Easol CEO and Co-Founder Ben Simpson saw a gap in the experiences market and filled it.
Alongside his partner Lisa he’d previously run one of the UK’s biggest events businesses, Rough Hill, before the duo co-founded a music and snow sports festival called Rise in 2014.
Frustrated at having to use multiple third-party platforms to manage bookings across things such as lift passes, airport transfers, accommodation, and even snowboarding lessons – not to mention tickets to Rise itself – in 2017 Lisa and Ben established experience commerce platform Easol.
The goal was simple: to give experience creators – in particular, creators of festivals, sports events, wellness retreats and adventure tours – a centralized platform through which they could manage and control the myriad bookings their events required.
Today Easol has grown to service experience creators in over 130 countries, including Defected, Wanderlust, Rapha, Afro Nation and Womad. The platform’s all-in-one toolkit empowers creators to own their business through greater control of their brand, data and finances.
“When we speak to creators, they're often incredibly frustrated with working with third party booking platforms, and that’s really what we’re here to solve."
“When we speak to creators, they're often incredibly frustrated with working with third party booking platforms, and that’s really what we’re here to solve,” says Ben. “When they're working with those third parties, their customers leave their website and go to somebody else's to book, their data goes into somebody else's database, they lose track of analytics. And those sites take control of their cash flow and charge crazy fees.
“So that's a huge pain point, and why we exist: how do we put the control back in creators’ hands? We allow them to bring the whole booking in house and build their own booking for their own customers.”
Here, Ben considers the current state of the experience industry, the most impactful event marketing methods, best practices for selling add-ons, and more…
Personalization of experiences is becoming increasingly important for customers. How are the best operators catering to that need?
We work with a lot of what I would call destination experiences, where people travel to take part in them.
And what we see as being incredibly popular, and I think it’s going to get more popular over time, is how those experiences curate everything that goes around the experience. So everything from the moment somebody arrives at the airport or comes off the transfer, what accommodation they're staying at, into what's happening around the experience itself.
And I think that affords an incredible opportunity for an experience creator to build something that’s way more immersive; it’s a much bigger opportunity to connect with your audience.
So if you're staying in that creator’s experience’s branded hotel, at night in the hotel bar there’s a meet and greet with the artist or the promoter or a brand, or there’s a talk, or there's an after party, which is only available for those people.
"What we see as being incredibly popular, and I think it’s going to get more popular over time, is how those experiences curate everything that goes around the experience..."
So it's really important to understand your audience, what their travel preferences are, do they like VIP packages…
100%. Understanding who they are, what they want, what matters to them. And there are so many offshoots from that. Is it that your audience actually want to stay in the same place every year, and that's really important to them? I met a brand recently where one of the absolute keys was that their most loyal customers time and again book the same accommodation with them for the experience.
But we work with other brands where the most popular package type is totally unnamed. They trust the brand, they are excited for the event and the experience: ‘There’s four or six of us going, we don't want to look at 100 options, just get me there.’
So I think understanding who that audience is and getting into the data around what people are browsing, what the basket spend average is, what group sizes they’re travelling in, and as a creator, what are people ultimately willing to pay more for? What’s the added extras that people will say, ‘That's worthwhile’ versus, ‘Maybe I'll decide when I'm there.’
And what is the best practice for selling those extras?
You've got to educate people upfront that they are available.
So my advice to a creator is, even if you don't have them locked down, at the point you go on sale, put them in the booking journey, put them as part of the booking flow – you've added your tickets, our accommodation’s not live yet, but here are five that we're going to be launching later this month.
So I think even if you don't have them ready, it's about educating people that they are available. If you do [have them ready], obviously even better. And I'm a big fan of releasing as much as you can, as early as you can.
So even if the hotels aren't ready yet, you've at least planted the seed in the customer’s mind to check back in a couple of months, or perhaps you would send them a follow-up email once all those packages are locked in?
Totally. If you're a destination experience, and you are selling add-ons, accommodation, there's no way people should be booking those elsewhere. You know who the people are, you know the dates they're traveling, you often know how many of them are traveling. And then you've got the opportunity to make it so much more personal to the trip: ‘Hey, this one's three minutes’ walk to the stage.’
You've got this innate advantage over the big hotel booking websites or vacation rental booking websites, because you know everything about your event.
You mentioned some people are just willing to trust a brand to plan their experience. How does a brand build that loyalty?
This actually leans into one of our superpowers as a platform about making that relationship direct with the end customer. So there's no middleman, there's no third party, but it's your brand and your customer. And I think really investing into fantastic customer support is critical.
Give your customers amazing customer support. I think this is something which, unfortunately, has traditionally been somewhat neglected in experiences. And for an item which can be incredibly expensive I think it's an area which deserves a lot of investment and will pay off in return bookings and word of mouth.
Similarly, I feel an item which has been really neglected is actually asking people for feedback and for their reviews. Experience creators are selling so much more than a physical item, right? They're building a community, but that community comes together for a small moment in time often, maybe once a year.
The opportunity to then bring that community together online with actual peer reviews is incredibly powerful. And then once you've done all that, asking your most loyal customers for something in return, like, ‘Hey, we're launching this year, and it's important that A, B or C is known, can you share this for us, please?’ And I actually think just being pretty direct can be really powerful.
"I feel an item which has been really neglected is actually asking people for feedback and for their reviews."
What are you finding to be the most effective channels for event creators to market their events and sell tickets?
The absolute best plan is one which takes into account many channels. And where we see people get stuck is when they become overly reliant on one channel, and then something in that channel changes. Whether or not that be a big email provider decides to mark your email as spam and all of a sudden you're not getting the same open rate that you used to. Or as we all saw, Facebook changing the way that paid-for advertising works. And all of a sudden, you can't afford the same views.
And my advice always to a creator or a promoter is start with what your goal is – how many of what do you want to sell? Work backwards from the goal. Okay, how many can we reliably sell from this channel? And then can we afford to sell that many from this channel in cost-per-click conversion rate? And build your entire channel strategy out from there.
You'll always have one or two super strong channels. But then I'd always encourage creators to add more new experimental channels and say, ‘Hey, we think this one might work. Maybe it's worth 1000 people. Let's try it. We've never done influencers before, but we think it might be worth 1000.’ Measure it, and then decide if you want to invest in and scale up the next year. But always distributing the total sales across as many viable channels as you possibly can.
"Where we see people get stuck is when they become overly reliant on one channel, and then something in that channel changes.
With those experimental channels, have you seen any become more important over the past 12-24 months?
TikTok’s proved to be incredibly powerful for many promoters.
I think the other channel which I am seeing becoming incredibly popular is, I think pre-pandemic we were all a little worried about sharing and we were all perhaps a little worried about how we could collaborate: ‘This is my audience.’ And post-pandemic, I think that for the absolute better, we've all gotten a little bit more amenable to, ‘Okay, how can we actually partner? There's probably a large crossover, and our experiences happen at totally different times and dates.’
And I'm a huge fan of those collaborations where you can benefit each other. I really think what we're doing as experience creators is just not a zero sum game.
So I think working out who are your potential partners, probably starting with who you might consider to be your competitors. And actually working out how you might be able to benefit each other is really powerful, and we're seeing a lot of that post-COVID.
One of the current trends, even for club shows, is promoters and bookers are booking a long way out, maybe even a year out. Are you seeing that with destination events as well? And how are you seeing successful organisers build anticipation throughout that period?
Firstly, I'm all about booking early, launching early and being on sale early. My view is the surefire way that you are not going to sell tickets is if you are not on sale, that is guaranteed. So being on sale early, you are standing a significantly better chance of selling tickets than if you are not on sale.
For the festival which me and Lisa founded [Rise], that goes on sale 14 months early, it goes on sale before the previous edition has even completed. Whilst the event’s happening, we get so much traffic that we're able to then turn into customers for the following year.
It just means you swing straight through. And you're straight into promoting the next show.
In terms of how you don't kill your momentum by being constantly on sale, that's a real challenge. And I think having a really tight timeline of what your message is going to be, and when, is really important. So whether or not that’s going out and saying, ‘Hey, we've got first release, and there's only x of them available, we want to offer them to our most loyal fans’, and then go on sale, and then don't be afraid to come off sale for a couple of weeks before coming back.
And then when you map that calendar out, I would always be thinking about, not just what my timeline is, but what is my audience's timeline? What are the other events they’re going to? What are the dates where they are definitely not going to be online buying tickets, because we know they're elsewhere?
We all know our audiences incredibly well. And therefore these are really predictable circumstances. So actually, not being afraid to focus on making the peaks bigger, and allow the troughs to be smaller, is totally fine in my opinion.
"My view is the surefire way that you are not going to sell tickets is if you are not on sale, that is guaranteed."
How do you avoid confusion when your 2024 festival is on sale before the 2023 festival has even happened?
Often the event’s sold out and you can pivot to focusing on the next year. If you are in a position where both are on sale concurrently, really clear signposting. And this goes for all guest comms. Every confirmation email, put the date in. Every welcome email says, ‘I can't wait to see you in a year.’ I think there's a lot you can do there.
What are the most effective ways of getting the audience at the 2023 festival to engage about 2024’s event? Is it through things like a festival app? Or post-event comms?
It’s multi-channel for us. Yep, let's definitely get it in the app. Yeah, let's definitely SMS, let's definitely send an email. But let's go maybe what would be considered old school and print a flyer and put that in everybody's welcome pack.
If you're a destination experience and you've got coaches leaving, we used to bus 2500 people back to the UK and probably 5000 or 6000 of our own transfers to airports locally.
Well, we've got a member of staff at every single one of those coaches. Let's get on the coach, say thank you, let people know that next year is on sale. There's cool ways to do that. And a lot of power in it.
With some of the experiences that you've worked with, have you seen anyone do anything really innovative in their marketing?
We’ve seen people do crazy things like fly a skywriting aeroplane over the city where their event takes place. And in reality, probably not that many people saw it at the exact moment that it was in the sky.
But then they've really put a lot of thought into, how do we amplify that? How do we turn that into content? And going back to your point earlier about being on sale and timeline, it's like, okay, we've got a gap in July, how are we going to fill it? Okay, let's produce a specific piece of content around this.
What trends do you think we'll be seeing in experience events over the next 12-24 months?
I'm incredibly optimistic about the next 12 to 24 months.
I really think that the more immersive destination experiences are going to continue to grow. If you've got a week off, how do you want to spend it? I think seeing your favorite artist in an amazing new place with a group of like-minded people who have the same passions and same interests, and traveling there together, I can only see that getting much, much bigger.