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Instagram pop-up experiences lay off employees as the business tanks

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Museum of Ice Cream and Color Factory are closed for now

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Color Factory CEO Jeff Lind knew his Instagram pop-up experience had to close when the NBA canceled the remainder of its season. He was watching the Utah Jazz game when the announcers confirmed the match’s postponement, followed by the league halting all future games.

“That’s when I started making the decision that we’re going to have to close New York immediately,” he says. “You just kind of realize this industry is so big — sports, rodeo, experiential museums, museums. That was kind of the canary in the coal mine that the world was changing beneath our feet.”

Two of the most well-known photogenic experiences — Color Factory and Museum of Ice Cream — tell The Verge that the COVID-19 pandemic is producing a fallout in the experiences industry. They’re closing their doors to ride out the pandemic, and employees are being laid off. Revenue is trickling in, barely at all.

Color Factory closed its New York City and newer Houston, Texas, locations by March 18th, and along with that news came an update for employees: temporary layoffs. Lind says 90 percent of Color Factory’s employees, including hourly, part-time roles as well as corporate employees were let go. “We basically had to maintain mission critical jobs only,” he says. (The layoff timing varied; some people stayed on to clean the building after it closed, for example.)

Eligible employees are still receiving health care benefits for 12 weeks, and all employees received severance commensurate with their experience and salary. Lind and remaining employees have also taken salary cuts. The team encouraged visitors who had purchased tickets ahead of time to reschedule for the future if possible, although the team is issuing refunds, too. The Houston location, Lind says, was completely sold out for the entire week it closed.

Other Instagram pop-ups have taken a hit, too. People not leaving their homes means no one is taking photos in ball pits, going on dates, or bringing their kids out for a day of play. Pop-up museums thrived as people posted photos on Instagram, creating free marketing, but that’s not happening now. And unlike musicians who have also rescheduled canceled concerts on Twitch, it isn’t as easy to re-create a pop-up experience virtually.

The rest of the experience economy participants are in the same dire straits as Color Factory. Museum of Ice Cream also laid off most of its employees: 90 percent of the company’s workforce works in the museums, and each museum employs around 100 people. Employees were given severance on a “case by case basis,” CEO Maryellis Bunn says, as well as health care through the end of April.

Museum of Ice Cream failed to pay some contractors on time, however, which spurred an Instagram campaign against the photogenic museum. The comments section of a recent post is littered with people demanding that the company pay its workers. One former contractor I spoke with over Instagram DM says they weren’t paid for over a month since their last invoice. However, after publicizing their complaint on Instagram and having friends comment, they received their money. Three other contractors, this person says, were also eventually paid. When asked about the situation, Bunn said all “employees” were paid on time, suggesting that contractors represented a different situation from formal Museum of Ice Cream staff.

Bunn and the remaining corporate team have taken salary reductions, and Bunn says she’s forgoing her salary altogether. She says although New York City only required businesses to close this month, the team saw a drop in visitors because of the pandemic earlier than that.

“Our revenue ostensibly turned off, not necessarily over night, because actually, in January and February it declined [because] a significant part of audience is coming from abroad,” she says. “We saw those patterns and started to feel like something was up starting all the way into January.”

Even messier still is visitors’ claims that they weren’t given refunds for their tickets. One customer sent me an email chain between her, Museum of Ice Cream, and the museum’s ticket vendor, ShowClix, that stated she could not receive a refund for her tickets. The last correspondence was from March 19th with a Museum of Ice Cream employee telling her to exchange her ticket for a later date instead. This person is from the Boston area and isn’t sure if or when she’ll come to New York City again.

Bunn says that, as of last week, customers can get refunds. The museum offered ticket-holders a $20 store credit to make up for having to close. The museum also sent out an email asking people to purchase gift cards to help support the business.

News of other closures spread on Instagram, too. Meow Wolf closed its New Mexico exhibit and postponed a scheduled Colorado event. It says it will be “providing work for employees affected by the temporary closing” and offering refunds if people can’t reschedule their trips. The Rosé Mansion closed its New York City pop-up. Strangely, Candytopia hasn’t made any public announcements about closing its Miami, Phoenix, Arizona, or Philadelphia locations.

Although many of these pop-ups have pushed against the narrative that they’re designed for photo-ops, the reality is that they are in-person experiences that aren’t translatable through a Zoom call. That doesn’t mean the pop-ups aren’t trying to find ways to connect with their audience, however. The Rosé Mansion is hosting virtual happy hours every Friday, for instance, and said 225 people joined the first one. “Each week will have a fun theme, a contest, a new quarantini recipe, special guest segments, birthday shoutouts and the biggest cheers on Zoom,” the team wrote on Instagram.

Museum of Ice Cream hosted a design challenge, partnering with Design Milk, and Color Factory has posted “social distancing bingo” based on the idea of color.

But that’s a bandage on a bigger problem. “We are not going to become all of a sudden a digital brand, that would be against our DNA,” Bunn says.

Her team is also selling new merch, including a $60 box filled with items for staying at home, like slime, a candle, and a bottle opener, although it won’t ship until at least May 1st because Museum of Ice Cream’s team won’t be going into the office to pack and ship these.

Color Factory, on the other hand, has resisted selling new merch or asking people to buy gift cards.

“The thing that seems really tasteless right now to us is trying to sell our stuff, or sound aggressively commercial when we have employees that we can’t even support right now here,” Lind says. “I think we’re beyond trying to pick up scraps of commerce right now, and we’re more in a mode of how do we contribute, and how we maintain happiness, and how do we try and keep as much normalcy as possible but being sensitive to the fact that people are hurting right now.”

These companies are also planning for the day when they eventually reopen. Bunn says the materials they use in the space are already antimicrobial, but going forward, visitors will be ushered through more like a private tour. She’s also reconceptualizing the business as a whole and how she and her team “design, build, finance, and create experiences.”

Color Factory is still pursuing additional builds and developing future sites. Lind says that while some of the industry is trying to recoup lost revenue, the bigger hurdle is ensuring the business still exists at the end of this.

“We’re just all in it together,” he says. “None of us are sitting here being like, how can I get rich off this?’ We’re sort of in the survival mode for the industry where it’s like, we just need to make sure we get through it.”

Bunn has multiple offers to build a Museum of Ice Cream in China, as the country rebounds from the pandemic. “Never have I gotten inbounds from there throughout the years,” she says. “They’re like, ‘We need this more than ever.’”

These people, she says, have even offered to fund the builds, although Bunn says she and the team likely won’t be able to take on the work.

The pandemic’s message to the experience economy is clear: people need to be able to leave the house for photogenic pop-up experiences to exist. Although Bunn’s China story suggests experiential locations could even help coax people out of the house once they’re able.

Still, until social distancing requirements are totally lifted, the ball, sprinkle, and marshmallow pits will stay empty.