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Luxury brands, events and Covid-19 – Surviving the whirlwind

November 2020

What does an event & experience company like ours do, when so many future projects are cancelled because of lockdown?

We were on target for a record financial year in 2020. On March 18th we closed our London office and opted for a work from home ‘virtual studio’ policy.

Our creative placemaking projects went ahead, raising spirits for us, our Developer/Property clients and thousands of socially distanced users – designing and curating eye-catching installations across London such as the technicolour Lollypop Lounge at King’s Cross and the rainbow-coloured pavilions at Moorgate and Liverpool Street.

Meanwhile we retained our core team to continue conversations with our main clients and explore new ways of working, with new clients attracted by our reputation.

Like many of our favourite luxury goods brands, we are facing the whirlwind of unforeseen change. We’ve been one phone call away from many of our existing clients, strategising and consulting with them on their brand positioning, future events and adapting ways of working in this brave new world.

During lockdown our R & D team couldn’t help but notice a subtle shift in luxury markets. For starters, top fashion brand Burberry announced the donation of over 100,000 pieces of PPE for the NHS. Then Mulberry stopped making handbags and started making surgical masks. Jo Malone flipped from making aromatic candles to producing hand-sanitisers, we learned that engineers at McLaren had stepped away from developing racing cars and concentrated on producing desperately needed ventilators for ICU.

With such luxury brands flipping their business to take philanthropic action and reaping unforeseen benefit in terms of positive PR, as well as unforeseen commercial advantage, there seemed to be a trend emerging that could hold a useful lesson for the events industry, too.

According to Helen Brocklebank, from luxury industry body Walpole, the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated certain marketing trends in Britain’s £48-billion luxury sector. Brands need to demonstrate authenticity, purpose and sustainability. In the absence of the kind of experiential physical events that we love to put on, we are noticing how smart luxury brands are investing in their storytelling to underline their authenticity.

Having looked at how higher end stores such as Harrods are coping with the loss of face-to-face contact by creating online or virtual personal shopping experiences, we started to look at ways we could spin our expertise in creating experiential events into a virtual arena.

Pivoting from more traditional events, we’re now delivering virtual and hybrid Christmas party experiences, we’re designing and implementing online portals for clients who want a competitive edge and to reach a truly global client base that real-world activations cannot penetrate. We are collaborating with leading companies & individuals to produce festivals, seminars and experiences using cutting edge technologies, akin to gaming platforms that engage the tech-savvy consumer.

We’re not saying that a virtual event can replace a launch at a high-end store. We’ll never forget producing non-alcoholic pioneers, Seedlips first brand activation, at Harvey Nichols and then following up with their first ‘secret’ garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Omega House, re-imagined for the Olympic timekeepers, room by room, even took away Nicole Kidman’s breath! There are however benefits to virtual and hybrid events. One of which is the limitless audience capacity and reach.

Hats off to Harrods who came up with a creative way to cope with all the stock left behind by 90 days of shutdown: taking up an 85,000 sq ft chunk of Westfield London in White City, to create “the world’s first socially distanced department store in the world”. Here it is holding a sale of its spring-summer collections. This is unprecedented, says their management, who report that after three weeks Harrods Outlet is “trading very successfully”. Crucially, this also frees up Harrods’ own one million square foot mother-ship to sell current collections.

But not everyone plans to do their Christmas shopping at luxury outlets, online or in person. The coronavirus crisis is widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. We’ve watched luxury brands lose more than 20% of their revenue in the first half of 2020 as boutiques were closed for months, big-spending shopping tourists couldn’t travel and duty free was decimated. Even so, some of the industry’s biggest brands—Louis Vuitton, Dior, Hermès and some others—have held up better than the industry as a whole, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As the first lockdown lifted and retail and restaurants saw returning guests, things were looking more hopeful for the events industry as well as the luxury goods sector. French handbag maker Hermès became the first major luxury-goods company to report a return to growth in the third quarter.

And while sales of jewellery and watches fell close to 40% compared to the same period last year, wine and spirits fell 23% for companies such as LVMH. The company, which owns Champagnes Moët & Chandon, Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Hennessy to name but a few, saw organic sales down by 28% compared to the first six months of 2019. Cancelled weddings, anniversaries, birthdays … never mind the closure of bars and restaurants, hit the champagne and ultra premium spirits business hard.

Unsurprisingly, LVMH’s US sales perked up in the second quarter thanks to the performance of Hennessy Cognac, which rebounded in June, as well as more sales growth in China, where social distancing measures have been in place in restaurants for months. The way things are going in the US and China … who wouldn’t be averse to a large brandy?

In May, Moët Hennessy celebrated World Cocktail Day by encouraging everyone to drink at home. From our home workspaces, our team made amazing cocktails like the Glenmorangie Ginger and Honey Highball and the Ardbeg Shortie’s Dirty Daiquiri. It wasn’t even necessary to make a vanilla paste – just stir the vodka with a vanilla pod. One of our best team Zooms yet.

While we flipped our business this summer to concentrate more on delivering placemaking; designing and curating eye-catching installations across London such as the technicolour lollipop lounge at King’s Cross and the rainbow-coloured pavilions at City Point and Principal Place; we’ve been glad that at least we don’t have to cope with unsold stock, just unsold creativity.

Some brands, like Chanel, destroy watches rather than reduce their value. Apparently, the French government has introduced an anti-waste law banning “designer clothes and luxury goods companies from destroying unsold or returned items”. This will come into effect in 2023. Meanwhile some luxury brands will be exempt on the grounds of intellectual property rights. In the events industry, where transparency is key and customers increasingly savvy – our creativity is our capital.

As Lockdown #2 saw the last-minute cancellation of festive placemaking events that we’d begun developing for clients, we can only rely upon our years of experience, the quality of our creativity, the dogged determination of our diverse team, and the agile and flexible nature of our company which has allowed us to pivot our skills and continue to operate whilst our industry and beyond, sadly haven’t fared so well.

We may not have the luxury of previous years where projects were already confirmed months in advance, but still, we look forward to fresh, exciting opportunities with innovative partners and clients in 2021.


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