Artificial Intelligence driven Marketing Communications
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales
Behind Color Factory, one of the photogenic pop-ups trying to conquer the experience economy
People can’t be left alone in a pop-up. Sure, most of the tens of thousands of attendees will get through the 14 rooms of photogenic eye candy just fine. But there are exceptions: the ones that’ll write nasty things on your walls, tangle their hair up in your confetti, or chip your acrylic pegs that form a life-size Lite-Brite to create, essentially, pretty daggers. The Color Factory team has seen what humans will do to a place.
“There’s only so much you can anticipate,” Tina Malhotra, chief experience officer at Color Factory, tells me from the company’s newest location in Houston, Texas, where she and her team have been working for the past 10 months to not only develop a new location near the Museum District, but also make sure it’s their most human-proof one yet. “We’ve learned from the last two locations that if they can touch it, they will,” CMO Alison Piepmeyer adds. Malhotra says her team even instructed the fabricators in one room to make the art display “elephant-proof.” “Imagine an elephant running into here,” she says. That’s how intense people are when they interact with artwork.
This Houston location, which opened last week, is Color Factory’s first foray into the southern half of the United States, and the first well-funded, Instagram-baity place to make its way to the state for good. Photo-oriented pop-ups, like the Dream Machine and the Rosé Mansion, once seemed like a novelty doomed to fade out, but the opposite has happened. The duds failed, but the bigger names raised lots of money, and now, the US is experiencing a pop-up land grab with companies spending millions to build flagship locations around the country.
“We chose Houston intentionally because we want to own the South,” says Color Factory CEO Jeff Lind. “We wanted to plant a stake in the ground and learn about this market.”
Color Factory already exists in San Francisco and New York City, as do some of its competition, like the Museum of Ice Cream and 29Rooms. None of the big names have laid claim to Texas yet, though. The new spot is 22,000 square feet filled with 14 art exhibits, including pop-up staples like a new NASA-branded ball pit, a room lit with neon signs, and another room that rains confetti. The space allows up to 1,000 visitors a day, and it costs $35 for adults to enter and $28 for kids. The Houston location cost “seven figures” to build, according to Lind, but could theoretically bring in $35,000 a day, and that doesn’t even account for merch.
With steep competition in the space, Color Factory’s team sees themselves differently. They commission artists, showcase local food vendors, partner with museums, and somewhat limit the brands that can take over a room (although other pop-ups do similar things). Lind also says it’s all about the experience, which is what Color Factory’s competitors say, too. You’re not just getting a photo, but a place to spend time and bond with friends and family. Still, Lind really thinks Color Factory epitomizes the word experience.
“We deliver what we say we’re going to,” he says. “So you don’t have that thing pinging in the back of your head being like, ‘This isn’t an experience, they said an experience.’” Some of the competition, he says, give more of a marketing message than anything else. “We truly give you an experience that you go through with the artwork. You will experience art in the Color Factory more intimately and more powerfully, more interactively, than any other place on the planet.”
The rooms in Houston vary, and the ones I saw under construction all seemed designed with a photo in mind. A hallway decorated with a hanging chain link fence, for example, came from New Hampshire-based artist Soo Sunny Park. It incorporates glass within the fence to play off iridescence. It’s shiny, naturally lit, and rough all at the same time — it begs to be photographed. The team didn’t install a camera in the hall, however, because it’s meant to be a thoroughfare. Still, I wanted a photo.
Although the room is pretty, I sensed how things could go wrong once people swarmed the place. The fence hangs low, for one. I’m 5’2” and easily could have bumped my head. “We know that this is a piece that will likely need to be raised,” Malhotra says. “This is also how the artist intended it to be; there’s also a balance to be struck with the durability of the space and allowing 1,000 people to come in.” It’s a literal chain link fence hanging in the air, which seems risky.
Ahead of opening, the team dreamed up ways in which the art could be destroyed, or how visitors could injure themselves. For Park’s exhibit, they shaved down every sharp corner and learned from her about how to best care for the fence, like wiping down the glass with soft gloves to clean it, almost like you would with eyeglasses.
It often isn’t until Color Factory’s team sees how people abuse their space, though, that they figure out workarounds. They knew to order a machine called the HyGenie to clean their ball pit balls, for example, but their confetti room — which uses movie set snow tumblers filled with confetti to rain colorful paper onto guests — needed a unique solution to sanitize dirt and collect fallen pieces. They turned to snow blowers to congregate all the tissue paper confetti in one place. (Malhotra’s team only settled on the paper material after testing 20 different confetti types to see how they looked when they fell and how they stuck to the ground.) For Houston, they also doubled their tumbler count so that they don’t have to replenish the confetti throughout the day. The confetti still gets dirty, though, so Malhotra’s team devised what Lind calls the “hair ball remover,” a tube that uses velcro to grab onto hair so confetti can pass through and come out clean. Hairy confetti, it seems, isn’t cute for Instagram.
Another room features a neon sign that spells out “You Are Magic,” and requires visitors to touch fingers or hands to complete a circuit to light the neon. Texas-based artists Alicia Eggert and James Akers designed it to emphasize “human collaboration,” Malhotra says. They cover the lower hanging neon with plexiglass to keep people safe. Shattered neon: also not cute for Instagram.
Other Houston improvements come in the form of more basic, but essential, room upgrades. The team is working for a second time with Ohio-based illustrators Andrew Neyer and Andy Pizza to design a life-size coloring book that lets visitors color the walls. Previously, the staff had to repaint the illustrations every week, using a projector to project the design on the wall — a tedious nightmare. Now, they’ve sealed the drawing outlines onto the wall with a clear gloss topcoat and another material that creates a wipeable surface. Guests used to draw profane things, Piepmeyer says, so now, an errant penis doesn’t shut the room down. A big upgrade.
All this maintenance R&D not only keeps the place running smoothly, but also safeguards Color Factory’s intellectual property. They aren’t patenting their ball pit, but rather making theirs the must-see ball pit. They’re fighting a pop-up arms race. “We protect our ideas through scale,” Lind says. “Like sure, put a ball pit in, but you’ll never put a ball pit in like this. Yeah, do a confetti tumbler, but your confetti is going to be disgusting.”
I think of Malhotra’s team, as well as the day-to-day Color Factory staff, as professional resetters. The hordes of visitors are like toddlers let loose in a room, pulling out every toy and game and then leaving the mess for their parents to handle. The team sets aside a day every week for a reset in which they touch up exhibits and undo the havoc people have wreaked. In New York, they’ll repaint handles, for example, that get chipped. Every three months or so, they’ll also close for a full reset week during which they’ll fix more labor- and time-intensive projects, like creating new drawers or giving a worn-out room a full facelift.
The most controversial, yet obvious aspect of these pop-ups are the photos they inspire. The Color Factory team doesn’t see itself as a glorified photo booth, even though cameras are installed in the rooms. In fact, Lind derides competitors who think building a pop-up is as simple as creating oversized props. “We have to be really careful that we never seem like we’re talking down to our audience,” he says. “Or that we’re even saying, ‘We’re going to give you an experience,’ and then you walk in, and you don’t have experience, you have a bunch of backdrops, because that’s not an experience.”
Experience, I get it. But even after spending time in the New York City and Houston locations, I still don’t know how to refer to Color Factory. It’s a pop-up, but not really because the team’s efforts suggests more than a short-term opportunity. It’s “experiential,” but not an amusement park, arcade, or museum. Color Factory describes itself as a “collaborative interactive exhibit,” which feels closer, but also like MBA word salad. Although the company and its other competitors, like 29Rooms, resist the idea that people come for Instagram, we should get real: people come for the ‘gram. Color Factory acknowledges this fact in so much as it builds cameras into most rooms, so people don’t have to take their phones out at all. The idea is that, yes, your time is being documented, but you’re not distracted from friends or family while fiddling around with your smartphone. At the New York City location, the company says people take an average of 6,300 photos per day — a total of 2,310,000 photos taken since its opening. A lot of ‘grams.
The camera investment is essential, and more than anything else, it sets Color Factory apart from its competition. Malhotra coordinates with a third-party camera company, Hypno, to set up the shots, but the artists are kept in the conversation about photo ops, too. Malhotra’s team worked with their neon artist to test different lighting scenarios and how they’ll photograph, for instance, but Color Factory leans heavily on Hypno to nail down what makes a good photo. The aim is to capture images guests can’t take on their own: one shot might be taken with a wide-angle lens, another taken from above. A new camera in the ball pit is surface level with the balls so people look immersed in a sea of plastic. The team’s proud of that one.
Color Factory also invested in new passes for this location, so visitors can scan a badge at each station to take a photo automatically. Like how at the end of a rollercoaster ride your scream face is snapped automatically, visitors can scan their badge when they walk into a room and have their photo taken in the perfect spot. The pics are then emailed at the end of the visit. The Houston location features mirrorless Canon EOS RP cameras, which Omar Elsayed, Hypno co-founder, says compensates for poor lighting conditions or other technical issues, although he and the team can’t salvage an unenjoyable room.
“The best photo ultimately for these people is the photo that makes them look like they’re having the best time,” Elsayed says. “That is not something that the camera drives, that’s something the experience drives.”
Lind gets it, too: “A pen in your pocket doesn’t make you a writer any more than a good camera makes your room look nice.”
For a place once billed as a pop-up, the team puts in a lot of permanent work. Lind wouldn’t give me an exact idea of the Houston lease’s length, but he did say they wouldn’t sink this much money into a space with the intention of leaving in three months. Plus, the team has to deal with city codes and permits, meaning they had to install a sprinkler system throughout the entire building, which is an investment, for sure.
Color Factory’s competitors are also setting up bigger, more expensive operations. The Museum of Ice Cream publicized its latest funding round in August this year, putting it at a $200 million valuation, in addition to its plans to open a flagship location in essentially the same New York City neighborhood as Color Factory.
“We’re all watching each other closely,” Lind says. They’ve spotted the Museum of Ice Cream employees standing outside of Color Factory, and, of course, the Color Factory team also checks out their competitors’ locations. Lind tells me he and his wife visited Museum of Ice Cream, and his wife spelled out “Color Factory rules” in magnetic refrigerator letters. Lind told her to “mix it up,” but she protested that it was “true.” (She eventually scrambled the letters.)
The team also watches their competitors’ Instagrams, and more than anything, is protective of their workforce. Pop-up talent is hard to find, but especially charismatic people who like art and are patient enough to deal with unruly humans. “New York’s a blood sport for all of us — for tickets, for people,” Lind says. “When certain pop-ups show up down the street, they start trying to hire our people. I’m sure Museum of Ice Cream is doing it to us right now. I’d be shocked if they weren’t.”
Beyond expanding into new locations, the experience ecosystem means companies are branding merch — Museum of Ice Cream sells ice cream at Target — and generally trying to get bigger and better. Meow Wolf is spending $60 million on a flagship location in Denver, along with locations in Las Vegas and Santa Fe; 29Rooms is now touring the country in cities like Los Angeles, DC, and New York; and Candytopia’s in Miami, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.
The one thing they can all guarantee: a relentless pursuit to conquer the experience economy. They’ll keep designing ever-bigger confetti cannons, deeper ball pits, and neon as bright as the sun in an attempt to out-experience each other. And they won’t play nice, either. They’ll poach the competition, talk a lot of smack, and raise gobs and gobs of money to further fund an escalating experience arms race. But that’s the petty drama you won’t see on Instagram.