time to present, there’s a little bit better interaction, instead of the students doing what they typically do, which is just to turn the camera off and walk away.”

Ivna Reic

A squad made up of WXO Co-Founders, Founding Members, and staff had a similar experience at a recent live immersive recreation of the UK TV show The Crystal Maze, where one participant at a time takes part in a task but can be seen and encouraged by their teammates. Read our review here

This idea of turning passive participants into active ones, whether live or through a screen, is an intriguing one. Vaught is working on some experiences where people can stream their own view of what’s happening to try and further immerse them in the experience. This merging of the real and digital worlds could be an interesting way to bring people into an experience, whether in the context of a museum or a sporting event.

“When someone goes to an event with a mobile device they can bring their friends and family along, as well as their extended social tribe and the fan network, so they become the interpreter of the event. They can see things that other people at home aren’t seeing through the broadcast. So they’re essentially projecting their experience out into the metaverse, and therefore elevating their status in their community.”

Tom Ancona

This idea of screens being accepted as part of the dimensions of a live experience will become more and more commonplace, according to Weil. Giving the example of eSports, where people accept the blending of virtual gameplay in a live arena, he said:

“People will accept more and more that the screen is also an actor. So there will be an acceptable way to combine the real actors with screen actors. When you use screens, people can also interact with each other. We’re working on a café in Frankfurt and another in LA at the moment, and we like the idea of having screens in both that people from each location can talk to each other through.” 

Stefan Weil

Does this sound the death knell for purely live events, though? Weil thinks not.

“My kids love watching Travis Scott perform in Fortnite – but when he’s coming to our city live, you know they want tickets,” he said.

The WXO Take-Out

Despite the logistical challenges ahead, things seem optimistic when it comes to people’s desire to take part in live experiences, as is borne out in the current experiences of our experts. 

However, earning back their trust and giving them more than they can get online will be the real tests of how well IRL experiences will perform against the sophisticated and seamless digital experiences consumers have learned to expect from the comfort of their couches over the course of the pandemic.

As ever, the key lies in creating experiences, not providing services – and finding ways to make these as flexible to consumers’ demands as possible, whether that means modulating the density or mood of your venue, or blending the online and offline in hybrid events. Either way, the future perhaps isn’t as scary as we once thought.

We’d love to hear about the tools you use to design experiences for a spectrum of people and outcomes. And if you use any of these in your work, we’d love to hear how the results turn out. Click here to let us know.

Want to join the Experience Economy conversation? Apply to become a Foundig Member of the World Experience Organization here.