This month, Houston became the center of the sporting world as the host of Super Bowl LI. A major piece of the excitement of hosting this event is the opportunity to take part in the experiential activations and events that come with the Super Bowl.
The majority of these activations were held in two locations: Super Bowl LIVE at Discovery Green and the NFL Experience at George R. Brown Convention Center. These venues highlighted Houston and all it has to offer and provided space for many of the sponsors and organizations that surround the game to engage with consumers. The most successful experiential events ask consumers to create their own brand stories; these venues were no exception.
The MMI experiential events team downloaded the SBLI app and headed downtown to check out these events. Here is our take on the overall experience, what we loved, and some key takeaways for the future.
Super Bowl LIVE
Billed as the “City of the Future,” Super Bowl LI’s host city was embraced by many of the brands that showcased advances in technology and utilized virtual reality (VR) experiences. The most notable VR experience, “Journey to Mars,” was presented by NASA in partnership with other aerospace companies. This activation brought together a virtual Mars mission and a 90-foot drop on a carnival ride. A slow ascension into outer space, simulated with VR goggles, ended quickly when riders plummeted back to Earth and landed on the 50-yard line at NRG Stadium. This 2-minute experience had us giggling and screaming like school children. NASA also brought great pieces of space travel memorabilia that included a landing capsule and rockets, perfect reminders of our historic Space City designation.
The Lockheed Martin STEM school bus was a fun experience for those with less of a desire to be dropped from the sky. The yellow school bus has been retrofitted with television screens in place of windows, which created a truly immersive environment to educate consumers and students about the possibilities of deep space exploration.
Verizon Wireless also brought its VR experience to Super Bowl LIVE in a pop-up event space. Consumers had the opportunity to step into an oversized football helmet, don a VR headset, and face off with their friends in a quick interactive game. Verizon has done a great job making this element of its national tour relevant to football fans across the country.
FOX Sports, CNN and ESPN had large media setups and filmed live shows and segments on-site. For fans and non-fans alike, it was exciting to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it takes to make television come to life.
The “Houston Live” exhibition was a wonderful way to showcase this wonderful city, from the helmets displayed out the front of the tented area that showcased local artwork to the musicians and local companies and organizations highlighted inside. The tent itself was a spectacle and created a unique and inviting atmosphere for all to learn more about the city of Houston.
Although the NFL Experience was geared toward a younger audience, that didn’t stop kids of all ages from running, jumping and kicking their way through the more than 60 activations and exhibits offered to them. The focus was on the physical and photo activations, but technology was still on show with some mapped projection and VR. Despite multiple activations having similar experiences, there were a few that stood out from the rest.
Under Armour brought the NFL Combine to the masses by allowing consumers to compete against family, friends and strangers in different activities, like running the 40-yard dash. Under Armour transported consumers by bringing in professional timing systems, large digital displays and emcees to call the events.
At two locations, FedEx brought air and ground shipping to life with passing and running challenges for consumers. These were similar to other experiences already on display, but the staff and volunteers at these two locations were by far the best; they were clearly well-trained and excited, making the overall experience even better.
While many brands opted for high-tech and physical activations, Skittles went low-tech and showed fans that sometimes simple is better. When consumers entered the branded environment, they were invited to share pictures to their social networks from one of the many fun and playful displays. Once shared, consumers were given a key to open a random locker within the space to win prizes.
There were many other photo-and-social-sharing opportunities around the NFL Experience. By utilizing the Super Bowl app, users could easily share a team cheer or touchdown celebration.
Overall, the NFL Experience was a blast, and the Super Bowl app made it even more entertaining by allowing users to track their progress and win prizes. While we did not take advantage of the many player signing opportunities or the kids program “NFL Play 60” (We were just a little too old for that.), it was very clear that everyone who attended had a great time.
- New technology is a great way to excite consumers, but brands need to ensure they will stand out in what has become a crowded space. NASA’s “Journey to Mars” was a hit with crowds, in part because it brought in a physical element with the 90-foot drop. Other VR activations were not as notable because they only offered consumers the visual effect of VR, a stunt that can become repetitive.
- The staff in an event space can make all the difference. Microsoft, Verizon and Skittles were a few of the brands that brought professional staff from national tours or hired that staff locally, in lieu of utilizing the large and local volunteer base. Microsoft stood out because its team of brand ambassadors were well-trained and well-spoken and knew the activation and products on display like the backs of their hands. While many volunteers were incredibly friendly and excited about being there, we only noticed a few areas where the volunteers had enough background knowledge to speak in depth about the activations and brands they were assigned to assist.
- Brands need to look beyond the space they work in and think about the experience in 360 degrees. “Journey to Mars” was a lot of fun, but it was clear that the experience that had been thought through was restricted only to the time people were on the ride. As this was a very popular attraction, people waited for a significant amount of time for a turn to ride. The experience could have been improved by including the line in the plans; something simple, such as NASA employees talking to those in line about the space program and deep space exploration, would have had a big impact on the complete experience.
We left these experiences and events excited about the Super Bowl and with extreme pride to be Houstonians. As an experiential producer, it is hard to go to events like these and not be critical or call out all of the changes you would make if it was your event. We don’t know the constraints and budgets that these different brands dealt with, so we can only compare them to the knowledge we have of working in similar environments, take notes, and learn from others. We look forward to the next time a large event comes to town and allows Houston to show off its place as one of the greatest cities in the world.