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Q&A: What Event Planners Can Learn From the Success of Refinery29's 29Rooms

Refinery29's creative director shares behind-the-scenes details as the multisensory funhouse expands to San Francisco and Chicago.

By Claire Hoffman June 5, 2018, 7:02 AM EDT

Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Refinery29

After four years in New York and a successful Los Angeles launch in December, Refinery29 is bringing its wildly popular 29Rooms concept to two new cities this summer: San Francisco, running from June 21 to 24 at the Palace of Fine Arts, and Chicago later this summer.

BizBash spoke to Refinery29's executive creative director and co-founder, Piera Gelardi, about the success of 29Rooms, the challenges of expanding to new cities, and the lessons other events can learn from the interactive art experience.

Why do you think 29Rooms has been such a successful event concept?
When we created 29Rooms, we really wanted to create an inclusive event that put people center-stage—we really designed the event around the audience. I was giving them access to an event during New York Fashion Week, putting people in these scenarios that are outside of their ordinary. That allows them to be the center of our show and to create content where it looks like they’re in a music video, or in a high-end fashion shoot in a magazine. I think that creating that world of wonder and that ability to create really incredible content within our walls has really resonated with the audience.

I think it’s also about the discovery experience of 29Rooms—coming into a space where you can discover so many different kinds of ideas and artists. There’s something for everyone inside our space. For a lot of people, it’s a transformative experience where they feel really energized and moved by the fact that they are really welcome in our space, and get really lit up by the creativity of this world around them. A lot of people walk out saying that they feel more creative or that this event makes them start dreaming bigger.

Obviously, 29Rooms generates some great social-media moments. Is that a main goal for you as well?
Our main goal in creating the event was to create an inclusive space that sparked ideas and creativity, and that also really elevated the creative voices of a huge range of people that inspire us. I think people are really yearning for a way to truly interact with art. 29Rooms gives people multi-sensory opportunities to touch, hear, smell, and discover all these new ideas and artists that they might otherwise not have access to, or not want to engage with because the spaces they might usually be shown in don’t feel as welcoming.

The first year when we created 29Rooms, we noticed the shift in people’s behaviors towards everyone becoming their own content creators, and so we really consciously designed the experience and worked with our artists to make sure the space was really visual and really shareable—that in each space there was somewhere that someone could create a beautiful image of themselves within in our walls.

How do you choose the artists and celebrities involved in designing the rooms?
We look for people that have an interesting point of view, whose work connects with the themes that we want to cover within the event. Because Refinery29 is rooted in editorial and content creation and storytelling, we really try to bring that to life within 29Rooms, bringing the topics and themes of our written content and video into the physical space.

Sometimes it will start with a theme—like, if we want to do something around gender identity, we think, ‘Who is really creating an interesting conversation about gender identity right now?’ So in that case, we worked with [Transparant creator] Jill Soloway and artist Xavier Schipani, whose work celebrates diverse gender identity. So sometimes it’s coming from the theme and we assign the artist.

Other times, there’s just an artist that we think is so unique. We look for artists and celebrities that are socially conscious and that have a strong narrative they can bring to the table. And then we really look at diversity across all of our artists, in terms of race, gender identity, and discipline. We want to bring in poets, painters, performers that really have unique and unexpected perspectives or styles.

“Giving people a place to play and explore opens them up in this incredible way.”

You’re expanding to San Francisco and Chicago this summer. Does each city have its own quirks to the planning process?
Oh, yeah. Every city has its own incredible benefits and it’s so exciting to go into new markets and see how audiences experience the space. Bringing it to Los Angeles last year was such a delight because they hadn’t had anything like in L.A., so everyone that came through was so energized and fun. 

Every city and every state has its own challenges, especially because we’re often going into warehouse spaces so we have to work with the quirks of the space. We take it as a fun design challenge. Each space does have its own character, so we’re thinking about how to utilize the features and layout to have it feel intentional with the rooms that we’re bringing to life.

It’s really important to us to find spaces that are central and accessible, and if possible, honor the art community—whether that’s Downtown L.A., or Brooklyn, or the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, which has such a rich history. We’ll be in San Francisco during Pride weekend, which we’re thrilled about.

Do you hope to keep expanding? 
Yeah, we do. It’s amazing the appetite and demand for this event with consumers. We keep bringing it to new markets and seeing such enthusiasm and selling out tickets. Next year we’re looking at different ways that we can take this experience and scale it even further.

What do you think other events can learn from 29Rooms?
It’s so important to create a memorable experience for the audience, and to put them center-stage. Giving people a place to play and explore opens them up in this incredible way.

We also have seen that you don’t have to shy away from having cultural conversations—they don’t have to be a downer. I think a lot of events and brands are fearful of engaging in dialogue around sociopolitical issues, but we’ve found that you can do that in a way that’s still empowering and exciting and motivating.

It’s also been important for us to really think about the emotional arc of the space. Thinking about the emotional experience you want people to have is, creatively, an interesting place to start. Often marketers will think about what they want from the consumer—but for us, we think more about what we hope the consumer feels and what we can give them that makes them feel that way.

It’s not, ‘We want them to do this for us.’ Ask not what the consumer can do for you, but what you can do for your consumer. That breeds goodwill so that then they want to share, they want to speak admirably about your event, they want to come back and engage again.

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