As public spaces, shops, bars and attractions are closed across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what is the future for immersive experiences?
Clem Garritty is the Co-Founder of Swamp Motel, a creative agency and production house in the immersive sector. He recently hosted a webinar asking about the future of immersive experiences after COVID-19 – or to put it more bluntly -“Are Immersive Experiences F*cked?”
The panel included speakers across all types of experiential in the UK, from escape rooms to immersive theatre to immersive dining experiences. Together, they spoke about the state of the sector, will guests be coming back and how experiential can adapt to the new ‘normal’.
Pre-COVID-19, experiential was in an incredible period of growth. In the age of Instagram, millennials preferred to spend on experiences rather than products, to fill their news feed with fun things to do with friends. There were approximately 1,500 escape rooms in the UK.
They are arguably also the most profitable type of attraction in terms of spend per minute according to Joe Pine, co-creator of the term ‘Experience Economy’ in his session at BlooloopLIVE last year. Other experiences had huge popularity and buzz on social media including immersive dining and experiential brand campaigns.
Closure of immersive experiences due to COVID-19
Now they have had to close their doors temporarily and through a combination of business continuation plans, the government’s furlough scheme and innovation they are seeing how they can weather the pandemic. In addition to the loss of ticket sales, most immersive experiences aren’t eligible for grants or funds from the Arts Council as well.
“I’ve spent the last 14 years working in crisis management (theatre),” said Brian Hook, Creative Director, The Great Gatsby Immersive Experience. “There aren’t better suited or more prepared people for this crisis.”
Emma Thomas, Creative Producer at Miss Cakehead agrees. “As a freelancer, I’ve been training for this all my life – it’s a quiet patch. As a producer, you tend to be a control freak but now I am accepting there is nothing else I can do at present.”
Immersive experiences can be agile and reactive in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Immersives tend to be in smaller venues, often with fewer overheads than larger attractions.
Escape rooms are particularly nimble, with just rent and wages to worry about says Nick Moran, Creative Director, Time Run / Sherlock: The Game.
An adaptable medium
Experiential is adaptable, you can add in social distancing measures quite easily unlike traditional theatre where guests need a spare seat between them making it hard to cover the cost of the show continuing.
The immersive audience is young. It is looking pretty dicey for experiences/shows with audiences typically 65+ years old. This demographic is now thought to be vulnerable and is likely to avoid crowds for the foreseeable future.
Some immersive attractions are innovating to bring the experience into the home. Deadlocked Escape rooms have created an at-home experience to play solo, with a team at home or across skype/zoom. Teams must scour the internet for clues and interact with custom interfaces. The game is £9.99. This can be claimed against the cost of an in-person game when the venues open back up again.
Tough economic climates often force innovation. “Immersive theatre did very well after the last economic crash. All those inner-city venues suddenly became vacant,” said Neil Connelly, artistic director of The Crystal Maze: Live Experience.
This could indeed by the case with the COVID-19 pandemic. As the entire workforce works from home, will it be the end of office working, where suddenly lots of prime real-estate becomes available for entertainment?
Retail and the high street is also seeing the pain. The UK chains Oasis and Warehouse are now in administration from the pandemic. American Dream, the mega-mall project in the US, has also shifted focus. Now it will dedicate 70% of the space to entertainment, up from 55% pre-COVID-19.
Could COVID-19 inspire new immersive experiences?
As well as opportunity, the crisis can also inspire new experiences. “Artists and great movements have been done out of crisis. We find gaps and niches that we can get our fingers in. And we can make money out of them,” Connelly said.
Will we see a rise in COVID-19 themed experiences? The issue split the panellists. Hook stated “what is the saying? Life inspires art?” but Thomas and Connelly thought guests would be sick of the virus. It would be tricky to do it not in poor taste.
The focus will be on how companies can give back. It is about celebrating community, being together and celebrating local heroes.
Brands might behave very differently in experiential too according to Thomas.
“It won’t be straight product launches anymore, but the focus will be on how companies can give back. It is about celebrating community, being together and celebrating local heroes,” she said. “People are fed up of their screens at home, I also think the experiences will be non-screen based too.”
Will there be a budget for brands to do such campaigns? “Brands can’t afford not to,” said Thomas.
Bouncing back after a crisis
The big question is will guests and consumers come flocking back to immersive experiences when they start to open back up after COVID-19?
Connelly thinks people will come but closer to home. “I don’t think people will restrict spending but will need to get used to being in small crowds again.”
“People won’t travel far. So, from a macro point of view, local attractions and domestic markets do very well in recessions,” he said.
It will be up to the attraction to inform the guests that extra precautions have been implemented says Moran. “People aren’t saying I can’t wait to change my behaviour, they just want to go back to what they had. The people will want to experience something out of the home and with friends. But they will also want reassurance from the show/company that it is in a safe environment.”
What is clear is that immersive experiences will evolve to the new normal after COVID-19. “The ingenuity on how to recover from this will be really interesting. Watching the National Theatre Live stream is a great example, there is a reason it exists and people love it. It will survive but change,” said Hook.
Swamp Motel are planning an “Are ……. F*cked?” Series every Thursday at 4 pm BST. More information is available here.
Background image courtesy of The Crystal Maze Live Experience