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Award Season Trend: Gift Suites Move Focus From Swag to Branded Experiences

Photo: Line 8 Photography

Once upon a time—about a decade ago—it was a fresh marketing idea to bring brands and celebrities together for press-generating, free-stuff bonanzas known as “gifting suites.” But flash forward to the 2011 award season, and the novelty of that concept has flown—swag alone doesn’t draw the desired star wattage and media attention anymore. Now hosts are using suites as fully immersive environments to educate their guests, and are transforming ordinary hotel function spaces into on-brand, pop-up environments appropriate for award season and celebrity glitter, making a visit feel experiential and comfortable rather than just conspicuously grabby.

“When gift lounges first came to be, most were empty spaces with each sponsor receiving the same size table to display their product on their tabletop,” said Matthew Simon, co-founder of the 11-year-old suite producer On 3 Productions. “Today, sponsors want celebrities to experience their brands by creating interactive branded environments.”

Cara Kleinhaut of Caravents, which has produced and designed In Style’s beauty lounge for the Golden Globes at the Four Seasons for four years, agrees. “Brands are looking to really touch the influencers and make ambassadors out of them, by giving them experiences with their products, as opposed to handing them an overstuffed bag they may not even look in,” she said.

To create ambassadors, brands are increasingly using suite environments as opportunities to meaningfully educate guests and let them experience products in relevant ways. “While we always had hair and makeup with L’Oréal in a beauty area, there were also gifting moments in multiple rooms,” Kleinhaut said of that suite’s past incarnations. “Now we concentrate more on an expanded beauty build-out, with multiple stations, longer appointments, and consultations—not just touch up and go. And while there is a large bar of products from L’Oréal to choose from, we have consultants on hand to make suggestions and explain how it is used.”

That focus on building and deepening brand awareness among suite visitors was apparent at Access Hollywood's fifth annual “Stuff You Must …” lounge for the Globes at the Sofitel. At the lounge, produced by On 3, Netflix taught guests how to use their streaming services (before giving them a lifetime movie subscription), taking the time to explain its messaging and connect with guests. At a salon set up for CVS, beauty treatments kept guests comfortable and encouraged them to linger.

Guests who linger result in R.O.I. that lingers too, and continues to build long after the event. “From Jorg Gray having guests try on and select their watches to Vintage Revolution ensuring guests leave with the right-fitting jeans, we are constantly spotting stars out and about wearing our sponsors’ products or using their services, as they're more customized to their likes,” said On 3’s Simon.

To expose visitors to products in on-brand ways that also encourage them to stay those precious moments longer, suite organizers are increasing their focus on creating fully built-out spaces—not just plopping their events atop undressed hotel function spaces. After all, what’s good for, say, Netflix—its colors, its brand identity—isn’t right for L’Oréal.

In Access Hollywood's lounge, Jes Gordon Proper Fun designed the salon-style space for CVS, with pink and orange callas, decorative rocks scattered among the products, and logos displayed in mirrored frames. The clean look included white furniture and silver flooring, and it infused the room with bright, vibrant colors for a feminine yet cozy feel.

For the In Style lounge, Caravents’ luxury look mixed a palette of platinum, white, and blush with silk dupioni, suede, and chrome textures with crystal details, and R. Jack Balthazar provided the flowers and decor. And upstairs in the same hotel, the Visionary Group built out a hotel suite to feel like a luxe salon experience for L’Oréal as part of HBO's larger Luxury Lounge, replacing everything in the existing space, including carpet, wallpaper, and chandeliers. Guests stopped by the sleek space for hair and nail services.

Gavin Keilly of GBK, which organizes suites around multiple award ceremonies, also emphasizes the importance of attention-getting branding. “It is incredibly important to not only think outside the box, but to think of creative ways for a brand to get additional exposure. For Tic Tac at the Emmys this year, we created a press wall out of over 70,000 Tic Tacs,” he said. And for GBK's Globes suite, logos on a press wall took the form of framed art upon white shelving for a clean, less busy look. “We always try to create an environment, and not just a stale gifting room with products.”

Another brand getting on board with the salon-style suite for this year’s award season is Elle, which organizes the sponsor lounges related to Film Independent’s Spirit Awards on the same weekend as the Oscars. In addition to its lounge integrations for sponsors Acura and BGBG next month, the magazine will take over a salon for sponsor Aveeno. Media folks will be invited to the Exhale spa at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, temporarily renamed as the “Aveeno Salon and Spa.” On another day that weekend, the spa will target consumers for a similar experience after a garden beautification volunteerism project. Elle will also incorporate Aveeno in a blogger lounge on site at the awards.

Elle as a brand hasn't ever really done standard, run-of-the mill gifting suites because it never felt like it was something our clients wanted,” said Elle’s New York-based director of special events and partnerships, Caitlin Weiskopf. “They look to us to keep their brand objective in mind and get talent excited, which is why the Spirit Awards [have been] attractive to us. It’s a cool way to elevate our clients and get their product into the right hands without making it feel like we're forcing it down throats in a way that feels tacky or unnecessary. [To that end, Aveeno] wanted to do something to make the products come to life. We’re building it out and making it really brand-specific. It's ethereal, comfortable.”

It seems, in the bright light of award season, “ethereal” is a concept that resonates as a way to draw guests—and keep them—at the new brand of gift suites. “The environment itself is beautiful, ethereal, totally immersive, giving guests an afternoon of luxury [and service],” said Kleinhaut of In Style’s Globes suite. “In the end, guests want to be transported. Brands know we associate a sense of luxury lifestyle and an idealized self-image in these environments, so we carefully craft the environment down to each flower petal, to make sure guests feel exactly as we hope the brand wants them to feel, while sipping, eating, wearing, or being serviced with their products. It makes ambassadors out of each guest as they Tweet and Facebook how fabulous it all is.”