Pop-ups are now appearing in almost all sectors of business, from retail and dining to entertainment and the arts. These special, limited-time events are a great way to attract attention and buzz with relatively limited means and budgets. We talked to several experts and experienced planners about the popularity of the trend and how it’s best utilized—and also received some tips for how to execute them yourself to get the most bang for your buck.
Pop-ups—an experience that opens in a temporary and often unconventional location and is intended to operate for a short period of time—started showing up in the marketplace in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, and have only continued to gain momentum over time. Used largely for retail, restaurants and brand activations, they can be hosted in raw spaces, airports, even a back alley.
The range is as vast as the “event,” and the format lends itself well to small and large businesses alike, making it a win-win for both the location and the host. The reason being that, when unutilized storefronts or other vacant spaces are temporarily occupied by a pop-up, the activity serves as “free” marketing for the property. Since there is a lot of unused retail space available in today’s market, pop-up planners have found ways to brilliantly fill the gaps. Now, in 2016, these special experiences have moved from obscurity into the spotlight as a burgeoning industry in-and-of itself.
“Pop-ups have a necessary element of being temporal, so the time-limit is intrinsic,” says Tristan Hummel, creative director of the Chicago Loop Alliance. They organize a yearly event series called ACTIVATE, which is comprised of pop-up urban experiences, primarily focused on the arts and aimed at attracting people to underutilized areas while creating cultural experiences. Some examples of the work they have done include fashion shows, music showcases and brand activations for partners like KIND and PNC Bank.
Right Place, Right Time
One essential standard for all pop-ups is placemaking, according to Hummel: “A space is just a space until people create memories or experiences around it … and then it goes from being a space to a place.” Back in college, Hummel first experimented with pop-ups organizing an art gallery in a CTA “L” car. Today it’s still all about the creativity but also technology in creating ambiance. A foolproof option for transforming a space, he says, is with projection mapping, a high-tech gadget that projects video onto any surface, turning everyday buildings, landscapes or objects into an interactive display.
PopUp Republic has similar forward-thinking ideas. The Chicago-based firm is dedicated entirely to the art of the pop-up, specializing in turnkey services for the industry, ranging from venue scouting and location listings to marketing strategy. Founder and CEO Jeremy Baras wrote the book. Literally. You can find PopUp Republic: How to Start Your Own Successful Pop-Up Space, Shop, or Restaurant on Amazon.com. Earlier this year, he also teamed up with Jessica Stackpoole, founder and CEO of EventPro Strategies, to add to his repertoire, mostly in terms of staffing. The pair specializes in large corporate pop-ups, which is a growing segment.
Go Big or Go Home
“Large brands are using pop-ups as a way to supplement and drive revenue, while building brand awareness,” says Stackpoole. “It’s [often] a way to leverage seasonality,” and to take advantage of high-impact locations where the target audience is already present, she continues. According to a consumer survey by PopUp Republic, some of the top reasons for visiting pop-up shops are to buy seasonal, new or unique products and to shop locally. Seasonality aside, pop-ups also give online retailers the opportunity to engage consumers in a tactile experience that isn’t otherwise attainable. This can be extra effective when activated within a special event, where brands can get acquainted with a targeted audience.
For example, in addition to the brand activation opportunities that Lollapalooza offers its partners, the festival opens an annual popup shop to sell merchandise to their audience prior to the main event. This way, by targeting a crowd aligned with a common interest in music, brands like Fender can get in the hands of their potential buyers. In addition to allowing brands to focus in on niche markets, pop-ups serve well for exploratory purposes. Stackpoole emphasizes the benefit of pop-ups for large companies when testing new products, too: “Before spending immense resources on a new product or service launch, pop-ups can serve to test the market.”
While the pop-up format caters well to big brands, it also, well, caters. Baras tells us, “There is a growing trend of restaurants-within- restaurants.” These pop-up restaurants are a unique breed that allows for new and seasoned chefs alike to test out menus in an often smaller and more intimate setting. Ampersand, a leading pop-up restaurant venue located within Chicago restaurant Kinmont, hosts many of these one-of-a-kind dining experiences.
Guests are escorted into the back of the building through the restaurant’s private dining room to find a 600-square-foot, completely hidden space. Events (typically ticketed for 20-40) provide guests and chefs the opportunity to interact with each other in a cozy and personal setting, transforming an evening out from a typical dinner into an immersive, underground supper club-style dining experience. Alyssa Stark, director of special events for Element Collective (a collaborative that runs Ampersand), says, “We have a variety of ways that people can utilize our space, which includes scalability.” Stark recommends announcing and promoting your pop-up approximately one month in advance to balance excitement and logistics.
Details are incredibly important when orchestrating successful pop-ups, seconds Baras. “It’s critical to establish clear objectives and gather measurable results,” he says, further recommending to have tools at your disposal to gather critical event data. “Once the event is over, analyze that data to develop best practices for pop-ups moving forward.” Hummel also offers some advice: “In order to maximize buzz, don’t hesitate to market Save the Dates, leaving the location for last-minute.” Stackpoole agrees, also noting to “make sure to establish a way to keep consumers engaged once they’re in attendance” to keep them from popping out.