“You have to show partners that you really respect their brand”

Key executives from Magic Light Pictures, Kids Industries and The Everywhere Group have shared their views on what makes for a successful live event, also offering pointers for brands thinking of entering the sector.

Alex Sanson, senior brand manager at Magic Light Pictures; Gary Pope, co-founder of Kids Industries; and Brian Hook, chief commercial officer of The Everywhere Group, were speaking with Ben Roberts, License Global’s EMEA content director, as part of the focus on location-based experiences at Brand Licensing Europe earlier this month.

Live experiences such as immersive theatre resonate with consumers as they “represent the oldest form of storytelling,” Gary Pope pointed out. “We first told stories around a fire, because we wanted to share what we knew so that we could progress. So a story that’s told in three dimensions, in a way that you can feel it, sense it, smell it, touch it, can be infinitely more powerful than reading or watching something.”

Some brands lend themselves to immersive storytelling, the panel suggested, while others don’t. Referencing Magic Light’s Gruffalo forest trails for Forestry England, Gary noted: “The rhythm and pace and the setting of The Gruffalo lends itself to procession. It’s very easy to manifest that book in three dimensions.”

Other stories are best left to alternative media, noted Brian Hook. “Superhero stories often cross my desk, and the problem with them is that at some point, someone has to fly. So immersive theatre isn’t necessarily the best way to tell those stories. TV and movies already do that really well.”

Alex Sanson detailed the first stages of any LBE deal. “When we meet a new potential partner, we’re always asking, ‘Okay, why are we going to do this? What’s meaningful here to children that they’re going to connect with?’” She gave the example of The Gruffalo River Ride at Chessington World of Adventures. “In that ride, you get into your boat, you drop down and all of a sudden, you’re at the scale of the mouse. There are these huge dandelions all around you, and you’re transported. And it’s not just about the scale, it’s about the smells, it’s about the lighting… There’s so much detail that goes into enriching the experience.”

It’s important for LBE providers to ask themselves how they can maximise sensorial input, said Gary. “You’ve got to think beyond what you see on the page, what you see on the show, or what you see on a piece of plastic in front of you, and think: how do children actually really understand this? How do they perceive it? Because they can’t always articulate it like we can and they see things very, very differently to adults.”

When it comes to choosing which brands to partner with, Brian noted: “I choose the bands I love dearly and that gets you a long way, because I really am deeply passionate about them. Whether it’s Dr Who: Time Fracture, The Great Gatsby or Peaky Blinders: The Rise, you have to show partners that you really respect their brand and really care about the canon. I’m currently putting the same graft that I put into Peaky Blinders and Time Fracture into Peppa Pig: Surprise Party. It’s got Olivier Award-winning directors and the best creative team I’ve ever put together, and all for an audience that isn’t even born yet.”

Peppa Pig: Surprise Party will be a more free-form experience than a traditional theatre show. “Little kids don’t want to sit in the theatre, in the dark, being told to be quiet,” Brian noted. “They just can’t do it. So we’ve structured the show by using different siloed spaces with one continuous rolling party moving through them, so families can dip in and out.”

Asked about the pitfalls of staging live experiences, Gary Pope cautioned: “You can get it wrong every single step of the way. Rather than thinking about where the pitfalls are, you’ve got to know what your audience wants. Think about it from their perspective – literally. That might getting down on your hands and knees and seeing it as a three-year-old would. Are the sight lines okay? Because otherwise that toddler is going to miss things. And for the parents, you’ve got to make sure there’s enough space to park their prams.”

Working in LBE, you have to prepared for anything, Brian advised. “When we get a show up and running, we do test audiences to get a good idea how an audience is going to interact with it. And then the general public comes in and you have to throw your plans in the bin. They might not even notice a piece of game play you’re really proud of, so be ready to make changes.”

Brands shouldn’t think of LBE as an immediate money-spinner, cautioned Gary. “LBE is expensive to do well. But you have to understand how long the tail is after somebody’s had that experience, and how much money they’re going to spend at the fixture because they’ve made a core memory.”

Brian agreed. “We work a lot with film studios and more and more of them are thinking about the sort of work we do as a marketing spend, because the tails on the shows that we make are massive. For the same price as a launch event for a brand, you can often put together an immersive activation or theatre show that can run for a sustained period of time and generate huge amounts of press and coverage.”

Offering advice for anyone keen to venture into BLE, Alex said: “As with any product, firstly, understand your audience as well as you can. What are they already doing to experience your brand in other ways that don’t already exist? Why are they doing it? We knew families were already going on Gruffalo walks, for instance, so then it was a questions of creating a bigger, better version of that experience.”

The true value of location-based entertainment for the consumer, in comparison to toys or licensed consumer programmes, is the chance to make memories, Gary explained. “A memory is the most powerful, valuable thing that a family has. It’s something which no one can take away and no cost of living crisis can encroach on. It’s about emotions, at the end of the day. If you can take some of that wonder, and imbue that into a toy, an audio experience or something else, then surely that has fantastic value. And that’s where perhaps the wider consumer products community can learn from LBE, because it’s fundamental storytelling.”

The LBE sector will continue to expand, the panel asserted, with AR and digital technology evolving to offer more user-friendly ways for consumers – especially younger children – to engage with an experience.

“One idea we’re toying with is doing audio tours from the tube stations to our shows, which could be cool,” said Brian. “But it’s no good me projecting into the future about what I think is a really cool idea. We’ve got to constantly pay attention to our audiences and ask them if something’s cool.”

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