By Rich Penner
As the travel, hospitality, tourism, and event industries enter a post-pandemic world, a significant question is at the forefront of many marketing executives' minds: Will there be a future for spring break and other large events targeting Gen Z and beyond?
I have been at the forefront of experiential marketing for twenty years. I have produced and launched some of the most significant events for Pepsi, Verizon, Nike, and more and I have an intimate understanding of what makes spring break happen. Events are what I do and what I’m passionate about.
During this unprecedented time, I wanted to get some perspective by talking with key stakeholders from prominent brands, hoteliers, and businesses to see not only how their approach has changed for spring break 2021, but whether it might impact summer and fall events as well.
In many ways, spring break is the super bowl of large-scale events for the college audience. As data shows, this audience is invaluable; adoption in this category can lead to lifelong consumers.
This year, unlike others, businesses and marketing executives are watching with careful eyes to see what spring breakers do and don’t do in 2021. Major businesses continue to see the value of spring break-even as plans change and crowds vary from past years. But possible negative PR surrounding Covid spikes at massive events is still at the forefront for many CMOs. This year, in particular, I’m seeing many of spring break’s staple brands have maintained their paid sponsorships but not put their name on events. In essence, their investment is a placeholder for the future.
So, what opportunities will there be for gen Z and others ready to re-enter the world? How will brands cater to this audience while balancing safety and PR concerns?
Based on my decades in the event space, here are my recommendations on how brands can re-enter event marketing:
Make health and safety a priority
Spring break bookings began increasing this year after mask mandates were lifted in different states, especially in spring break hot spots like Texas and Florida. While masking up may not be anyone’s idea of a vacation, there are several safety measures that resorts, tour operators, and event planners can put into place to ensure the best and safest spring break experience for all. This might mean increased cleaning of rooms and public spaces, ensuring hand sanitizing stations are placed at elevator banks, restaurants, and near doors, or providing guests with branded hand sanitizers and fanny packs. Make safety measures part of your hospitality efforts to put guests at ease and keep events as safe as possible.
Amp-up experience for lasting impact
While your numbers may be lower than in previous years, try to find ways throughout the year to increase revenue by just 2-3% each month. Treat March, April, and May as equals and stack them with events for various audiences. The good news is that a music event can easily attract 35-year old mothers, their 15-year-old kids, college students, and young professionals. Invest in rich experiences that have a deeper connection to the audience. Engagement may look different right now, but the opportunity to make lasting and meaningful connections remains strong.
Rethink your marketing spend and timelines
For many industries, spring break jumpstarts the business year, quickly raking in 10-15% of annual revenue. For marketing executives, the spend for gen Z during spring break may start earlier and last longer, with the inclusion of social and digital touch points along the journey.
Adopt a new view on spring break
Spring break used to essentially sell itself — with a bit of help from marketing. Now, as people begin to re-enter a newly opening world, sales might look a bit different. While businesses are excited to open at 100% capacity, some people may still be hesitant to enter a public environment.
Provide two lanes of engagement for diverse audience sectors. For example, some people may be accustomed to the conditions that came out of COVID: social distancing, sanitizer stations, masks, and reduced capacity. Others may want to pretend COVID never happened. In either scenario, there is a risk of alienating a segment of your audience.
On a recent trip to South Padre Island, TX, I saw a mix of both. At nightclubs and parties, college students and young adults were packed in without a thought about social distancing. But I also saw beaches mostly empty during peak sunshine hours and masks worn in check-in lines and bars. So for your spring break guests, make sure there are areas where the more cautious can engage while still feeling safe (outdoor events with seating or tables farther apart, for example). Then plan more formal events to draw a crowd that might be smaller than usual but still ready to party and spend.
Beaches in South Padre Island, TX did not see large staged events this year
So, is spring break dead?
No! This year it might look a little different. There might be fewer events, smaller crowds, and lower revenue. Even so, all signs point to a comeback for spring break soon, with the potential for even bigger audiences and participation across a broader segment of the population.
As an event producer, 2021 shows promise for brands that are willing to create multiple options for their audiences, catering to Gen Z and beyond with flexible environments that help make all feel comfortable. If your event plans for 2021 are looking and feeling very different from past years, don’t be discouraged. Plan for the future. Because I believe that 2022 might still be different, but it’s going to be big!
– Rich Penner, Executive Producer, Chief Operating Officer at X-FCTR