I’m not going to lie, I was really hesitant to move back to New York City after being in Boston for two years. Believe it or not, my apprehension had nothing to do with the sheer amount of trash in this city, nor was it about the blaring ambulances, fire trucks, or asshole cab drivers honking their horns 24/7. It wasn’t about the lack of greenery or the fact that too many New Yorkers are oftentimes unapproachable and cold. No, it really had little to do with your typical reasons for fleeing this city, and had everything to do with…beauty events.
My life in NYC before I moved to Boston was incredibly chaotic and busy, so much so that I’ve feared coming back to it. Running from a morning breakfast with a publicist to a group lunch for a beauty brand across town, then uptown to a cocktail party for another brand, only to get home at 9 pm after having not eaten anything for dinner (I mean, it was a cocktail party, so what should I expect?) three to four days a week looks so glamorous on Instagram, but feels so taxing in real life. My former work-life balance left little room for actually writing articles, few moments with friends and family, and very little time with my boyfriend, too. Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve had post-pandemic anxiety about not only returning back to “normal” life, but also returning back to a life that was, quite frankly, draining AF.
As the post-pandemic world begins to emerge, I’ve started to get more in-person press event invitations, and even a press trip invite or two. I will always be extremely grateful for all of the things I’ve been able to experience at various beauty events across town (and across the country!), and am so appreciative of every brand (and publicist) relationship I have, but the lack of in-person work events during COVID really taught me to place value over my mental health above everything else (and I know many editors and freelancers agree).
In an effort to explore the future of post-COVID events in the beauty space, I’ve interviewed a bunch of publicists and editors/freelancers (and will be including their quotes anonymously) about their thoughts on going back to the pre-pandemic schedules. Below, I’ve asked publicists for their take (as well as what their brands are thinking) on returning back to in-person beauty events.
On the flip side, I’ve interviewed editors and writers about their thoughts on the matter, which will be published sometime next week.
What are the general thoughts for brands/PR agencies to return back to hosting in-person events? Are they excited to host them again, or would they rather do virtual desksides and events?
“Brands are itching to go back to in-person events, but from a PR point of view, we are terrified of getting backlash or looking insensitive to the current landscape. Many agencies are waiting to see/hear from editors on what they are comfortable with and right now the response has been very 50/50.”
“For better or worse, I don’t see events going back to how they once were any time soon. There has been such a seismic shift in what used to be normal for us…finding our groove into making small talk is a seemingly big deal, let alone returning to what was considered de rigueur with events (a.k.a. the non-stop pace and cadence of events, the lavish decor, the activations to encourage social, the dashing from up to downtown, east to the west side). I know many industry people (I’m talking across the board – publicists, brand execs, and editors) are itching for some IRL contact and return to some sort of BC (before COVID) normalcy, but the idea of pre-pandemic events a la being in a closed space, with attendees unmasked, greeting each other with hugs and cheek kisses, shared trays of canapés being passed around, seats clustered together, product being demoed directly on your hand…it sounds absolutely absurd (not to mention tone-deaf) after the year+ we’ve all been through…and are still very much going through. In my opinion, the risk is too high — and for what reward? Perhaps I’m more conservative than others in that way.”
“I’m excited to start seeing people again – and having face-to-face interactions, but we’re slowly easing back in. We’ve started doing one-on-ones and very small groups, but for anything larger scale, we’re holding off and sticking to virtual for now. I’d say the response rate has been a mixed bag of [editors] who are beyond thrilled to start getting out and doing things again, and those that just aren’t ready quite yet.”
“I would say brands and PR agencies are definitely eager to return to in-person events and my company has already started hosting some in-person events. They’ve been on a very small scale, whether it be inviting editors one-on-one to get treated for a treatment, or doing a small press trip broken into two groups. We will probably keep desksides virtual so that we can meet with a larger group of people in a smaller amount of time.”
What does the future of beauty events look like?
“I do think we’ll see outdoor events now that it’s summer in NYC, but even those will look and feel different. Far less people for one, likely staggered small group sessions rather than one large group format, individual food and drink trays (vs. help yourself spreads or grazing tables), signage about face masks, hand sanitizers throughout, temperature checks before entrance, perhaps even queries ahead of time re: vaccination status. I also think there may be a resurgence of more localized press trips that will satisfy the urge for those who wish to partake in IRL events (and let’s be honest, have a change of scenery) but in a smaller capacity.”
“It’s hard to say, but I don’t see full-out events returning immediately. I think there will be more events that have several sessions offered, to allow for spacing, and a lot more precautions taken, even though NY is technically back open. Everyone’s comfort level is different, and that should still be respected.”
“I think from what I see on Instagram about editors and then what I hear from my clients and my agency is that in-person events are going to come back in full force. I think people are really excited—the small events that we’ve had have gotten people excited to come in, as long as we’re following COVID protocols. We ask people if they are vaccinated and ask them to fill out a COVID form, so I think as long as they feel comfortable, I’d say we’re ready to go.”
“I know we’re all in Zoom fatigue, and virtual events aren’t the same (trust—I feel it too!), but I think they are going to still be common practice in the PR world for the near future. The past 18 months have shown that it can work. And maybe it’s been a bit of a wake-up call for what’s really needed and what’s not when it comes to announcing brand and product launch news?”
Do brands/PR agencies get more engagement and/or brand coverage via in-person events or virtual events?
“I think by nature when you host a virtual event, you’re able to accommodate additional headcount, as you aren’t restricted by venue size or seating capacity, catering costs, etc. You’re also getting far less last-minute cancellations than would you encounter with real-life events, so that’s a big win. I work with independent brands, so more often than not, desksides or coffees and meals with the founders or brand leaders made more sense (and were far more cost-effective) than hosting a large-scale event. And there are only so many desksides or coffees you can fit in a day, when you have to account for travel time, people running late, breaks to check emails and take calls, etc. So by hosting virtual events, we’re able to touch far more people than we ever could have over the course of two days of desksides, even though those days were back/back.
I will say, though, that the 1:1 meetings with founders isn’t something I’ve found that has been easily replicated digitally. There’s something more compelling about sitting next to someone, picking up on their verbal and non-verbal cues, feeling the vibe and energy of the shop or restaurant you’re in, etc. that just can’t be replaced via a Zoom call. So I do look forward to when those 1:1 coffees and meals resume, whenever that is.”
“More editors definitely attend virtual events vs. in-person. I think the ease of being at home and not having to worry about timing or shelping around makes it easier.”
“I’ve definitely experienced better engagement with virtual events—and less no-shows, too! I have found that digital events are so much less of a time suck for everyone, making people way more likely to be able to fit it in their schedules.”
“This is a tricky one—I think it’s easier to get an RSVP for a virtual event, but I also feel like it’s easier for people to then skip out on them or forget or just not show up. When you’re attending an event in-person, there’s more accountability, and for someone to just not show up is super rude. I know we did a virtual event last week and we got like 30 RSVP’s and like 21 people showed up, so not terrible but kind of a lot of drop-off. For in-person events pre-COVID, I would say you would get a lot of no-shows, but I think because we’re taking so many precautions and people are excited to get back, we’re seeing really good engagement right now for in-person events.”
Are PR agencies going to give editors and freelancers the option of attending virtual events vs. in-person events?
“Perhaps there’s the opportunity to attend an IRL event that’s held one day or time, or attend an all-virtual event that’s held a different date/time. I personally think it would be hard to manage a hybrid event simultaneously—from friends of mine with school-age kids who were attending virtual school on days where some kids were there in real life, it sounded like a recipe for disaster. The teachers were torn between making sure the online class was engaged and then the students in front of them were tended to…it’s a lot to manage.
I do think moving forward, there should be some sort of a virtual option, to account not only for those key writers and outlets who aren’t in NYC but also for those on-staff at an NYC-based outlet who moved out of NYC during the pandemic and are officially working remotely (HOORAH for companies wising up and realizing that’s an actual option) for the foreseeable future.”
“Definitely think that is an option. From a cost perspective and since we have to work within budgets for clients…we probably wouldn’t be able to do both. When you do something in person, so much goes into it where an exact headcount is absolutely necessary. Also, we miss in-person! We feel like editors really get a chance to experience products/product offerings when in person, so we will see. We’ve definitely been able to recognize what deserves an event and what deserves a deskside. It really depends on what the client wants and is pushing for.”
“I think so! I feel like the pandemic really brought to light that not everything warrants an event, and the time, money, and energy will be saved for big brand moments only.”
How has doing virtual events impacted your brands?
“Positively, in general it’s easier to meet with people and get facetime with an editor. And negatively, it’s like just because someone shows up to a Zoom with like 10 other people on it doesn’t necessarily mean that we get to have a side conversation with an editor (like you might at an in-person event) or you don’t really really get to know someone. If we’re having an in-person event somewhere, an editor might like to step off to the side and meet the founder of the brand and talk to them. Virtual events are less personal—maybe it’s easier to show up to a virtual event, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get coverage from every single person just because they like logged onto a Zoom. We’re reaching a larger audience with virtual events, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily helping every brand to get a ton of placements.”
“The pros: Virtually, we’re able to extend invitations to writers who aren’t local to NYC—so we’ve had attendance from writers in the south, midwest, west coast, southwest, etc. I’ve loved that, because in BC times, most events are held in NYC aka media capital of the world (with a potential second event in LA, if budget allowed), so anyone who wasn’t in NYC would have just received the product mailer as opposed to being able to partake in the actual event and “be” with their peers and colleagues.
The negatives: Zooms and the option to turn off your camera/be a black square or an avatar is a lot less engaging than it would be face-to-face (although, let’s be honest, in face-to-face events, half the attendees were on their phone [capturing content, maybe…or answering emails, texting friends, deleting spam, who knows?] so even though they were physically present, they may not have been mentally there).”
“Overall, virtual events have been a really positive experience for some of our smaller brands. Virtual facetime has been really valuable and more editors/freelancers have been open to meeting some of newer brands for this convenience factor reason. We appreciate the support more than anyone knows and at the end of the day, there is no better feeling than sending your client a placement that you can directly correlate came from someone who attended the event.”
“The ability to invite editors and freelancers from all over the country, versus just in NY, was amazing for our brands! We were able to have personal interactions with those that we normally would not be able to, and I’d hate to see that go away.”