‘This Delta situation has humbled everyone in the live industry’: How experiential marketers are navigating a new wave of COVID-19 cases

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Just when the COVID-19 vaccine promised a soon return to in-person events, a new rise in variants and breakthrough cases has instead delivered cancellations and a new wave of concerns, once again changing experiential marketer’s plans.

As concern over the Delta variant rises, events like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Bonnaroo have been canceled. Meanwhile, others like Riot Games’ League of Legends U.S. Championship Series pivoted from its original in-person, indoor plan to an all virtual format. And earlier this week, the National Association of Broadcasters announced it would cancel this year’s show with plans to return in-person in 2022. Plans regarding virtual options have yet to be announced.

“This Delta situation has humbled everyone in the live industry,” said Andrew Beranbom, founder and CEO of experiential marketing company First Tube Media. “Ultimately, we can’t go back to where we were.”

Given the pandemic has raged on for more than a year, many marketers predicted a hybrid of online and in-person events would be the future of experiential marketing. And while fall plans to return to the office remain in flux, hybrid events were expected to remain in place. 

Those plans have changed for First Tube Media, which has produced virtual live events for clients such as Grubhub, Grey Goose, Bacardi and Anheuser-Busch. “Our October, November and New Year’s programming that we are in the process of [planning] will be back to virtual because we need to be cautious about the situation,” Beranbom said. 

Others, however, have decided to forge ahead, pushing event goers to either provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. In Chicago, Lollapalooza this July hosted an estimated 400,000 people with testing and vaccination protocols. (Cases have been tracked back to the event, but health officials have not dubbed it a super spreader event, according to Billboard.) At Philadelphia’s Made in America music festival, it was a similar story, in which event organizers required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

At least one state has pushed back on such mandates with the Florida Department of Health pushing $5,000 fines on businesses and governments that require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from customers or members of the public, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

But as vaccine rollout continues, it poses a new problem for experiential and live event marketers: Logistics. From checking vaccination status for both staff and attendees to enforcing mask mandates that vary by location, marketers say there’s a lot up in the air and they’re careful not to alienate those for or against vaccination requirements.

“2020, we kind of knew what we were getting into. It wasn’t going to be a live [event],” said Gogi Gupta, founder of Gupta Media, a digital marketing agency with clients like the Governors Ball Music Festival. “Here it’s like, it’s going to be live, then maybe it’s live, then it’s live with these restrictions.”

According to Gupta Media account director Sara Noel, live event clients have put safety precautions in place. But depending on the location of the event, a negative test result may not be enough or event goers push back to vaccine mandates. 

“We’ve had a lot of negative sentiment towards events that have a vaccination policy,” Noel said. “Consumers say, ‘What is this vaccine requirement? Go back to L.A.’”

In response, at least one creative agency says they’ll play it safe so as to not alienate those for or against vaccination requirements, leaning on the brands’ they work with to provide safety protocols and providing masks upon entry.

“We don’t want to be responsible for any type of illnesses or spread of COVID, so we have to keep that stuff in mind,” said Desmond Attmore, co-founder of creative agency Six Degrees. “But at the same time, we also want people to have their own freedoms and rights.”

A number of brands, such as Expedia travel brands, have already launched pro-vaccination campaigns. Live event marketers expect brands in the experiential space to do the same as the Delta variant threatens a return to lockdown.  

“We’re gonna see brands do the same thing,” said Atlanta-based tour manager Christopher Patterson, who has worked with brands like Patron tequila and Miller Genuine Draft beer. “Because at this point, you have to make sure that people feel safe at your events or feel like you’re on the right side of history with this.”

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