Pop up events: going in the box to be out-of-the-box

In recent years the events industry has rethought meetings technology, program elements, where and how groups meet to room design. Mirroring these changes is a society which has embraced a new style of creative collaboration among colleagues, active participation in micro-lending for new enterprises and social causes via crowdsourcing, championing the growth in gourmet food trucks as well as flash mobs and pop up events.

This container bar on the Halifax waterfront shows how stylish a pop up venue can be. (Allan Lynch Photo)

This container bar on the Halifax waterfront shows how stylish a pop up venue can be. (Allan Lynch Photo)

So, in the continuing quest for event hosts to appeal to a mobile, independently-minded attendee, could the next big innovation not merely be out-of-the-box thinking, but a reinvention of the box? Specifically, considering the potential role of shipping containers as actual pop up venues.

Shipping containers are in vogue as a quick, low-cost, study alternative to temporary and permanent facilities. For example, in London, containers have been rehabbed for housing for the homeless. Other places have created pop-up malls and office complexes. A British company, Snoozebox, provides pop-up hotels of up to 200 rooms for events across the UK and Europe. In Canada, permanent container hotels have been built in remote areas to provide instant accommodation for oil patch workers. And the summer of 2016 saw the launch of Area 506, a total pop up event in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Area 506 could be the harbinger of a wider trend. Or at least be an adaptable idea for destinations rich in under-utilized land, and weak in large built infrastructure.

“506” is the area code for the province of New Brunswick. Event chairman Ray Gracewood says, “In my past life I was involved with a locally made product. I came to the conclusion we didn’t really have an opportunity to celebrate our incredible, locally-made products. So basically we put our heads together as small committee and thought if we were to have an event in New Brunswick what would it look like? That’s how we came up with Area 506. Area 506 would be a celebration of all things New Brunswick and pride of place that we’ve bucketed into three groups: music, culture and goods.”

To accomplish this, Gracewood’s group of volunteers, with the backing of Destination Saint John, the city’s marketing department, organized a two-and-a-half day event in July. Ground Zero was a container village set up on Long Wharf on the city’s harbour front. Gracewood says, “I think the idea starts here. Where the idea evolves over time will be up to the city, the community and the businesses. The thinking long term is more of a question than a statement. But wouldn’t it be cool if we had a summer-long build of shipping containers that were essentially pop-up shops and hotels and other structures that make a village within a city?”

While the village was the focus, organizers didn’t turn their back on local businesses. They launched a Passport Program with nearby restaurants, shops and venues that encouraged village visitors to collect partner stamps, which were redeemable for rewards at the village.

The event utilized food trucks for a food court and borrowed 100 containers from local shipping firms to form, what Destination Saint John executive director Victoria Clark describes as “a steel fortress” which guided pedestrian traffic flow and provided a secure perimeter for the 30,000 people who attended this first-time event (the City of Saint John has a resident population of 65,000).

Because these were borrowed containers Clark says, “We didn’t alter these shipping containers in any way. So you could only get in and out of them on one narrow end, but people used them as they saw fit.” A painter and musician used one for a gallery/concert space, while some businesses set up retail shops inside.

Matt White of the Sussex Beard Oil Company is one of the out-of-box-in-the-container entrepreneurs who attended. White was just off a successful appearance on Dragon’s Den (the Canadian version of Shark Tank) where his business plan attracted the support of two Dragons. He so quickly bought into the idea he didn’t plan what to do until he was on-site. “I hadn’t thought ahead, as usual. When I got there I opened up my container. I think I got a new container. There was no smell, the walls were fresh paint and I thought this was paradise. So I set my store up inside it. I had a barber with me” and for the two days he sold product and offered haircuts and male makeovers.

As an exhibitor White wholeheartedly embraced the container event idea. “I like different. It didn’t matter if I lost a finger I would have enjoyed myself. The concept gave what I call a dog whistle tilt to people as they came in. You know how when you blow a whistle a dog tilts their head? People do that when they see something new. I saw that a lot through the weekend. Everybody loved the idea.”

White already plans a return for 2017. He is such a fan that he is working on a secret project that sounds very much like he could travel the province with his own pop up shop/barbershop.

The pop-up event idea is already gaining momentum. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Eric Stotts, a Boston-trained architect and partner in Skin + Bones Building Design, says, “I can’t disclose who it is, but we’re working with a government agency, planning a big trade show, to develop the model of five containers to be used for a week at a location here in Halifax.” Part of the discussions are on merits of a lease versus ownership scheme for the containers.

Stotts, who has experience rehabbing several containers into pop up bars and beer gardens, says, “They’re a joy to work with. There’s no lack of them, they’re extraordinarily malleable and the options are almost unlimited. Containers provide flexibility, adaptability and transportability and plug in nicely to a lot of under-utilized spaces of potential, like derelict sites. You can take a vacant lot that was an eyesore and in a month have converted it into a stellar public space.”

With the addition of solar panels exhibitors could have a strong, secure, mobile and environmentally friendly trade show booth.

A pop-up event village could be a game changer for many groups and destinations.