Last week the subject of our series of ThinkIns turned to the leisure experience sector – undoubtedly among the areas most disrupted by COVID-19. Yet it has proven itself remarkably innovative, and nimble, in the face of such unforeseen change.

While the jury may still be out on whether we will return to pre-pandemic activity, there is mixed evidence on whether our adaptive behaviour during the pandemic is lasting. Our own Changing Consumer Priorities study has shown significant variations in activity in different areas of the hospitality and leisure industry. Shopping and restaurant dining, for instance, has revived while travel, hotel stays, and indoor entertainment are yet to recover at the same pace.

Joining me to discuss what had gone before and what may lie ahead was Max Alexander, CEO, Secret Cinema, and Jesús Fernández Morán, Chief Operating Officer, Parques Reunidos. We heard some fascinating perspectives and reflections:

  • For some, it's been a period of difficult but welcome innovation - Mother is the necessity of invention, and those like Secret Cinema have built a welcome constellation of formats to adapt to the evolving pandemic audiences. Factors such as the locality of visitors, whether or not it is open-air, and diversification of services all impact the changes necessitated. We also heard how country-specific regulatory had also created an involuntary, but nonetheless useful, comparison between operations.

  • There’s been an observable post-lockdown spike in demand for experiential leisure - Pent-up appreciation for these activities could be contributing to a burst of visitation as many countries loosen restrictions. Our panellists were seeing a growth in interest for services, especially - and naturally - around celebrations such as the upcoming Halloween.

  • Digitisation has been a lifeline for evolving models - Consumers increasingly want to do more at home - the so-called self-centric consumer - and experiential leisure models have experimented with enabling home entertainment. For some, however, it is simply impossible and can be no match for the in-person experience.

  • Building loyalty can be easier for those adapting to digitisation effectively - hiring a Relationships Manager can help with this. But there should also be a focus on encouraging people to try something for the first time (we discussed the example of wariness around public transport in Germany, which was tackled by making people aware of its safety and convenience). Post-pandemic, once you’ve hugged somebody or seen somebody for the first time, it becomes much easier to then do it again. Tackling the worries consumers have around possible cancellation - ubiquitous these past 20 months - will be a key task to reassure those who are booking, as well as those who are still hesitant to do so.

  • Availability of staff is a real pinch point in the experiential leisure market - Brexit and COVID-19 have made this a huge issue in the UK, but this is true elsewhere. In this sector, the difficulty is compounded by a cautiousness in booking far ahead in advance. Persuading an audience en masse to pay far in advance is the key challenge, a trend seen in the West End, where discounted last-minute tickets are proving the lifeblood.

  • The involuntary reset companies faced during the pandemic has built lasting resilience - this will be valuable for unforeseen crises and the shocks of the future. It will help ensure the experiential economy is robust enough to bounce back with similar success to that managed, for many but sadly not all, in the wake of COVID-19.