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3 lessons brands can learn from Sentosa's sky lantern fiasco

3 lessons brands can learn from Sentosa's sky lantern fiasco

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Sentosa recently found itself in hot water after a sky lantern festival held at Sentosa’s Palawan Green left patrons angry when they were unable to release lanterns due to the organiser’s inability to obtain the necessary licenses.

The Sky Lantern Festival was meant to feature floating lanterns lit by candles that would be floated into the sky for a few minutes and then brought down. Unfortunately, it was announced at the last minute that patrons would be unable to release the lanterns into the sky. 

Don't miss: Sentosa's brand sentiments plummet after sky lantern festival flops

Rather, the festival, organised by Asian Couture & Boutique, could only continue with music entertainment. 

When MARKETING-INTERACTIVE reached out to Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), a spokesperson said that Asian Couture & Boutique did not get clearance to meet the safety requirements mandated by local authorities such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

The spokesperson from SDC also said that after knowledge of the delays, guests were informed of the situation through signboards at key locations from Sentosa Express Beach Station to the site at Palawan Green. Live updates were provided by the organiser at event ground, they added.

More than 2000 people were affected with tickets for the festival priced at up to S$53.47 each on ticketing website Eventbrite. Eventgoers then took to social media to share pictures and videos of the event while noting that they were not properly informed, had to wait in long queues and that they were allegedly not welcome to a refund if they chose to pick up a lantern, pen and LED light which was provided by the organisers as reimbursement.

The incident, at its core, resulted from a lack of adequate communication between organisers and patrons with regards to expectations surrounding the event, signage when things started to go awry and the refund process at the end of it all. 

There are key lessons brands can learn from the failure of the event and MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to three communications professionals to find out what they are.

1. Managing expectations for consumers

While it was disappointing that the star of the show, the lantern release, could not go as planned, the event's troubles began far before it reached that point. Attendees were told that there would be a music festival with performances and food from 3pm that day.

However, when attendees showed up, they reportedly found that the venue was still fenced up and that the set up was not done. Reportedly, the gates were only open to attendees at around 6.10pm.

It was also reported that there were police officers speaking to vendors and that some were taking down their stalls.

When gates opened, vendors were reportedly not selling their wares. The music festival also turned out to be just one violinist and one DJ playing.

"The organisers failed on so many fronts, communications aside," said Jose Raymond, managing director at SW Strategies. 

He said that apart from signages, there were so many other ways in which the organisers could have communicated with their customers such as through direct emails or phone numbers, both of which would have been collected at the point of sale and social media. 

"The question to ask the organiser would also be if they actually had a crisis plan on standby for the event, and if they didn't, why," said Raymond, adding that it was particularly important considering that it was an event that involved fire. 

Raymond explained that every mishap or mismanagement allows other brands or organisations to learn from it.

"In this instance there are a few learnings," said Raymond. "Firstly, do not start marketing an event until all the permits are approved and the concept is also given the final go ahead by all national agencies," he said, adding:

Selling the event in one iteration and then delivering it in another is just unethical and wrong.

Secondly, when something untoward happens, be upfront and be clear with customers about what transpired. Else, trust is lost, according to Raymond.

Thirdly when a mistake is made, say sorry, said Raymond. 

2. Providing adequate information when things start to go wrong

When things started to go wrong and Asian Couture & Boutique realized that they would not be getting the necessary approvals to release the lanterns into the sky, signs were put up saying that due to "unforeseen circumstances", the festival would be "delayed".

Attendees reported that no updates were shared by email or other platforms and that many were still making their way into the venue despite the fact that the lanterns would not be able to be floated. Ushers were also reportedly telling attendees that the event would still be happening but that the lanterns would not fly. 

"People are understanding towards unexpected events such as rain, which can cause such show to be cancelled. But what totally went wrong here is that the event organiser didn’t take the fire safety standards seriously, despite several reminders from SCDF," said Manisha Seewal, president at Redhill Communications. "Also, the food stalls were not permitted, which made the trip to Sentosa worthless."

"The moment event organisers found out that they will not be allowed to use the fire lanterns (which is core to selling this experience), instead of ordering LED lights, the first course of action could have been owning up and communicating that the event is cancelled as they prioritise the safety of the attendees," she said. 

Seewal added that the first option should have been to offer an instant digital refund. Instead, people were kept in the dark all the way till they made their way to Sentosa, spent time queueing, only to be handed over LED lights, a marker and told that they can’t fly the lanterns anymore.

"To make things worse, those who collected these items were not be offered a refund – which further angered the crowd.

Clear, quick, honest communication is the best way to salvage the situation.

3. How brands can improve communication around reparations

Following the announcement that the lanterns would not be able to be floated, a man representing the vendors reportedly told attendees over the sound system that they could apply for a refund. 

Attendees were also told that they could collect lanterns and LED lights which led to a single, snaking queue of attendees waiting for a very long time to collect the materials. 

Reportedly, collecting lanterns would affect one's eligibility for a refund. However, this information was not made clear to patrons. 

"The chatter on social media shows that the communication from the organisers was lacking even if the organisers think they did all they could," said Charu Srivastava, chief strategy officer and corporate affairs lead at TriOn & Co. 

"It shows that while brands and event organisers think they have things under control, it is important to take in customer feedback and act on it," she said, adding that it is important to take in the feedback received and strive to understand the issue from the customer perspective.

"Internally decide upon the best way forward with actionable items. Having concrete next steps are key to showing that a brand genuinely cares about its customers," said Srivastava, a direct reference to the fact that there was no real refund plan in place at the lantern event for if things went wrong. 

Srivastava added that patrons, on their end should seek clear steps as well as requirements for refunds. "Sometimes the hectic pace and nature of real-time disruptions can lead to confusion. However, it is on organisers to ensure that they are consistent and considerate as well," she explained. 

She added that organisers also need to be flexible if customers do not meet requirements as a result of chaos and confusion.

Being rigid in such situations only leads to negative experiences and as we can see, a fall in reputational sentiment.

True enough, Sentosa's brand sentiments have since plummeted from 22.6% positive and 3.3% negative to 3.4% positive and 66.4% negative following the incident, according to media intelligence firm CARMA. 

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