“We field almost
a million engagements a week and approx. 20K direct messages…that’s a lot of parking questions!”
With successful artistic productions, there’s usually a story within the story. For the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, that underlying story is certainly how an international team—with its headquarters in Toronto—was able to persist with its vision despite the pell-mell of a global pandemic. I’ve been especially impressed with how quickly the social media team was able to scale the operation from one to upwards of fifteen cities within the last year. This exhibit’s ability to simultaneously draw in A-list celebrity-attention while remaining true to the art-lovers that popularized it, is likewise commendable. To get a peak at how the social media and PR sausage is made, we welcome Phil Lobel—mastermind behind the ubiquitous PR company, Lobeline Communications—and Dale Boyer, Social Media Manager for Lighthouse Immersive.
Lobel and Boyer bring different perspectives on how this exhibit has managed to generate enthusiasm across the North American market, while fielding COVID-quieries with tact and honesty. As a seasoned veteran of the PR landscape in the U.S., Lobel brings decades of experience and insight on engaging the media—though I’m sure even Lobeline Communications encountered a lot of firsts with IVG. Boyer has been at the heart of the social media operation, using her industry savviness to help develop the new holy grail for scaling a social media campaign up to an international audience. Both talk about preparing for the expected, and reacting to the unexpected, in the year that has been.
While the whip-smart leadership team at Lighthouse Immersive has had their nose to the proverbial grind for the better part of the last 18 months, they nevertheless maintain a wholesome approach to the long-term trajectory of community-building in each IVG city. For one, this magazine was made possible through the insights and assistance provided by members of this team. Notably Boyer—who helped launch our own social media activities—and Marketing Director Carla Selzer who, among many things, suggested that we call it smART Magazine.
by Michael Zarathus-Cook
Behind the Publicity for IVG:
Phil Lobel and Dale Boyer
What were some of the more unusual challenges working on the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit in the earlier days of the pandemic?
PL - While Lobeline has over three decades of experience managing PR, this is certainly the first time doing so in a pandemic (and hopefully the LAST!).
Some of the unique challenges that we’ve faced during the beginning of the pandemic were in planning for the opening of an event, and not knowing if it would happen or not. As publicists, it’s in our nature to have backup plans and adjust on the spot immediately. Putting together an opening strategy while being at the mercy of the latest COVID restrictions (which are different in each state) kept us hyper-vigilant from start to end.
Another issue we faced is messaging and the use of Immersive Van Gogh’s assets. We have run into the issues of having the media use our client’s imagery for an exhibition that was not ours because there were other Van Gogh experiences in some of the markets. Similarly, the problem of combating consumer confusion and concerns with attending in-person events during a pandemic has been our top priority.
Phil Lobel - Founder of Lobeline Communications
“We’ve been thrilled with the enthusiastic response that we’ve received from the public and celebrities – including recent lengthy, multiple posts from Madonna to her over 14 MILLION FANS on Instagram!”
While everyone has been in quarantine and we’ve been unable to meet with clients in person, all of the conference calls have turned into Zoom meetings. So, in a strange way, we’ve had more “facetime” with our clients during the pandemic than we have had in the past. Another thing that this pandemic changed, not only with our clients, but also with the entire industry is how the media books guests. In a way, it’s allowed us to book clients on shows virtually, and more frequently, whereas in the past, they would have had to travel to be on-site.
How does your team go about orchestrating celebrity engagements, and what are your points of emphasis for generating interest for a unique exhibition like IVG?
We’ve been thrilled with the enthusiastic response that we’ve received from the public and celebrities – including recent lengthy, multiple posts from Madonna to her over 14 MILLION FANS on Instagram! Because of the quality, attention to detail, and talent of the Immersive Van Gogh team, we have been lucky enough to attract big-name stars and public figures organically by securing benchmark media placements with influential national and local press. Not only do we highlight the use of the latest technology, but we also showcase the incredible talent Immersive Van Gogh brings in, like Emmy Award-winning, Tony-nominated designer David Korins, or one of the hottest stars, Lily Collins from the hit Netflix show, Emily in Paris.
There is something for everyone with this exhibit, and it has been a pleasure having the opportunity to highlight what makes this experience so extraordinary. The bottom line is guests are literally in awe of what they experience, and in today’s world-wide connectivity via social media, THAT is a major key to the show’s success!
“In a strange way, we’ve had more “facetime” with our clients during the pandemic than we have had in the past.”
When you started work on IVG, did you foresee it getting this big? How has the success of the exhibit surprised you personally?
DB - The success of this exhibit has required all departments to scale very quickly and I’ve never been a part of something that grew so quickly. Last year we had one exhibit in Toronto and now have specialized local social media presence in 20 cities.
I'm surprised every day by the emotional responses we get on social media to the exhibit. Obviously, when patrons are standing in the exhibit they can go on the journey that the creators have made, but it appears that these feelings stay with our guests well after they leave the exhibit. Sometimes we get messages, weeks after their visit, by people still processing the beauty of the exhibit or asking for the soundtrack, or just posting photos. It’s exciting that the experience is touching people so deeply.
What were some of the growing pains in the initial phase of developing the social media presence and how were you able to scale that across various cities and platforms?
Our number one goal on social media is to present an empathic and meaningful conversation with our patrons and followers. To achieve such a personalized and bespoke experience, we need to have personal responses and a team directly interacting with our guests online. We don’t rely on bots or automated responses because at our core we want to have real conversations with people. This of course requires real live people and scaling our team, and growing twenty-times larger during a pandemic has been challenging. I have yet to meet almost everyone on my social media team in person!
“Our number one goal on social media is to present an empathic and meaningful conversation with our patrons and followers.”
We not only have a central team but we also have local social creators in each city to make content that is specialized to each market. Each city has its own mood, its own quirks, and its own challenges. So we decided to not take the easy monolithic route of content creation and instead tailor each market specifically. This takes time, needs a lot of management and also requires trust in your team to know what is the right tone for each city. We retain so many followers because we are not constantly screaming to buy tickets, we are building a community by exploring ideas and everyone is welcome.
The pandemic has certainly caused a lot of last-minute changes to exhibit hours and openings, what are your main priorities when it comes to communicating these changes in a way that keeps people's interest?
The pandemic created a list of challenges for social media that we'd never faced before! We are making changes constantly to the exhibit, the hours, the pace of people walking through it, how people can purchase a drink right down to how they show their tickets to get in. Every operational adjustment the team makes on the “ground” in the exhibit affects our social media team.
We have the biggest document I’ve ever worked with that covers all aspects of every exhibit in all our locations, this includes washroom details and also up-to-date COVID laws. As you can imagine, every city and country has their own COVID rules and protocols, so we’ve become experts in mask and social-distancing policies across North America.
Social media is a very “in the moment” medium so important information like adjustments to an opening or ticket changes are posted on all our handles as well and pulsed out as weekly reminders. We combine conversational Van Gogh posts with reminders of changes to the exhibit. This way it’s not just us yelling information all day long!
“It can be challenging for a small number of traditional art enthusiasts to see the relevance of something like Immersive Van Gogh, but once they get to have exchanges online to learn about the merits and impact of our exhibit, it often can make our nay-sayers think twice.”
How would you characterize the type of interactions that IVG followers are having with the various accounts, and how are they different from other projects you've managed?
There are two types of comments we generally get:
1. People asking questions, how to get there, how ticket types work, etc. We have extensive documents that help us answer these questions and get each one right per city! We field almost a million engagements a week and approx. 20K direct messages…that’s a lot of parking questions!
2. People who want to discuss the validity of this type of art experience. We LOVE these types of messages. Not all art experiences are for everyone and we encourage people to talk about what works and doesn’t work for them. It can be challenging for a small number of traditional art enthusiasts to see the relevance of something like Immersive Van Gogh, but once they get to have exchanges online to learn about the merits and impact of our exhibit, it often can make our nay-sayers think twice. It’s important to note here that we don’t lead these conversations. We make sure everyone stays respectful but we allow people to discuss all aspects of our exhibit.
3. Oh yeah, we also have a heavy mandate not to feed the trolls.