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Special Events Blog
Melanie Goodwin

14 Lessons from The Color Factory: Applying Experiential Museum Concepts to Events

San Francisco's pop-up museum The Color Factory offers plenty of lessons for smart event designers.

Unlike traditional museums, which typically adhere to a strict “look but don’t touch” policy, The Color Factory in San Francisco encourages guests to fully immerse themselves in the exhibits. Each room is themed around a color, and guests are encouraged to to touch, hear, see—and sometimes even taste and smell— the art.

The façade of the Color Factory.

The Color Factory has been wildly popular from Day One, selling out in a matter of minutes every time a new batch of tickets is released.

Last month, several friends and I finally secured tickets to the uber-popular Color Factory. As an art lover and creator myself, I could not wait to see what the buzz was about, and as an event planner, I was excited to see which experiential elements might apply to events.

Here are some of the top insights I walked away with after my visit:

1. Make your event share-worthy.
If pictures of your event on Instagram don’t make non-attendees jealous, did your event even happen? Ensure memories of your event live on long afterwards by setting up creative and easy photo/video opportunities for guests.

The Color Factory has timed selfie cameras in most rooms, and a multitude of other photo opportunities for guests to take pics with their own smartphones. The ball pit even features a ceiling-mounted camera, which captures guests “floating” on their backs in a sea of yellow plastic orbs.

2. Use photos to build buzz.
It’s been proven time and again that anticipation of a special event increases appreciation of the event. 

The Color Factory and similar “museums” share hip, artfully staged photos before tickets go on sale to drive buzz and build excitement. For your event, be sure to share a few carefully crafted sneak peeks of your most photo-worthy elements in the days (or hours) before the event to increase anticipation. Your guests’ imaginations will be activated as they start to wonder what other clever surprises are in store for them.

The Color Factory's registration area, designed by Erin Jang.

3. Make spaces do double duty.
Events always require elements that take up space, but don’t add to the creative experience--think coat check, restrooms and hallways. However, these typically banal spaces are actually useful square footage that can be used to enhance the guests’ experience.

In the Color Factory, no corner was left untouched. Instead of waiting idly for your friends to finish checking in at registration, guests could take a selfie in front of a colorful wall covered in scratch-and-sniff circles emitting delicious, and not-so-delicious, scents such as “cucumber” and “forgotten chocolate found at the bottom of your backpack.”

Pass-through spaces including hallways and foyers can also be blank canvases awaiting your creative flourish. One foyer at the Color Factory was filled with benches and a large white wall displaying a simple message: “This is a place to sit, take a deep breath, and take in all the colors.” Narrow hallways were up-lit in color-changing lights, and stairways were accented with clever color-themed quotes.

The yellow ball pit; illustration by Carissa Potter.

4. Make the food do quadruple duty.
Food can be Theme, Entertainment, Sponsor Opportunity and Something to Eat.

At the Color Factory, the food furthered the colorful themes of each room, served as entertainment, and helped to offset costs for the organizers, since every bite and sip were provided by a local purveyor for free or at a discount.

Just past the scratch-and-sniff wall, a variety of macarons were placed one by one onto on an oversized lazy Susan, which swiveled through a gap in the wall so that guests could grab one as they passed by. This interesting serving method turned the simple act of replenishing a buffet line into a whimsical, artisanal experience.

In the black and white room, Project Juice provided shots of black charcoal lemonade. Its unexpected color, which was explained via vinyl decal lettering, enhanced the theme while simultaneously promoting the company’s inventive product line.

The yellow room featured sunny-hued mini ice cream cones from a Garden Creamery. The adorable cones made excellent props for selfies, and guests got to sample a San Francisco staple.

Alaska Airlines Room at the Color Factory; artist Jihan Zencirli.

5. Incorporate sponsors in a way that adds to the experience.
Food wasn’t the only sponsored element. Several rooms were sponsored by brands, which were thoughtfully crafted into each space.

The balloon room was awash in Alaska Airlines signature shade of “wild blue yonder” blue. Every surface matched the deep azure, the exhibit signage listed them as the sponsor, and even the photos taken in that room were branded with their logo.

Method soap sponsored the confetti room. Rows of their blue hand-soap bottles lined one wall from floor to ceiling. The repetitive grouping turned a simple household product into modern pop art. Witty signage and a hashtag (#playcleanfightdirty) subtly connected the messy confetti to the cleaning brand.

6. Let guests leave their mark.
Being “hands on” is always more fun that being a passive observer. So let your guests leave their mark on the event--literally. The green room featured white walls with black cartoon outlines and giant, five-foot tall green markers for guests to color with. Most of us have seen graffiti walls at events, but this fresh take on the concept was cleaner and added a touch of nostalgia.

The Lite Brite room featured a back-lit wall dotted with a grid of holes, which could be filled with massive acrylic pegs to form whatever shape or letters the guests desired.

7. Remember that every surface has potential.
No surface at the Color Factory was overlooked. The floors were decaled with way-finding signs or holographic patterns. The ceilings were covered in disco balls, balloons, ribbons or confetti dispensers. Even the stairs became walk-able rainbows. Given the accessibility of digital printing and removable decals, it’s easier than ever to put every square inch to use.

8. Use your words.
Every space included decal signage that explained the meanings behind the space and provided way-finding information. Most floors included arrow signs and cute little phrases to keep guests informed and entertained as they traveled from space to space.

9. Play with sizing.
Simple elements became big conversation pieces simply by breaking the rules of size. Food was adorably tiny: little shots of lemonade and tiny ice cream cones, while interactive props like markers, ball pits and Lite Brite pegs were oversized to make everyone feel like a kid again.

10. Immerse guests.
Guests could envelop themselves in many of the interactive exhibits. Simple elements, like ribbons, delivered maximum impact when grouped in massive quantities. The blue room was a cave made of hundreds of balloons. The ribbon exhibit allowed guests to get lost within 10,000 dangling rainbow ribbons, and the ball pit let everyone dive into the color yellow.

11. Use tech to streamline the experience.
One the best-executed features of the Color Factory was the use of technology to simplify the guests’ journey. Upon arrival, each guest’s ticket is scanned (from a piece of paper or smartphone), then the guest is given a small card with a QR Code. Guests take that card to one of several iPad kiosks, where they enter their contact information and scan the code using the iPad’s built-in camera. This connects their card to their email address. Once their card is registered, they can use it activate cameras throughout the exhibit, and the Color Factory can instantly send digital copies of pictures to the guests.

Despite heavy throughput, this system cut entry staff down to only four people: two to scan tickets, one to hand out cards, and one to assist guests with the iPads if guests had questions. The only drawback is that it is easy for guests to drop and lose their card during the experience. Scannable wristbands or other wearables would have been more practical.

12. Don’t forget basic amenities.

Coat/bag check: Guests often arrive wearing layers and carrying laptop bags and backpacks, which are impractical in crowded rooms and prevent guests from taking cute pictures. Don’t forget to offer coat and bag check or lockers at your events, even if you have to charge a fee for the service.

Climate control: Just because an event is in a temperate climate like San Francisco doesn’t mean that spaces won’t become unbearably hot due to the accumulation of body heat. The yellow ball pit room was extremely hot, but luckily offered coat hooks for use while in the space. Yelp reviews note this as an ongoing issue with the Color Factory, even in the dead of winter.

Forcing the theme: The gift shop was located in the yellow ball pit room and sold nothing but yellow items, which means the museum lost out on sales to customers who don’t want yellow souvenirs. Don’t try to force your theme in ways that limit your event or its profitability–-such as forcing all of the items on your menu or silent auction to fit the theme exactly.

13. Don't miss out on follow-up opportunities
The Color Factory scores big points for sending guests’ images to them immediately after the visit, but it missed some valuable opportunities for its sponsors. While the museum did offer a map that displayed places to visit and things to do after leaving, more could have been done to incentivize and track attributable business for sponsors. 

For example, the Method soap company could have offered coupons and product samples. The various food purveyors might have offered coupons encouraging guests to visit their brick and mortar locations. Alaska Airlines should have encouraged guests to enter a contest to win free airfare in exchange for opting into their newsletters or signing up for their free frequent flyer program.

As long as they offer an extra value to the guest, complementary promotions are often well received and allow sponsors to track the ROI of their investment in an event.

14. Embrace immersive events.
The Color Factory reinforced that which I’ve always known: Immersive, artistic experiences resonate deeply with guests and worth the investment—and the creative risk.

Though clients are often hesitant to implement such unconventional concepts, the wild success of the Color Factory and similar museums (such as The Museum of Ice Cream) should erase all doubt that these types of experiences are what attendees crave.

Don’t be afraid to incorporate some immersive elements into your next event. Your attendees (and their Instagram followers) will thank you.

Melanie E. Goodwin, CMP, is a creative strategist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her company, Melanie Goodwin Creative, provides branding, design and event services for B2B and B2C clientele.


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