Lauren Okie is a Los Angeles-based writer and a member of the Riley Group.
On a Friday this December, I attended Beautycon POP in Los Angeles. The beauty industry’s premiere event planner, Beautycon, is famous for its New York and Los Angeles festivals. These two-day gatherings feature everyone who’s anyone in makeup. Beauty lovers assemble in throngs to hear famous panelists, connect with brands and, of course, snap a zillion selfies.
Beautycon POP was built by these festival-throwers as an immersive, Instagram-ready experience… and as an extension of the successful festivals. So when I arrived at Beautycon POP, I expected lots of beauty products, tons of immersive information and a line out the door.
To my surprise, there wasn’t any of that.
I entered the building—settled a block away from the Beverly Center shopping mall—and walked right up the employee running the front desk. She scanned my $35 mobile ticket and warmly told me “the unicorns or that way, unless you want to get your makeup done.”
I looked to my left and saw a pink, plastic unicorn the size of a horse. To my right, I saw a handful of employees in a Macy’s branded beauty studio chatting amongst themselves. The place was bright and the staff seemed approachable, but the emptiness of the room caused the experience’s hype to plummet.
I declined the makeover, having already dolled myself up (uh, mascara and I brushed my hair) prior to heading over here. After all, the online instructions said come selfie-ready with a fully-charged phone. And I wanted the full experience.
From the beginning, signs indicated to me this event was all about celebrating my own beauty, whatever that looked like. “You don’t need lipstick. Lipstick needs you,” the signs wrapped around the building announced. And so I, clutching my phone like a true millennial, walked over to the unicorns and began to take pictures.
I was expecting there to be beauty products in the room, but there were not. Ariana Grande music blared and the unicorns, which were pretty simple, just stood there.
The next room I entered was a blue sky of clouds. I suddenly heard a familiar sound: the ding of the fasten seatbelt sign. I looked around more and realized I was supposed to be at 30,000 feet. Again, there was no makeup in sight.
A helpful employee, who was the only other person in the room, encouraged me to strike a few poses on the private jet photo opt. I obliged, and she comfortably took my phone and snapped away. She then shook her head, saying she didn’t get my best angle, and asked to do more.
That felt good. See, I’d always been uncomfortable posing or putting on a show. I’m awkward and I’m not a girly-girl. But she was signaling to me that wanting to look your best and get that killer Instagram pose wasn’t dumb or foolish or anything but self-celebratory. And so, when she suggested I pose again at the wing of the jet, with the fake wind blowing my hair around, I said yes.
In most of the rooms at Beautycon POP, there are iPads that will shoot a “killer shot” with a cool effect for you, then text them directly to your phone. I had a little trouble getting the self-timer right, but the friendly employees took over the whole process for me and even insisted I do multiple sessions to ensure best results.
Again, that was a win for me. I’m happy to speak on a panel about my work in front of a thousand people, but posing for a single picture is hard. And the people here made me feel like there was really nothing to it. And that rubbed off on me. Feeling empowered, I continued to the next room.
This diamond room was inspired by Rihanna. It was in this room where I fully realized how low the production value was on most of this set. Party beads, adhesive wallpaper, plastic chandeliers all began to break the spell that the employee from the sky-high room had cast over me. While these items photograph okay, I could really see their flaws in person, especially since there was nobody else around to distract me.
I did like the life-sized rose garden room, which offered a touch of a Dali-esque Alice in Wonderland vibe. It was the first time I actually wanted a picture for my own private Instagram. There was a cool place to do a boomerang-style video in front of some roses, and I had it sent to my phone. I even liked the pictures I took in the preview!
Unfortunately, that content never came through. There’s a delay on the send so you don’t really know until it’s too late whether all the tech is working.
Later, I arrived in the final experience room, a runway sponsored by Macy’s. Encouraged by signage, my own commitment to getting out of my comfort zone and the really cool staff who genuinely tried to engage me, I decided to give it my all.
The friendly man working the iPad in the room showed me how he thought I should catwalk, even suggesting I look to my left, then right, before I began my strut. He took my coat and bag so they would not be in the shot. And he told me to go for it.
I did, and I tried my best, but I was super awkward and a little shy. It was fun! But I was still me!
As we watched the playback, he told me he thought I could do better and that I should give it one more shot.
“No,” I said. “It’s perfect. It’s exactly who I am. Isn’t that the point of this whole thing?”
He smirked. “Ha! You’re right.”
As I walked out of the room, he called back to me and asked me what sign I was.
“A pisces,” I replied with a smile.
At the end of the maze, a room with a blacklight and more Ariana Grande music offered me an opportunity to place a fluorescent Post-It on a modern community wall. Many were messages of love, acceptance and “you’ve got this”, mostly followed by Instagram handles.
I left one with a simple heart drawn on it. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say. It wasn’t the set or the selfies or the motivational quotes that impressed me. It was the quality of the employees, who made me feel completely comfortable with the act of celebrating my insides through my outsides. They gave me unlimited attention and assistance, even complimenting my discomfort as cute at times.
I learned later that a local makeup brand, Lime Crime, was heavily featured at the event. I saw they had sponsored a lime-colored room, and that lots of their products were featured at the little retail shop at the very end. But I didn’t know they were local and I couldn’t find the brand’s story, so that was a disappointment.
I think I was expecting to be educated and enlightened or at least entertained. Instead, I was mostly just enchanted with the very kind people who made me feel completely comfortable trying to hit my angles. And I guess that’s a pretty good experience, in its own special way.
As experiences like Beautycon continue to rise in popularity, it will be interesting to see how controllable variables like set design budget and quality of employees affect each pop-up’s effectiveness. Great employees can really help push event-goers through an experience with a smile, compensating for shortcomings that might otherwise be quite a disappointment.
But it doesn’t mean we should lower the bar for design and aesthetics, especially when events are sponsored by national brands like Macy’s. After all, a gorgeous, tactile experience has always been—and will always be—essential in retail.