The most exclusive events in luxury are often the ones you don’t hear about. They’re not posted on social media (phones and sharing content are discouraged), they’re not something you can buy, and they’re usually reserved exclusively for the Extremely Important Customers of luxury brands, who in today’s day and age are under pressure to host and entertain the upper echelons of their customer base with lavish experiences that go beyond purchasing and are aimed towards fostering deep and long-lasting connections.
An invite to a store opening with free cocktails is not going to make an Ultra High Net Worth Individual change their travel plans. But an elaborate evening of immersive theatre, dinner and drinks and a spectacular location, all highly tailored and specific to the event, just might. Or in Louis Vuitton’s case, a seat at the first show of its new men’s creative director Pharrell Williams, which took place on the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris and ended with a surprise performance by Jay-Z and Pharrell himself.
In today’s world of exclusive luxury events, if there’s no “wow,” factor, you might as well not have bothered, which is why, now more than ever, it has become so important for luxury brands to get it right. Particularly at a time when those very same brands have to put more effort into capturing the attention of their customers.
But in the case of events, it’s not a question of just hosting a fancy dinner and showing off some products on the side. Luxury brands need to dig a whole lot deeper to create events that are meaningful to their brand, their history and their values if they want to foster true brand loyalty. They need to make it memorable for their clients, and they need to tap into an emotional connection, says Thomas Serrano, an industry veteran, CEO and Founder of Exclamation Group, a boutique agency specialised in luxury events.
“Brands always need to consider how meaningful their event is going to be,” said Serrano, in an interview with Luxury Society. “When we talk to our clients, we tap into what their brand values are and help design something that is very unique to the brand, and meaningful to the audience.”
“Our mission is to design and produce meaningful and memorable experiences,” he continued. “Brands often need to go deeper if they want to make an impression their customers. It has to be meaningful to the brand, so, very unique to their DNA, their values, their narrative and it has to be meaningful to the audience. Why would they want to join? Why would they care? Why would they spend time with a brand instead of doing something else in their free time?”
The second point Serrano stresses is how memorable brands want their events to be. “You want to trigger some emotion that will create some memories for everyone, because compared to e-commerce or more transactional experiences, you need to make sure that the event matters to the client.”
And thirdly, emotion is Serrano’s final point on how to make events really stand out. “Events have to be able to touch those clients emotionally,” he said. “We often begin designing a journey in advance and we really think about what emotions a brand wants to trigger. For example, what’s the emotion that a brand wants their customers to feel upon entering the event, is it surprise, joy or nostalgia? Do you want customers to feel a single emotion, a collective one or a personal one?”
“It’s important is because those are the events that really bring that ‘wow,’ moments, where clients who can afford dinner in any three Michelin star restaurant, can buy any watch they want from your competitors, that’s the reason they come back to a brand because emotion is the best tool in any category to connect people to a brand” he added.
He would certainly know. Serrano has more than 25 years of experience, having worked with brands like Chanel and Cartier, as well as launching Havas Luxe within Havas Worldwide. He decided to set up Exclamation Group in late 2019 with his partner Anastasia Nisenbaum, and their clients include brands like Bulgari, Montblanc, Audemars Piguet and Van Cleef & Arpels.
However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Shortly after Exclamation Group was founded, the global COVID-19 pandemic happened. For the agency, it meant that all the events the company had on its books for the year were initially suspended. Then, they became virtual. It was only in 2022 that Exclamation Group was able to resume what they do best and host physical events.
“It took more than a year for us to do physical events,” recalled Serrano. “We lost between 90 to 95 percent of our revenue in 2020.” Since then, demand for physical events has exploded post-pandemic, and Exclamation Group’s revenue has bounced back, four times higher than it had estimated for 2020, before the pandemic happened.
“Our agency growth was exponential, post-COVID. So, we slowed down a lot. We were almost steady, and then we came back much faster than we expected,” he said of its beginnings. “This year, it's a consolidation year, so it’s not a year of super growth, which is good for us because you cannot quadruple your revenue every year. It's not sustainable at any level.”
It’s this kind of considered thinking toward independence and future growth that made Serrano want to set up his own agency. “We definitely learned patience from the experience, and in still believing in yourself and making sure that you fine-tune your offering to make it even better,” he said.
“In my previous experiences, I had a lot of freedom, and I was really autonomous. But when you start to manage agencies, you manage a lot of people, sometimes a lot of money, and I wanted to go back to creativity and go back to creating stories and inventing new events and new ways to connect brands with their customers.”
Another reason he wanted to create his own agency was the freedom it offered to bring his own vision to life and the opportunity to choose his clients. “At Exclamation Group, we don’t work for everybody. We work for people who value us,” Serrano said. “In the corporate world, sometimes you have to go through collaborations, or you have to manage employees that you didn't choose; you have to work with clients you don't like, either personally or because you don't think their brands are exciting to you or are relevant, but you still have to do it. Today, we only work with people we like and enjoy, and that shows in our work.”
Looking forward, Serrano expects demand to remain steady for the rest of the year, as clients exercice more caution around budgets due to global uncertainty in the market. “From 2019 to 2022, there has been amazing growth, particularly in the US. But we can see already in 2023, that business is good, but clients are more cautious. It’s not like they are cancelling events, but they just want to make sure that are they are more cautious on their budgets but not the number of events.”
And his advice for luxury brands wanting to make an impact is to take the time to think out what events will make an impact and plan accordingly, particularly at a time when the luxury industry is becoming significantly larger and much much more competitive.
“All the brands that we work with are all aware that the market is very competitive for events. Customers will go to Patek Philippe one day, IWC the next and the week after that they’ll be at Rolex. So they need to be very creative, and experiential in their approach,” he said.
“What matters most is how to involve and translate the storytelling behind their advertising campaigns or the craftsmanship of a specific product into events,” he added, sharing an example of one of his favourite recent events with Montblanc for the launch of its Writers Editon Homage to Rober Louis Stevenson Limited Edition Fountation Pen.
To celebrate the Scottish author, Montblanc designed an pen featuring design details inspired by his novel Treasure Island. Exclamation Group in turn, held an immersive dinner theatre with pirates singing sea shanties, audience participation and a menu to match.
“At the end of the event, the CEO came to me when all the clients were taking pictures with the pirates, singing, and ending the night on a high, and said, I get it, I understand, because what he understood was the value of the experience of the never seen before or the never experienced before and with that, comes the need for preparation. To create a piece of immersive theatre, finding the director, going through the copywriting, the rehearsing, the testing, it’s a long process. But the end result, is worth it.”