Are digital experiences now more powerful than 'live' events? How can retail and event organizers entice attendance and purchase?

Our connected world is now in many ways more engaging than 'being there' and this is a huge problem for retail and event organizers as they attempt to justify travel and expense to attend live events and shopping expeditions
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

During the dot com boom twenty years ago nobody dreamt that 'brick and mortar' stores would be sideline to the extent they are today. Business plans to sell ePet food online were the butt of many jokes and bankruptcies, and  shopping malls were the dominant thriving social centers. What a difference a few years makes - 'bricks and mortar' store Petsmart bought online pet food retailer Chewy for $3.35 billion in 2017 in a deal that was fundamentally structured to leverage Chewy's financial strength to help ailing Petsmart physical storefronts survive and regroup to serve an ever more online customer base. Shopping malls are deserted and online networks have cannibalized social interactions. 

Amazon prime online shopping and delivery is crushing retail, because with very few exceptions it is cheaper in time and money to compare, select and buy online than to burn gasoline and time going to retail stores. The internet cannibalizes the depth of real world experiences such as shopping in stores, and we now also live in an era where 4k monitors and broadcast quality audio all too often make the remote experience of an event such as a concert or a race better than actually being there. 

NASCAR stock car racing is a case in point. The fabulously successful business model that propelled this sport to be the most popular auto racing series in America at the turn of the century was fueled back then by TV advertising eyeballs and 200 mph billboard race cars. Today it is no secret that sponsors are deserting the sport, and that track attendance figures and TV and internet streaming numbers are declining for some races, despite NASCAR's increasingly sophisticated audio visual presentation. Where the National Basketball Association has small stadiums and a ticket to a big game experience is highly sought after and prized - much like a hard to get into night club with bouncers and a line behind a velvet rope - NASCAR's super speedways have vast grandstands that are often not full, which in turn negatively influences the multi media 'stage set' viewers experience on their screens. 

NASCAR flew me to their sellout flagship Daytona 500 race in February of this year and I have subsequently been watching the season with interest before writing this post. I spent a lot of time at Daytona talking to attendees, many of whom travel thousands of miles, often camping in RV's at the racetrack every year to experience the event. Like NFL tailgating, the infield fan experience is in some ways bigger than the on track action, the 'southern pride' culture around NASCAR is still strong but the fan base is demographically aging. 

The reality of being at the Daytona track is that the jumbo TV screens catch the eye more than the cars on the track. That, coupled with a terrible PA system amplifies my earlier point that the race experience is arguably at this point better on your couch in front of a 4k monitor with inexpensive store bought beers rather than stadium priced beverages. 

The fundamental central issue facing retail, events and other experiences requiring a commitment of time, travel and money is quality. Video phone grazing is the enemy of live events - seeing video highlights free on your phone greatly undercuts the commitment and need to actually be there, and if you do make the effort to go that experience has to be much, much better than the hi tech experience to justify the expense in time and money. This is all too often not the case, from retail customer experience and service to crowded concrete bunker sports stadiums that are uncomfortable, expensive to enter, buy things in and often with limited visibility (except the giant monitors) and terrible acoustics. The biggest showbiz stadium events today are mostly 'heritage musical acts' such as the Rolling Stones and these 'experiences' are often more about being able to say you 'saw' the actual real human musicians in the flesh, bought the T shirt and other overpriced merch than buying a superior musical experience.  People will pay fantastic ticket, food and parking prices for these experiences, and it is worth finding out why. 

The Daytona 500 crowd had lots of 'bucket list' attendees - families that had grown up with the fabled race on the TV every February visiting the actual track once for the experience. The challenge is that the 'live' experience isn't good enough for many of them according to some of the conversations i had there. Walking on the actual track and steep banking, taking the inevitable selfies and shared social media photos seemed to rank high, along with seeing the drivers out of their cars and pit lane race car tuning. The actual race many people openly said was better experienced in broadcast format with multiple camera angles and commentary. The one caveat is your ability to hire trackside pit crew radios and experience the live conversations between drivers and crew, with dedicated NASCAR attendees following specific drivers and teams typically owning their own headsets and watching the pit crew action closely. This is a good example of experiencing unique details that make the experience deeper and much more intimate, but the vast majority of the audience appeared to me to be under engaged and fiddling with their phones and mentally elsewhere a lot of the time, although to be fair some were looking at race data NASCAR was broadcasting.

Night races at Bristol - a small, intimate track in the cultural heart of NASCAR's southern Tennessee roots- were recommended to me as the ultimate 'real life' experience by the hard core fans. The latest Bristol race happened there last month and many Daytona attendees were also very enthusiastic about the smaller quarter mile wing car stadium race experiences common all over America, which have less multimedia digital coverage. 

There's hope for NASCAR - I was in a California Home Depot store earlier this month on a Sunday and was talking to the front door greeter who was wearing an old Tony Stewart NASCAR hat. The conversation turned to my attending the Daytona 500 earlier in the year. My new Home Depot greeter acquaintance was jealous and enthused about Daytona and said it was on his bucket list, and that he was about to finish work so he could go home and watch that weekend's race. Home Depot pulled out of sponsoring Tony Stewart and team in 2014. NASCAR marketing demographics for big box stores apparently no longer make sense in our digital age and there are other areas where they are currently spending their money to reach target audiences. 

Fundamentally our connected world is now in many ways more engaging than 'being there' and this is a huge problem. Like 'bricks and mortar' retail there is a lot of work and restructuring to be done at NASCAR on improving and creating unique experiences, enticing investment in time and money by new consumers and participants to foster experience habits in new generations for sponsors at a time when cars are less central and interesting to the screen obsessed than in previous eras. 

The only thing that will motivate people to break away from their screens to spend time and money to travel to a 'bricks and mortar' location is the depth, uniqueness and memorableness of their experiences, and that is the polar opposite of less than 20 years ago before broadband. This challenge for retail and events is increasing rapidly as supply chains and broadcast speed and quality improve, and transportation costs, availability and parking continue to be a major factor. A great deal of thought needs to go into what constitutes a memorable experience and the cost and time justifications, whether you are running out to buy a gadget or deciding to book tickets and plan travel to attend an event.

The advertising industry magazine Adage ran a 'best experiential 2019' article that demonstrates technology vendors appear to understand experience better than retail and events organizers at this point in history, a startling turn of events since big tech is arguably cannibalizing NASCAR and other events, and network TV the former principle cash cow of the ad industry. 
As efforts are made to reign in the giant technology platforms this is arguably a vital time for retail and events leadership to think deeply about their future use and relationships with technology and how to make their live on site experiences transcend the easy to graze on screens that are in everyone's hands today. 

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