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The Museum of Ice Cream is back, proving experiential marketing is still alive

·8 min read

On a Friday afternoon in sweltering Texas heat, Manish Vora stood in front of a small crowd. He wore a cherry red suit jacket, a matching red vest, pink jeans, pink shoes, and pink ice cream patterned socks. The crowd nibbled pink lemonade popsicles stamped “M.O.I.C,” an acronym for what everyone had gathered to do: visit the Museum of Ice Cream. 

“Why are we here?” Vora, the co-founder and co-CEO of the Museum of Ice Cream, a business once valued at $200 million, asked the group. He gathered the visitors around the entrance to the building, a wide concrete structure in Austin’s Domain shopping center. Its exterior was painted to match everything else—pink.

“Instagram!” A woman shouted.

“No.” Vora was reflective. “We’re here for joy. We’re here for connection.” He paused, building the excitement. “We’re here for ice cream.”

It’s been a tough year for the Museum of Ice Cream. Once the weekend dalliance of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Beyonce, ticket sales for the company’s “experiums,” elaborate mazes of ice cream themed spectacles, evaporated overnight. Revenue fell by 100 percent, Vora says. Reporting by Forbes, which included interviews with 20 former employees, painted the picture of a startup on the brink of collapse—not just from COVID-19 related challenges, which Vora calls “catastrophic”—but from a corporate culture of fear and intimidation led by co-CEO Maryellis Bunn. (Vora disputes this reporting, Bunn was not available for comment.) The Museum of Ice Cream’s flagship location in New York was closed from March through September of 2020 as the pandemic swelled; its San Francisco location closed permanently in July 2021. 

Now, the Museum of Ice Cream is back. The New York location is beginning to see pre-pandemic ticket sales, Vora says, and the company opened two new locations this summer in Singapore and Austin, Texas. In aggregate, 30,000 tickets at $39 a pop were sold for opening weekend across both locations, according to the company.

“There was never a moment that I didn’t believe in the mission,” Vora says. “At no point did we ever waver in the knowledge that we bring joy.”

During the heyday of the Museum of Ice Cream, its lines wrapped around New York city blocks, and Bunn was heralded as the “Millennial Walt Disney.” Launched in 2016, the Museum of Ice Cream’s approach to wowing consumers—meticulous design, interactivity, celebrity approval—felt like a revelation for retailers losing market share to Shopify and Amazon. Consumers would emerge from their apartments, retailers discovered, if only you gave them a reason to. E-commerce brands stood to benefit from noteworthy brick-and-mortar spaces too, increasing brand awareness and distribution. The competition—a race to build the next swimming pool of sprinkles—was on.

Venture dollars poured into “the experience.” An experience is immersive. It’s tactile. It offers an escape to a better place, and through that escape, it drives sales. Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood proved fertile testing ground, every block reinforcing the promise that our lives could be curated just as carefully as a store window: the glimmering perfection of Glossier’s 2016 arrival, the fragrant landing of Goop Lab in 2018, the embrace of direct-to-consumer at Showfields in 2019. We could touch, taste, and smell beauty. We could buy it in a bottle, or we could at least photograph it for everyone else to see. In the tightly controlled world of experiential retail, everything could be perfect.

This summer, more than a year into a global pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, that era felt far, far away. Perfection, we now knew, was a mirage. It was time to prioritize utility over experience: E-commerce wasn’t just easier, it was necessary. Online retail grew 26 percent in 2020, topping $4.2 trillion.

The business model of the Museum of Ice Cream did shift in response to the pandemic, Vora says, but only slightly. The company launched direct-to-consumer ice creams sold through Goldbelly in May 2020, and it began selling its pints through a retail partnership at 14,600 Lawson stores in Japan in June 2021. Forbes reported a retail partnership with Target was abandoned in 2020. There were digital ice cream classes and experience kits during the height of the pandemic, but those were primarily to “keep our team working and engaged with our community,” Vora explains. Fans can also buy Museum of Ice Cream merch, like T-shirts, water bottles, and decorative pins, but those products are exclusively available at museum locations.

The business remains “IRL,” Vora says. “Getting folks out, into real space, playing, laughing, smiling, eating ice cream together … interactive entertainment is what we’ve always been focused on.” 

But after so many months of harsh reality, could we really go back to pretending it all away? 

At the museum, Vora gathered visitors in a semi circle, a technique he learned from docents at the Whitney, and asked for names. Then he told the group to forget those names, at least for the next half hour, as the troubles of the outside world vanished within the universe of sprinkles and candy. He asked the group to choose “ice cream names” instead, flavors and toppings written on a nametag. Everyone did.

Wandering the exhibits—a 1950s era diner with soft serve, an ice cream themed Whack-A-Mole game, a hallway strung with bananas, a roundabout lit with mirrors, and of course, the swimming pool filled with plastic sprinkles—it’s easy to see how what once felt vibrant and aspirational now feels a bit empty. 

Brands are continuing to drive forward with experiential retail, adding in-person attractions and COVID-19 safety precautions to bring shoppers back into the store. The Museum of Ice Cream is well suited to the COVID-19 era, Vora argues, as a linear ticketed experience where small groups move through exhibits one at a time: “We operate normally in our buildings at a capacity of 25 percent because of the way we move people through the experience, versus a movie theater, where you’re sitting with 500 people in an enclosed room.” Masks are required, and waivers are signed at the outset. At the Museum of Ice Cream’s New York location, vaccines will be required for visitors and employees in mid-September per a city mandate. Vaccines are not mandated in Austin. This summer, across leisure categories like brick-and-mortar retail, gyms, and airlines, consumer confidence ticked upward, according to an analysis by the New Consumer.

But in the recovery from the pandemic, brands are aiming for something loftier than just experiential retail. Offline and online, they’re striving to heal a fragmented world, to create connections, linking their most loyal customers not just to products but to one another. The highest goal? It’s an aphorism spreading like wildfire among modern brands: building community. This, brands presume, will leave a stronger mark on the consumer—and drive more sales.

At the Museum of Ice Cream, the mission isn’t to sell tickets, it’s to “bring joy and connection to the world,” Vora says. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are, we know you’re here for one reason: You love ice cream. It’s as simple as using the ice breakers from summer camp or your first day of school in first grade. We can share those memories with each other; we can reconnect with people.” 

But what about overcoming last year’s controversy? It doesn’t seem to have slowed consumer demand, in Austin at least. On a Wednesday night after the museum’s official opening, visitors queued up along the side of the building, eating popsicles and waiting for their turn to go inside. 

“Most people really don’t care,” said Paul Munford, founder of the Lean Luxe newsletter and industry Slack group, which counts dozens of the most prominent digitally native brands as members. He notes that reporting about leadership at the Museum of Ice Cream has dropped off the first page of Google News search results. You won’t find those sorts of stories on the first page of results for brands like Away or ThirdLove—which have each had their own controversies—either. It’s harder to make a dent in the mindset of an average consumer than you might think, he says.

“Most people aren’t keeping track of the day-to-day drama of what’s going on in this particular space,” Munford continues. “There have been a lot of exposes with brands and founders and their management styles, but most people outside of our space aren’t keeping track. We still buy products from companies that manufacture in sweatshops. People don’t pay attention and their level of care only goes up so much.”

Geography may also have something to do with it. In Texas, families with kids, couples on dates, and groups of girlfriends, all present in line at the museum, may be more insulated from the news cycle than young folks in Manhattan. Vora notes that visitors have driven in from El Paso, San Antonio, and Dallas to visit the Museum of Ice Cream in Austin. 

Vora has no plans for slowing down either, he says: “I don’t want to be anywhere else other than at the museum, wearing pink, welcoming people in, and putting a smile on people’s faces.”

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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com