“You’re better because you went through it, but in no way, shape, or form would I ever want to do it again.”
Adam Nelson, vice president of experiential retail design at Event Network, is sitting with his back against a wall at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, talking as vendors and buyers walk past every few seconds. The last time he spoke with ABQ in 2020, his team was hard at work curating experiential store designs for some of the most famous brands and museums across the world. He was preparing for a meeting at the Guggenheim, a meeting that he’ll never forget.
“I was presenting my proposed design, it went great, and we got up to leave,” Nelson remembers. “It was supposed to be the last meeting of the day, but everyone else stayed sitting. They mentioned an emergency meeting had been called. The next day the museum was closed due to COVID.”
Nelson returned home with a keepsake; he would wind up as Utah’s 50th confirmed case of COVID-19. Everything would change in a matter of weeks. The experiences that had made Event Network such a well-established innovator in store design were suddenly closed off to the public, who was itself sent home for an undetermined period of time. With virtually every project that wasn’t ongoing put off indefinitely, the company had to slash its headcount down to just 2 percent of its norm.
“I heard so many stories during the pandemic about people going home and spending all of this quality time with their families,” Nelson says with a laugh. “I was working 90 hours a week.”
It wasn’t just to account for the loss of staff. Spaces that had once brought in thousands of daily visitors, like the Georgia Aquarium, were now closed and available for construction 24 hours a day. Nelson had virtually no operating budget, construction projects finishing much faster than anticipated, and a strange and constant push and pull of a pandemic environment with no end date in sight.
Things eventually got back to normal, but Nelson says he’ll probably never shake the stress of the pandemic. His loyalty and dedication during that time saw him promoted to his current job, a role that expanded his purview to include hospitality and a better understanding of concepts he thought he already had a handle on.
“I fell in love with design in a way that I don’t think I truly understood before,” he remembers. “When I had to do every drawing, all the detailing, all the selections and renderings—it had been a while since I had gotten so deep into all the bits and pieces of this business. You find opportunities that you might have missed while working at a higher level.”
Working in the hospitality space has been an entirely new dynamic for the store design pro. Nelson says his job now includes working with stakeholders that often include company CEOs and the executive team.
“It might be top owners of a dozen of the nicest properties in the US,” he explains. “These people love their job in a different type of way than a CEO of a nonprofit. The ROI is different for them.”
Nelson has been able to expand the hopes of building owners that were used to the same usual suspects of potential retail lessees. Instead, the VP and his team are able to curate entire experiences and product selections with the broader business in mind.
Case in point: In August, Event will proudly show off its 3,000-square-foot space within the Hyatt Ka’anapali Beach Hotel in Hawaii. Rather than the same tried-and-true surfboard and sun theme, Nelson wanted to dig deeper to create a memorable experience, especially for children.
The location will feature a lifeguard tower, plush dolphins and turtles, and an Instagrammable dune buggy where parents can proudly snap pictures of their kids in the driver’s seat. “It’s about creating a more personal experience that creates a sort of feedback loop,” Nelson says. “We create this experience that gives our merchants the handoff to sell those curated products. We’re the bridge in that transitory space and learning about that process just gets more interesting the more you look into it.”
It’s a single example of the VP’s continuing evolution, one also cited by Nelson’s collaborators, Mick Thaxton and John Ellis of Newood MFG. “Having worked with Adam for over eight years, it is always rewarding to see his vision and passion,” says Thaxton, Newood’s general manager. “Being part of the Hyatt project has given us an incredible opportunity to see first-hand Event Network’s venture in the hospitality sector which I am sure will be very successful.”
There are indeed countless other projects that demand serious inquiry down the line, like the casual mention of an in-the-works traveling Bigfoot experience that will include a full narrative storyline of Bigfoot saving the earth.
But at the moment, Nelson has to get back to the convention. He may be at work right now but the VP says he emerged from the pandemic with an even greater appreciation for his family, nature, and the realization that in spite of how much he absolutely loves what he does, his family will always come first.
“I could have been one of those people that kept putting off my kids’ soccer games because there would always be another one,” he says. “Before you know it, you’ve missed them all. You have to make space for it, or it just evaporates. I’m making that time now.”
Newood MFG, based in Eugene, Oregon, has been providing quality wood fixtures to independent and chain retail stores for over 40 years. Working with store owners, designers, and architects nationwide, Newood’s staff excels in understanding what will fulfill the needs for that project, often suggesting value engineering and providing budget options. We also work with laminate, melamine, and metal to enhance our customers’ fixtures designs. Our team approach creates successful end results for everyone.
VGS is a single source for design, fabrication, and roll-out of value-driven, easily replicated visual communication systems, interior and exterior signage, display fixtures, iconic flagship brand features, and so much more. Building on nearly 40 years of experience, we have the advantage of combining our unique design proficiency and strong project management skills with solid fabrication expertise to create an unparalleled customer experience.