Year in Rearview: Our Top 10 Stories of 2023 Reflect a World, and Industry, Moving at the Speed of Culture

Pope Francis “wears” an AI-generated puffy coat. The blue Twitter checkmark meets its demise. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé add billions to the U.S. economy with record-breaking tours. Historic strikes upend Hollywood. Former military officials report the existence of non-human “biologics” at UFO crash sites… 2023’s most memorable moments sound more like a missing verse from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (or Fall Out Boy’s recent version of the classic) than a year-end recap, but it’s been that kind of trip around the sun.

As they often do, the biggest pop culture trends and business shifts trickled down into live experiences, yielding some of the year’s most impactful event marketing campaigns—and leading us to our top 10 stories. From the festivalization of trade shows to the explosion of consumer festivals to a renewed focus on strengthening corporate culture to wellness shifts to AI-powered activations, brands made an impact by leaning into the event trends that defined 2023. Read on for an overview of the year’s stand-out strategies and their implications for 2024.



Warner Bros_Barbie Premiere LA 2023_Afterparty_Credit Line 8 Photography_Dream Land inflatibleWarner Bros.’ “Barbie” wasn’t just an outrageously successful film that made Greta Gerwig the first woman to direct a $1 billion box-office hit. It was also a worldwide pop culture phenomenon and marketing machine that infiltrated the experiential landscape in a very big, glittery way. In addition to an array of licensing partnerships and myriad activations from partners like Airbnb and NYX, Warner Bros. created a global storyline through a series of experiential film premiere events featuring playful design tactics and a mix of audiences and formats that invited everyone to the party. (Agencies: 15|40 Productions; AKJOHNSTON Group; Mirrored Media)

WHY IT MATTERED: For an industry once dominated by exclusive, invite-only-style event strategies aimed at attracting VIPs to build buzz, the “Barbie” campaign inspired a new model that demonstrated a poignant lesson on the power of the people. By welcoming all consumers into the “Barbie” brand and celebrating their diversity, Warner Bros. and its partners captured the attention, and hearts, of people from all walks of life. In turn, consumers’ passion for all things “Barbie” took on a life of its own, further amplifying an already explosive campaign.

vision-expo-west-2023-ray-ban-bags teaserYou Might Also Like:


The silver screen made its way to the show floor at CES this year thanks to an innovative partnership between Canon and “Knock at the Cabin” filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. Together, they delivered an immersive, heart-pumping movie experience while demonstrating four of the digital imaging solutions brand’s technologies. The exhibit’s centerpiece was a to-scale replica of the titular cabin, surrounded by enormous trees, rock features, bushes and a straw-covered floor. Inside, rustic décor and furniture was contrasted by cameras, VR headsets, smartphones, computers and screens. Among highlights, attendees encountered a virtual escape room-style experience during which small groups of participants virtually joined a meeting with an actor who was standing inside a disheveled cabin in the aftermath of the movie’s events, and a mixed-reality quest featuring “Andrew,” a full volumetric character within the space who panicked and shouted as intensity grew, aided by the room’s 3D sound speakers. (Agency: FCBX)

WHY IT MATTERED: B-to-b attendees are increasingly seeking experiences that don’t just educate, but entertain. And brands like Canon are delivering with exhibits that feel more like attractions than trade show demos. As Jason Williams, product advisor for MREAL at Canon, put it: “Canon’s been raising the bar year after year for how they want to bring immersion to people. We’re showing how far it can go. It doesn’t have to be just demonstrating prototyping, machining, simulations and training, but we can also have fun with it.”

Canon_Knock Cabin_CES 2023_exterior porch

Attendees could view a “Knock at the Cabin” action scene from multiple perspectives, as captured by the brand’s Free Viewpoint Video System.



KFCourt 2023 Regulation Size Bucket KFC_ top 10 stories of 2023

Sampling strategies took some quirky, creative turns in 2023 thanks to brands like KFC, which appealed to Canadians and their passion for hoops with the first-ever winterized basketball court, the “KFCourt.” Popping up under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, the brand invited consumers to both shoot buckets and eat buckets of its fried chicken under one roof. Participants first received a pre-warmed basketball, then were free to play games with “hoops” that were replicas of the iconic chicken buckets, brush up on their skills with local ballers, purchase limited-edition puffer jerseys, engage with sponsor partners like Pepsi and, of course, indulge in KFC samples. (Agencies: Narrative, production and creative; 10West, fabrication)

WHY IT MATTERED: The fast food giant recognized an opportunity—that basketball is Canada’s fastest-growing sport, but ballers don’t have an outdoor court to play on during the country’s notoriously frigid winters—and seized it in a way that only KFC could effectively pull off. While addressing a known consumer pain point, the company simultaneously delivered an authentic, on-brand activation that drove consideration among a rapidly growing base of hoops fans. Finger. Lickin’. Good.



Sports sponsorship is always a hot industry topic, but a shiny “new” sport—pickleball—gave brands something fresh to sweat over as the activity hit fever pitch this year. Among early adopters reaping the benefits of tapping into the country’s fastest-rising sport (and tightknit community) was Carvana, which inked a title sponsorship deal with the Professional Pickleball Association ahead of the 2023 season, then activated at more than 25 tour events.

Pickleball_Carvana-PPA-Tour 2022

Carvana carved out a title sponsorship with the Professional Pickleball Association this year, reaping the benefits of becoming an early adopter of the booming sport.

WHY IT MATTERED: Pickleball isn’t new, but the country’s collective fascination with it is. The appeal for brands? “Picklers” represent a broad, multigenerational demographic to connect with, making it easier to reach a more diverse set of people with the same strategy. Plus, with more dollars being poured into the sport every day, it’s likely that sponsorship—and engagement—opportunities will only get better. (Hot Tip: Join the growing list of brands offering pickleball lessons during downtime at their b-to-b conferences next year.)



IBM Think 2023_activation space

IBM Think this year transformed from a 30,000-person show to a smaller, hyper-curated experience and 11-city roadshow.

What was once IBM’s one-off, megawatt Think conference for 30,000 attendees transitioned in 2023 into a smaller, targeted event that was designed to serve up more personalized content and networking experiences, and an agile, but scalable, strategy. The flagship was then supplemented by a new 11-city “Think on Tour” roadshow that paved the way for more consistent customer engagement, and a cohesive storyline, throughout the year. (Agency: George P. Johnson)

WHY IT MATTERED: IRL conferences are back, but the way attendees prefer to do business—and the circumstances under which they’re willing to show up in person—has changed. Rather than taking aim at the masses, IBM got laser-focused on delivering the right experience to the right target audience, and kept the conversation going beyond a moment in time. “People are coming back face-to-face, but they’re doing it differently, and we had to adapt to that,” Colleen Bisconti, vp-global conferences and events at IBM, described ahead of IBM Think 2023. “A major part of the shift for us was no longer can we be all things to all people.”



A report by Mintel in 2023 revealed that four in 10 U.S. consumers closely (22 percent) or occasionally (16 percent) follow a sober-curious lifestyle, and from the very beginning of the year, it was apparent that event marketers were not only sensitive to those facts, but modifying their live experiences according to them.

From Bumble’s dedicated sober happy hours to Heineken’s culinary event series featuring “Nommeliers” (non-alcoholic sommeliers), companies proved that carving out space for sober-curious individuals had been moved to the top of the priority list to ensure the comfort of all attendees.

WHY IT MATTERED: Consumers are taking their physical and mental health more seriously than ever in a post-pandemic world. The term “sober-curious” has been kicked around for a few years now, but the convergence of health-conscious consumers, inflation and alcohol-free “beers” and “spirits” that actually taste good ultimately transformed what was once billed as a “fad” into a full-blown lifestyle shift that event professionals would be wise to accommodate.



Essence 2023_Coca_Cola_Tasting_ top 10 event stories of 2023The larger-than-life Essence Festival of Culture presented by Coca-Cola is always a lively affair, and the 2023 iteration, themed around the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, was certainly no exception. Essence Ventures expertly embedded the five pillars of hip-hop (lyricism, djing, graffiti, dancing and historical knowledge) into the footprint with activations like trivia contests with prizes, a hip-hop dance video game where players kept up with the steps on-screen and a graffiti wall where attendees could “tag” their names. Sponsors ran with the idea, too, from erecting giant cassette tape booth installations to hosting hip-hop karaoke battles. (Agency: Mark Stephen Experiential Agency)

WHY IT MATTERED: The 2023 event included major firsts for Essence Fest. For one, organizers leveraged the entire convention center floor for the show, creating a more comfortable attendee experience and offering brand partners more real estate for their activations. It was also the first time Essence Ventures showcased its newest brand acquisitions, Beautycon and Afropunk, exposing the company to new audiences. To boot, the team launched an app at the fest that will be used for all upcoming events to communicate with consumers post-show as part of a dedicated “phygital” strategy meant to engage the Essence community beyond in-person events.



“You can decorate anything, but you have to have culture at your core,” Whitney Eichinger, svp-culture and communications at Southwest Airlines, told us at the beginning of the year. And she wasn’t the only one we spoke to with the mindset that, particularly in this marketplace, a company’s culture does not appear out of thin air, but rather, must be cultivated and nurtured. A number of organizations, including Sheetz and Power Home Remodeling, upped the ante on their employee engagement programs and resources in 2023, offering staffers more opportunities for empowerment and ownership over their work, more chances to celebrate their successes and more personalized benefits.

WHY IT MATTERED: The past few years have had a ripple effect on event teams and their broader organizations, from the loss of institutional knowledge, to the development and/or dismantling of roles, to resetting expectations. In 2023, more companies raised the bar on what employee engagement looked like, and offered their unique takes on it, as the battle to not only acquire, but retain top talent wages on.



GenAI has been the talk of the industry all year, but Coke became one of the first to meaningfully experiment with the tech when it unveiled “Create Real Magic” over the spring. The custom platform fused the capabilities of GPT-4 and DALL-E, and fueled a contest that invited digital artists to produce original AI artwork with assets from the Coca‑Cola archives for a chance to have it displayed on major billboards.

Then during the summer, the brand launched its Coke AI Studio experience. The AI-powered music festival activation hit festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, inviting fans to answer simple questions about their preferences to inspire the AI’s generation of their individual “Real Stars” identity, including a band or artist name, first track and album art, and one-of-a-kind, shareable 35-second music video, all in a matter minutes. (Agency: Momentum Worldwide)

Coke AI Studio_QR code screen

WHY IT MATTERED: Across creative, logistics, ops and the spaces in between, generative AI is emerging as an experiential marketing power tool that presents incredible opportunities—and risks. Coca-Cola accepted both sides of the coin and took the plunge anyway. But it wasn’t for sake of attaching its name to a shiny new technology. Rather, the brand was intentional about balancing AI and the human touch, and ended up blazing a bubbly new trail for what it looks like to personalize engagement at scale.



Trade shows like Outdoor Retailer Summer (OR) are ditching traditional formats in favor of festivalized attendee experiences, and this year, OR was redesigned with activity-focused zones, a communal workspace, networking areas and a new Outdoor Adventure X festival held the weekend before the show that gave brands a chance to directly connect with consumers. But wait, there’s more: OR is also preparing for an overhaul in 2024 with new features including a large-scale Hosted Buyer program, a co-located Outdoor Design + Innovation show and the introduction of a simplified booth space plan and pricing structure to support exhibitors.

WHY IT MATTERED: The trade show space is rapidly evolving as events like OR adopt cohesive strategies to meet the needs of b-to-b attendees that have an appetite for consumer-style experiences, and exhibitors’ growing desire to engage with both buyers and consumers. OR made the necessary changes to stay afloat in an era when legacy trade shows like E3 have gone under as a result of outdated formats that provide little value to exhibitors or attendees.

Attendees in front of the OR sign

Outdoor Retailer Summer adopted a festivalized strategy to meet the engagement needs of b-to-b attendees and exhibitors.


Photo credit: Line 8 Photography; KFC Canada; Carvana; Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Essence; Coca-Cola 


This story appeared in the Winter 2023-2024 issue
Kait Shea
Posted by Kait Shea

Kait joined EM in 2015 and today enjoys her role as senior editor, digital content. When she’s not in reporter mode, rocking mermaid pants at Comic-Con or running laps at MWC Barcelona, you can find her at home listening to music.
View all articles by Kait Shea →

Receive the latest news and special announcements from Event Marketer


© 2024 Access Intelligence, LLC – All Rights Reserved. |