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Why I Left Gaming to Bet on Experiences

If you follow me on LinkedIn, you probably know by now that I made a pretty big career move recently. Last week, I officially left my role at Activision Blizzard to take on a new position at Pollen, a high-growth startup that builds, curates, and delivers travel experiences. Each experience pairs world class entertainment with exciting destinations, bringing together music, sports, wellness and more using a tech-enabled, data-driven methodology.

As someone who spent their whole career working at massive companies, I had my reservations about moving to a startup, some of which I laid out in this post.

In reality though, the decision to move was far more complex. First of all, working in games was my childhood dream. I still have a pretty vivid recollection of people asking me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And When I answered with, “I want to work at a video game company,” the response I’d get was typically something like, “Oh that’s nice, but you’ll grow out of it.”

Spoiler alert: I did not grow out of it.

Shocker.

Secondly, we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is now really the right time to be betting on live experiences? A product that almost always requires large groups of people to be in close proximity of one another, almost by definition? Sure, on one hand, coronavirus restrictions seem to be easing. But on the other hand, new variants are emerging, vaccination rates are plateauing, and it’s hard to predict what any “new normal” might look like.

So what exactly was it about this opportunity that made me quit my dream job and bet on an industry that’s living on the bleeding edge of a global crisis?

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Latent Demand

Spend on experiences dropped a ton in 2020, indicating that just around the corner, there could be a huge rebound in spend that even surpasses the most recent all-time high. Between 2014-2019, the average annual expenditure on live arts experiences (e.g., concerts, plays, theater) per consumer unit in the USA grew a healthy cumulative average growth rate of 8.3%, reaching $62.69 USD in 2019, before dropping ~30% in 2020.

You might be interested in: Communities and Movie Theaters in the Age of Coronavirus

This hypothesis is also backed up by a recent report published by United Talent Agency, Virtual + Reality: The Future of Digital & Live Entertainment in a Post-Pandemic World. According to the report:

  • Almost everyone who was surveyed plans to return to some form of live entertainment once it’s safe to, with sports, concerts, and movie theaters topping the list
  • 1/3 of those surveyed feel that live events will be more important post-pandemic than pre-pandemic
  • 1/3 of those surveyed are inclined to attend as many live events as possible
  • 1/4 of those surveyed will cut back on spending in other areas to attend more live events

I think it’s safe to say that experiences are here to stay, and will likely come out stronger than ever on the other side of the pandemic, whatever that happens to looks like.

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Ripe for Disruption

Think about your favorite experiences from the past 10 years: live concerts, sporting events, fitness experiences, vacations. Now compare the oldest experiences you participated in to your most recent experiences. What were some of the big differences? They probably don’t seem very different at all!

The fact of the matter is that a food festival in 2021 is about the same as a food festival in 2011, masks and hand sanitizer notwithstanding. The least digital sectors are the last to be disrupted, and there are few things less digital than live.

What’s crazy is that so much data and technology exists today, not just from an operational standpoint, but from a consumer standpoint, too. We have the technology to build truly curated, customer-centric experiences, and yet we still let a few big players tell consumers what they should expect from a live experience. There’s a tremendous opportunity to innovate here, and a smaller, nimble scale-up is just the right contender to do that.

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Social and Economic Impact

The experience economy is woven into the livelihoods of people across a spectrum of socio-economic groups. Experiences create jobs, increase spending, and create entire ecosystems of businesses around them. Hotels, restaurants, local governments, and small businesses all benefit from the activity brought in by experiences.

You might be interested in: The Cultural Implications of COVID-19 and its Impact on Live Music

The sheer magnitude of this impact can be best illustrated by studying the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Research by the World Travel and Tourism Council shows that prior to the pandemic, travel and tourism accounted for 1 in 4 of all new jobs created across the world, 10.6% of all jobs (334 million), and 10.4% of global GDP ($9.2 trillion USD). Their latest research, however, showed that in 2020, 62 million jobs were lost, domestic visitor spending decreased by 45%, and international visitor spending decreased by 69.4%.

Scaling and innovating the experiences market can have social and economic impact that is both deep and inclusive, and could play a crucial role in restoring the communities and businesses that depend on experiences to their pre-pandemic days.

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The decision to leave gaming was a really tough one for me, especially at a time when gaming is actually benefitting from stay-at-home orders and the prospect of another global lockdown. However, we’re at a very rare moment in the history of live experiences where pent-up demand has met a competitive environment that is long overdue for disruption. Those two things alone create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a business that could have a profound affect on the way people think about how they engage with experiences.

Throw in the fact that I’m a huge fan of music and travel, along with the opportunity to do some good in the world, and the decision starts to become a slightly easier one for me.

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