Activating outdoors may come with its share of obstacles, but as the industry navigates year two of the pandemic, brands continue to prioritize outdoor events as a safer alternative to engaging their audiences in enclosed spaces. The advantages are clear: The CDC says it’s safer, attendees have a higher level of comfort, and outside settings provide what has become a premium in this era—space. So as summer heats up, we’re zooming in on three outdoor events to weigh the benefits and challenges of taking things outside.
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The Philadelphia Flower Show
This year, for the first time in its 193-year history, the Philadelphia Flower Show was hosted outdoors. Typically held in March at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the massive fundraising event produced by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) was moved to FDR Park, June 5-13. The new location offered 45 percent more space, spanning 450,000 square feet of exhibits and experiences including floral and plant displays, shopping, education, sponsor activations and themed food and beverage options. To stagger attendance, PHS offered tickets for morning or afternoon sessions, and attendees were required to social distance and wear masks.
The new format offered PHS a chance to shake up its strategy and expand offerings like shopping opportunities and outdoor-centric add-on activities and sponsor experiences—an approach Sam Lemheney, PHS chief of shows and events, plans to carry into future events.
“When you’re in the same building, the same timeframe every year, it’s sometimes harder to think of new ideas because you feel like you’ve done everything,” he says. “When we changed locations, it definitely helped us rethink the show… It’s flexing your muscles in a different way. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s hard. It’s terrifying. But this is what keeps us alive as event producers, that challenge of doing something completely different for the visitor and really enhancing that experience for them.”
That’s not to say the setup doesn’t come with its challenges. Lemheney says event marketers need to consider the lack of amenities involved in activating outdoors. Things we take for granted indoors, like electricity, running water, bathrooms and even ramps and loading docks, aren’t readily available in most outdoor settings. “Give yourself extra time, give yourself extra money for all those things,” he says.
For sponsors, activating outdoors offers the opportunity to build bigger footprints, and in turn, infuse more innovation into their experiences. Subaru, a 20-year sponsor of the Philadelphia Flower Show, says moving outside gave the brand twice the typical activation space and an opportunity to develop more creative programming for attendees. At this year’s show, for instance, the company’s Camp Outback activation included an educational bird-watching experience at the edges of a pond, guided by experts (technically called “master birders”) from Cornell University and a handful of local organizations.
But Denise Coogan, environmental partnership manager at Subaru, says the brand also had to take new elements into consideration to keep attendees safe and comfortable, like incorporating QR codes for sign-ups, and other touchless technology, into its activations. The company also had to prepare on-site staff for various types of weather.
“We’ve been saying there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” says Coogan. “So we made sure that everyone had rain jackets, we had sunscreen and everyone had hats to keep the sun off of them because we were outside all day long from 10 in the morning until seven at night.”
Clear Connects: A Day of Families
At Clear’s “Day of Families” event, more than 100 family members and friends finally experienced the in-person reunion they had been waiting for since the start of the pandemic. In partnership with United Airlines and Marriott Bonvoy, Clear, a secure identity platform, leveraged its Health Pass service to deliver a COVID-safe outdoor reunion event hosted by Neil Patrick Harris at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium.
Celebrations kicked off on May 5 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where 34 fully-vaccinated seniors from across South Florida enjoyed a welcome reception at United Airlines’ United Club lounge and prepared for a chartered flight to New Jersey where they would reunite with loved ones. Upon arrival, they were transported to Marriott’s Renaissance New York Chelsea property for a complimentary stay.
On May 6, the seniors’ friends and family members from the tri-state area gathered at MetLife Stadium. Each of them used Clear’s Health Pass to securely link to their negative COVID-19 test results in order to be admitted into the venue. Inside the stadium, countless hugs ensued as the seniors were finally reunited with their loved ones.
In addition to catching up with friends and family, attendees experienced musical performances by Broadway stars, photo activations, a heart wall installation and an elaborate lunch. Festive balloons, swag bags and dining tables arranged in the shape of Clear’s logo rounded out the event touchpoints.
For Laura Brounstein, vp-content and storytelling at Clear, hosting the event outdoors gave attendees an all-around superior experience. “So many things would have been different if it had been indoors because of social distancing, etc.,” she says. “It would’ve been great, but it’s not like being in the sunshine on the field of MetLife stadium… I think there’s also just a mindset that people feel safer outside, and the best events are where people feel relaxed and happy, so that creates more of an affinity for outdoor events.”
Brounstein says Clear was also able to create a more celebratory atmosphere while activating outdoors because décor can be presented differently. “There are certain things that just look more fun and light and festive outside and that creates more options,” she says.
And as far as event challenges, Brounstein says the team had to consider how to prepare for attendee check-ins differently when activating outdoors. And while she says MetLife Stadium was tightly locked down, event marketers should note that some outdoor events may require more security checkpoints than those set indoors.
Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival
After hosting a virtual festival last year, Bonnaroo will be back in action with a physical event Sept. 2-5 at “The Farm” in Manchester, TN. For sponsors, which this year include Bacardi, Verizon and Toyota, among others, a key benefit of activating at Bonnaroo will be the opportunity its vast grounds offer. With plenty of room to spread out, they’ll have the ability to adjust their footprints to make attendees feel more comfortable.
“With our festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, we have the luxury of these wide-open spaces, and sponsors in the past have seen great success with activations that provide respite from the weather,” says Courtney Trucksess, director-sponsorship and marketing at C3 Presents, the company that produces Bonnaroo in partnership with Live Nation. “And while we’re still in the early phases, we’re working with brands to still provide fans with comfort and that feeling of refreshment that they look forward to, keeping in mind that people are still easing back into large-scale live events and may want a bit more space this summer when they’re cooling down.”
The other benefit of activating at an outdoor festival these days? Fans’ willingness to attend. Bonnaroo sold out just three weeks after the event’s lineup was announced. Other outdoor shows, including ACL Fest, Astroworld Festival and Riot Fest, have also sold out.
“[The pandemic] has given fans time to step back and think about where they’re going to spend their time and money, and which events they’re going to support. And with festivals, clearly the desire is there,” says Trucksess. “If the ticket sales are an indication, people are ready to go… And I think our partners are going to be thoughtful and purposeful about what they’re putting in front of the fans, how they’re engaging them and how they develop that dialogue.”