Branded experiences are no longer confined to brick-and-mortar spaces—they’re taking to the streets.
Hot on the heels of immersive experiences in stores—recent examples include the sleepovers that British retailer John Lewis offered shoppers in its store on London’s Oxford Street last year, and Goop Lab, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “shoppable bungalow” in Los Angeles’ Brentwood Country Mart—brands are turning to city tours to showcase and animate their values through memorable, and sometimes educational, experiences.
West Elm has a chain of hotels in six US cities set to open in 2019, with design reflecting its products’ sleek, laid-back style; and in March 2018 it announced the launch of its West Elm Local Experiences. The brand has conceived these tours and workshops to open the door for customers “to engage with artists and makers … and come away with a new skill or knowledge.” Among those activities are Draw Charleston, a sketch session and “hidden gems walk” among the historic buildings of Charleston, with artist Raven Roxanne; and a natural indigo dyeing session with artist Shira Entis in her Brooklyn studio. These experiences follow on from West Elm Local, which has seen the brand offer products by local makers, designers, and artists in more than 70 of its stores.
Mo Mullen, vice president of business development at West Elm, says West Elm Local Experiences are adding new depth to the West Elm Local program “by offering authentic, curated experiences with our artisan partners that match their talents with our customers’ affinities.”Speaking at the time of the launch, she said “these interactive opportunities offer a personal, human connection to a destination city or hometown, delivered through the creative lens of a local artist.”
Much has been made of the millennial affinity for experiences, with Airbnb tapping into this trend in 2016 when the company launched Airbnb Trips. As part of this, Airbnb began to offer a range of local activities and tours, with the intention of “immersing travelers in communities around the world.” These tours and experiences tend to delve into the nitty gritty of local life, among them London nightlife on budget, and a yoga class under the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Following in Airbnb’s footsteps, more brands like West Elm are offering tours and experiences that are stamped with their values. Spanish gin brand Gin Mare will in June launch a series of Med Transfers tours in London, which offer “an escape to the Mediterranean through a journey of the best cocktail bars, restaurants, and terraces.” Taking place in London’s Shoreditch, Soho, and Borough neighborhoods, the tours will include tapas dishes paired with Gin Mare cocktails. To create the experiences, Gin Mare has teamed with Gin Journey, a London company which offers chauffeured tours of British cities that promise to provide guests with a “boisterous insight into the world of gin.”
Hotels are putting on niche, themed tours for their guests, too. Portrait Roma hotel in the Italian capital has a vintage Vespa tour that allows guests to channel their inner Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn from Roman Holiday. Marriott recently launched a collection of curated experiences, called Marriott Moments, which, like Airbnb’s Trips, are tailored to all manner of niche tastes rather than imagined with broad brushstrokes. For the “young, fabulous and broke” traveler there are tours such as the Denver Scavenger Hunt Adventure, which leads the participants on a walk around historic Denver buildings; for the “pop culture vulture,” there’s a Hamilton Musical Walking Tour in Lower Manhattan. These tours can also be booked by independent travelers.
As interest grows in brands tapping into tour experiences, specialist companies are catering to this desire for tailored, unexpected city tours. One is SideStory, a London business co-founded by former Virgin and Wallpaper* executives, with the aim of “connecting travelers and locals to the best experiences a city has to offer.” It currently offers tours in London and Paris, with experiences spanning an excursion to London’s Chancery Lane legal center with former barrister Emma Matthews, and a tour of gourmet food stores in London’s Marylebone with chef Celia Brooks.
In April, boutique travel club Mr & Mrs Smith announced it had acquired SideStory, after partnering with the brand since 2016. Ed Orr, CEO of Mr & Mrs Smith, said at the time that the acquisition “broads and deepens” Mr & Mrs Smith’s travel club product offering, as Boutique Hotelier reported. He noted that the acquisition would help the company curate “the very best experiences for our members.”
As consumers—especially millennials and gen Zers—are increasingly drawn to memorable, transformative activities when it comes to spending their cash, brands are reinterpreting their products’ values as experiences. These real-life experiences serve as a hands-on, analog antidote to the way in which young consumers’ lives are increasingly lived online. Expect more brands to make the urban environment their stage.