How Essence Prioritized Both the Digital and In-Person Experience at the Essence Festival

The publisher employed several strategies to keep participants at the 2021 Essence Festival in New Orleans safe and invested in an upgraded digital experience.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Essence Festival 2021

The 2021 Essence Festival took place over two consecutive weekends online and in person in New Orleans. (Photos courtesy Essence)

For several decades, Essence magazine has hosted the Essence Festival of Culture, a three-day event held in New Orleans, filled with panels, concerts, performances, movie screenings, and shopping. When the Essence Festival was forced by the pandemic to be held virtually over two weekends in 2020, it attracted 45 million views over the course of six days.

The 2021 Essence Festival of Culture, held June 25-27, and July 2-4, was a hybrid event. At the Digiday Publishing Summit held in Miami in September, Stephanie Hodges-Dunivan, vice president of experiential, branded content and video at Essence, shared the publisher’s strategy for the in-person and digital festival experiences. (Her comments were recapped in an article in Digiday for paid subscribers.) Here are highlights:

Community Service in Lieu of Paid Tickets

Hodges-Dunivan said that a main reason why Essence wanted to bring back its in-person event to New Orleans was to “provide a sense of normalcy and celebration” to the city, where the event has historically taken place — and which brought in $280 million to local businesses in 2018. As part of this commitment, Hodges-Dunivan said the publisher opted not to charge attendees for tickets to the in-person event. Instead, they were asked to donate three hours of their time to do community service for the city.

Essence Festival 2021

The Essence Festival converted several Airstream trailers into pop-up stages and event venues, setting them up in different neighborhoods and community centers around New Orleans.

In Person but Dispersed

In pre-COVID times, daytime components of the festival took place at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, while evening concerts were performed at the Louisiana Superdome, which now now The Caesars Superdome. Hodges-Dunivan and her team didn’t want to drive crowds to one area during the 2020 festival. Even though COVID vaccinations were available by June of this year, they felt it was too much of a health risk.

Stephanie Hodges-Dunivan

Stephanie Hodges-Dunivan

Instead, they created micro activations and sessions across the entire city. In addition, several Airstream trailers were converted into pop-up stages and event venues, set up in different neighborhoods and community centers around New Orleans. To ensure social distancing at a large concert, the team created a drive-in experience at a local university, where people remained in their cars.

Focus on Digital

With many more online entertainment options this year vying for audience attention, the Essence team figured they couldn’t rely on just livestreaming events as they had done at the festival pre-pandemic. “People have so many options,” Hodges-Dunivan said at the Digiday session, and “you want to stop the scroll.” Essence invested in high-quality production for the digital experience, pre-recording sessions months in advance at broadcast studios using multiple cameras.

Flexibility Is Key

“Agility is the No. 1 thing,” Hodges-Dunivan offered the audience in terms of advice. “If you can plan an event during a pandemic, you can pretty much do anything. Just having plan Bs for your plan Zs is all you can do.”

Two curveballs – the Delta variant and Hurricane Ida — were thrown to Hodges-Dunivan and her team. So, instead of holding small concerts in Louisiana as planned, the team turned the concert series into vaccination drives, and then into food and supplies drives for those who were affected by the hurricane.

Essence hasn’t firmed up plans for next year’s festival yet, but Hodges-Dunivan said her team is mapping out difference scenarios based on transmission rates, number of COVID cases, and other potential variants that may pop up in the next year.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.