Welcome to the latest in a new series of columns brought to you in association with experiential marketing, brand activation and consumer engagement specialist CircleSquare. This monthly column aims to inform, surprise and provoke, and to offer a fresh perspective about the role of design in the channel. This time we look at how fun, quirky, memorable experiences can happen in the store even in an era of social distancing.

They say the hardest moment for a creative mind is when it first stares at a blank sheet of paper, writes CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley. I don’t know who on earth ‘they’ are but ‘they’ are absolutely bloody right.

Many times has a tiny creative voice in my head begged the blank page to give me a little hint. It has even asked my marker pen (incredibly politely, as it happens) to turn my aimless doodles into something of substance; but it never works. What causes this hideous recurring nightmare? It is much simpler than you might think; it only happens when there are no boundaries or constraints.

Stop right there. Enough of this nonsense. We all know designers yearn for creative freedom; they are always banging on about how much they enjoy it, need it even. Surely nothing can be more exhilarating than having the liberty to do whatever they choose? The possibilities are endless.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not how it works in the real creative world. The thing is, a restriction or a barrier of some kind actually gives you something to bounce your ideas off rather than have them meander into the creative stratosphere, never to return. So, boundaries are always a good thing, right?

Keep it quiet, but there is a third even worse scenario which is guaranteed to keep us creative types up at night checking under the bed for the bogeyman; the imposition of too many barriers. This results in one hot creative mess which no client ever wants to see, trust me; so let’s pretend I never mentioned it.

Mediamatic Eten Restaurant: Social distancing brilliantly achieved through the clever use of mini-greenhouses

Why am I talking about boundaries? Well, unless you’ve been in deep hibernation for the last few months, you will be aware that, as an industry, we are facing probably the biggest ‘boundary’ ever seen in our rich history. It is a boundary that has removed planes from the sky, removed our precious shoppers and removed our revenues.

As lockdowns are slowly being lifted across the globe we, the travel retail collective, look on in nervous anticipation. But even as passenger numbers start to rise, one boundary will remain for some time to come; social distancing. How do our cosmetics companies appeal to passengers wearing face masks and how do the wines & spirits brands sample their delicious liquids to people who will not put anything near their mouths?

To a creative mind, this challenging boundary is also a wonderful opportunity. I have been so excited and proud to see the ingenious solutions the creative industry has already developed and how well these have been received by the public. In fact, the general public is actively drawn to those initiatives which allow them to reconnect with others. As such, the brands and retailers responsible for creating them find their brand equity growing exponentially.

We have all seen the reworked logos of Adidas, Audi and McDonald’s which feature subtle social distancing messages (you know, the one where the golden arches have been separated) and we also love the iconic Time Out temporally rebranded as ‘Time In’. These, though, are just cute PR gimmicks. It has been the tiny brands, the obscure retailers and the undiscovered restaurants who have taken up the challenge and taken up their places in the hearts of a responsive public.

I am particularly drawn to Mediametic Eten (above), a vegan restaurant in Amsterdam, which has erected mini greenhouses outside its kitchen, each containing a single dining table and two dining chairs. Diners can sit in their own space, safely segregated from fellow guests, and have their choices from the delicious vegan menu passed into their little greenhouse dining rooms on two-metre long boards, ensuring the waiting staff also maintain a safe distance. What fun. What a great experience.

Gentle Monster: Bringing personality to a brand despite no people being present

In Virginia, USA, the chef at the Inn at Little Washington contacted a local theatre company for its help with a quirky but brilliant idea. He now sits mannequins dressed in full 1940s theatre costumes at the seats he must keep empty which ensures the restaurant retains the vibe of being full while enhancing the theme of the vintage décor. You would be right in thinking it’s all a bit creepy, but you can’t argue about it making one hell of a one-off experience.

So, what can we learn from these quirky restaurants and take into our own world of travel retail? The answer is, almost certainly, for us all to embrace this attitude and believe in the power of experience.

The reason I am so confident is because we already have some great examples of consumer experiences which are perfect for social distancing. Tell me, would you be likely to take a small plastic sample cup of spirits from a lanyard-wearing brand ambassador? I didn’t think so.

Our CircleSquare studio had one rather dramatic solution – we designed a robot bar tender. The truth is we still need to translate it from 3D to real life (in fact maybe there is a retailer out there who wants to help?) but for a fully interactive, and socially distanced experience, you speak aloud your favourite tipple and our wonderful automaton takes your order by voice recognition before the fun begins. Suddenly the giant robotic arms spring to life, moving in mesmeric patterns as if dancing along to a Kraftwerk classic as they sweep across a glittering back bar, selecting and mixing drinks in front of your perplexed eyes before setting down a perfectly made cocktail on your coaster.

Bombay Sapphire: Disruptive, engaging and accessible to all (at Sydney Airport); ingenious mist-filled bubbles of sensory aroma (below)

However, what about if your sampling experience involved a transparent bubble filled with a sensory mist created by a quirky copper machine, falling from the sky and landing with a ‘pop’ on your outstretched hand releasing an aroma explosion….all while you are two metres from the next nearest person? Of course, I am referring to the brilliant people at Bombay Sapphire for that one. I am sure every single consumer who had that experience can remember it just as keenly today as they did at the time.

For me, it has always been about putting the ‘people’ first, not the brands or the retailers (despite the fact I love them both dearly, honestly). And it is because I have always been obsessed with pioneering consumer experience that CircleSquare, my own creative agency, has grown to become the number one in global travel retail on the back of delivering irresistible human experiences.

Even before COVID-19 only 14% of international travellers shopped at the airport because they enjoyed the experience. 51% of passengers, who chose not to visit a store, said they would have done so if they had known it contained experiential retail. In an environment where 36% of purchasing decisions are made in store, surely the fact that when shoppers interact with brands their dwell time increases 136%, we can all accept that irresistible experiences must be at the heart of our recovery.

This article first appeared in The Moodie Davitt eZine on 3 June, click here for access.