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Pop-up attractions – the Emperor’s New (and instagrammable) Clothes?

rosewinemansion Pop-up attractions instagrammable.

Amanda Hess from The New York Times went to “as many Instagrammable ‘museums’, ‘factories’ and ‘mansions’ as I could”. She says of the experience: “They nearly broke me!”

keith thomas petersham groupBy Keith Thomas, Chief Executive of Petersham Group Ltd.

Her excellent article, The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’ recounts a summer of evenings spent visiting the Museum of Ice Cream, Rosé Mansion, 29 Rooms and many of the other pop-up attractions which are now taking advantage of empty real estate in New York. All of which offer their visitors pretty much the same thing; a series of sets where they can pose for photos to post on Instagram. Thereby of course, perpetuating the demand for more visitors to go along and do the same. With the Granddaddy of the scene, the Museum of Ice Cream announcing that after recording attendance of over half a million in a year, it is planning Version 2.0, a permanent attraction in San Francisco; this is clearly the future of the attractions sector, right?

A new generation to seduce

Certainly several of specialist leisure business consultants, Petersham Group’s recent clients seem to think so; seduced by the lure of attracting that difficult Gen Z crowd and of charging them the local equivalent of $45 for the privilege of spending their evening standing in line waiting for an opportunity to take a picture of themselves in someone else’s idea of an interactive ‘experience’. The idea that their multi-million-dollar investment might need to have some life, depth and relevance beyond the next 12 months seems to have escaped them in their excitement.

29rooms Pop-up attractions instagrammable.

But is is instagrammable?

For the most part, these places have themes which are tenuously followed at best. The format is generally predictable and samey; the ‘art’ is facile, derivative and stuck on as though visiting a kindergarten. And the big reveal at the end is generally some version of a children’s ball pit. Often, the main point of the place seems to be to polish up the personal brand of the genius marketing guru behind the scheme; with spaces ‘curated’ by innovative style icons like Nicole Ritchie (?).

At the end, visitors will be asked to buy utterly inconsequential merchandise at consequential prices. At Disney or Universal, you can come away with a Mickey Mouse that can become a much-loved toy; or a Harry Potter outfit to wear at Halloween. Can “racks of $25 ‘Vanillionaire’ hats and $10 churro clothes patches” possibly enhance anyone’s life in any meaningful way?

Blind following or true enjoyment?

Ultimately does any of this matter? People are having a good time aren’t they? I’m not sure – are they really or are they just following the crowd and convincing themselves that they are? As well as attractions offering guests wonderful, memorable experiences that they will treasure for life, we have to acknowledge that our industry also has a long, proud and slightly grubby heritage of making a lot out of a little and then charging top dollar for the experience; and these pop-ups fit right into that (just look at the admission prices!).

However, if you think that the future of out of home entertainment lies in something more than taking photos of yourself in someone else’s idea of a good time, then maybe it’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on our responsibility to our audience; which I think is to try our best to deliver the very best and most memorable experience we can, day after day. That has to be Instagrammable too doesn’t it?!

Images: top screenshot #rosewinemansion, bottom #29rooms, Instagram.

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Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas is Chief Executive of Petersham Group. He has 30 years' experience in the development and management of successful leisure businesses and visitor attractions.

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