Welp, seems like it’s time for another year-end recap. Around this time last year my review of 2020 likened it to a dumpster fire. Probably an apt, if not particularly original, metaphor. But things looked hopeful at the start of 2021 and I (like many others) expected to see an emergence from our collective troubles. I certainly held no illusions of a “return to normal” – what once was normal is no more. But I did expect our path out of the pandemic to be swifter and more definitive.

Alas, it has instead been fitful and slow. But there’s been progress nevertheless. Vaccine hesitancy is real, but for the willing vaccines and boosters are freely available. Omicron is incredibly contagious, but so far seems less dangerous. Shortened guidance for non-symptomatic quarantines should help ease pressures on the economy at least some. Lockdowns and shutdowns seem unlikely to recur broadly.

Roaring Twenties

In last year’s review I analogized to the 1918 flu pandemic and its role in spurring on the roaring 1920s. I still think a roaring 2020s is likely in our future. This past year saw interesting surges in cryptocurrencies and NFTs, potentially presaging a blockchain revolution that might lay the groundwork for a different kind of internet. Similarly we saw an incredible surge of interest in the metaverse, another potential internet-changing set of technologies.

But dig a little further into that historical reference and you’ll learn that it took three years to recover from the 1918 pandemic. History, of course, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. So if our century-apart crises do end up rhyming then welcome to the third (and hopefully final) year of the COVID pandemic.

I think the most apt summary of 2021 I’ve heard was New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s take on The Argument. “The end of an ending” seems to me to really capture how 2021 felt – we went into the year expecting to see the end of the pandemic, only to have those hopes repeatedly dashed. (In politics, some might see a similar path for the end of the Trump presidency.) But I’m actually much more optimistic than Goldberg overall.

True, we won’t see a definitive end to the pandemic. But that was always unlikely. And instead we’ll see a slow transition to the endemic. Maybe in a couple of decades we’ll all be getting annual COVID boosters along with our annual flu shots. But whatever the protocol it’ll surely be just another of the many societal issues that undergird civilized life, rarely thought about by most of us. And most of the positive trends I noted last year seem to have even greater tailwinds now.

Technological Progress

Perhaps the greatest of those was the re-imagining of uses of technology. That very much continued through 2021 and will surely keep its momentum into 2022 and beyond. The events industry, of which I am a part, transitioned from live events to virtual events to hybrid events.

CES is a good touchstone here, being so large and falling right at the start of the year. Last year they transitioned to a mostly successful virtual event. This year the in-person show is back on (I’ll be headed there in a couple of days) but with a number of large exhibitors pulling out from their live presence, the pressure is on to make their hybrid approach a success for both in-person and virtual attendees. Among those cancelling were T-Mobile, Amazon, Google and Facebook, so there will significant impact to the show. CTA say that only 200 of the 2200 exhibitors cancelled and that 143 new exhibitors signed on. But they have also shortened the show by a day. And many will opt to skip the trip and experience CES virtually.

So the uses of technology to deliver industry events to broader audiences is continuing to grow and improve. And then there’s the metaverse. Technologies that many of us have been using for years are now being combined to envision compelling new virtual worlds. The visions for how such worlds will impact our lives are varied, and not all will come to pass. But some will. And the nascent metaverse environments we have today, from Roblox to Decentraland, will seem primitive by comparison.

Experience Economy

Another trend I still believe in one year on is the pent-up demand for experiences. We’ve mostly been allowed out of the house for the past year, but us office workers haven’t yet been fully liberated from our home-centric routines. At best we’re back in the office a couple of days a week. We might be eating out in restaurants and going out to events once in while, but not nearly at the pace of 2019. I certainly yearn for more of such experiences as conditions allow, and I don’t think I’m alone.

We’ve been seeing that already. With everyone on lockdown in 2020 we built a number of purely digital experiences for virtual events and online activations. And we revisited many of those a year later in 2021. Despite the lack of an end to the pandemic, we consistently saw engagement numbers for 2021’s digital activations lower than those for 2020.

A good case in point is Macy’s Santaland. Unable to open their stores to in-person visits to Santaland in 2020, we worked with Macy’s to create a virtual Santaland At Home experience. It was a huge success and we helped them to create an even more ambitious version for 2021. With the availability of vaccines, they were also able to re-introduce their live in-store Santaland visits. So we worked with them to incorporate a reservation system allowing customers to reserve their visits to Santaland in Macy’s stores in major US cities. A good example of the path of in-person to virtual to hybrid.

We saw a healthy increase in site traffic from one year to the next. And we also saw that given the chance to see Santa in person, most parents opted to do so. This despite the vaccination requirements and the fact that kids had to meet Santa behind his desk, both Santa and the kids wearing masks. Despite the success of our virtual experience, there really is no substitute for in-person experiences. Would-be metaverse creators will be wise to remember that – virtual worlds must be an adjunct to real-world experiences, not a replacement for them.

We’re already working on multiple different projects for 2022 that involve ticketed attractions. If that doesn’t get to the heart of the experience economy then I don’t know what does. This year definitely won’t be 2020 all over again, thank heavens. But it may not bring us the ending we expected in 2021 either. Rather, it’s likely to be a whole new year full of new surprises. You know, like every year.

Featured Image: Cristian Escobar on Unsplash