How Color Factory keeps its Instagram-friendly pop-ups human-proof and camera-ready

People cannot be left alone in a pop-up. Of course, most tens of thousands of visitors will come through the 14 rooms with photogenic sweets. But there are exceptions: those who write nasty things on your walls, confuse their hair in your confetti, or cut off your acrylic pins that form a life-sized Lite-Brite to essentially make beautiful daggers. The Color Factory team has seen what people will do with a place.


"There is so much you can anticipate," Tina Malhotra, chief experience officer at Color Factory, tells me from the company's newest location in Houston, Texas, where she and her team have worked over the past 10 months to not only new location near the museum district, but also make sure that it is their most human-resistant so far. "We've learned from the last two locations that if they can touch it, they will," CMO Alison Piepmeyer adds. Malhotra says her team has even instructed manufacturers in one room to make the art & # 39; elephant free & # 39; to make. & # 39; Imagine an elephant coming in here, & # 39; she says. That is how intense people are when they deal with artworks.

This location in Houston, which opened last week, is Color Factory's first trip to the southern half of the United States and the first well-funded Instagram baity site to reach the state for good. Photo-oriented pop-ups, such as the Dream Machine and the Rosé Mansion, once seemed like a novelty that was doomed to fade, but the opposite has happened. The guys failed, but the bigger names raised a lot of money, and now the US is experiencing a pop-up coup with companies that spend millions to build flagship locations across the country.

"We deliberately chose Houston because we want to own the south," said Jeff Lind, CEO of Color Factory. "We wanted to plant a stake in the soil and learn more about this market."

Color Factory CEO Jeff Lind

Factory color already exists in San Francisco and New York City, as well as some of the competition, such as the Museum of Ice Cream and 29Rooms. However, none of the big names claimed Texas. The new location is 22,000 square meters filled with 14 art exhibitions, including pop-up staples such as a new NASA brand ball box, a room illuminated with neon signs and another room that rains confetti. The room allows up to 1,000 visitors per day and it costs $ 35 for adults to come in and $ 28 for children. The Houston location cost "seven digits" to build, according to Lind, but could theoretically generate $ 35,000 a day, and that's not even good for merch.

With fierce competition in space, the Color Factory team sees itself differently. They commission artists, present local food vendors, collaborate with museums and limit the brands that can take over a room (although other pop-ups do similar things). Lind also says that it's all about the experience, as the competitors of Color Factory say. You not only get a photo, but a place to spend time and make contact with friends and family. Yet Lind really thinks that Color Factory embodies the word experience.

"We deliver what we say we are going," he says. "So you don't have that thing that pings in your mind like," This is none experience, they said one experience. & # 39; & # 39; Part of the competition, he says, gives more of a marketing message than anything else. “We really give you one experience that you go through with the artwork. You will experience art in the Color Factory more intimate and powerful, more interactive than any other place on the planet. "


The rooms in Houston vary, and the ones I saw under construction all seemed designed with a photo in mind. A hall adorned with a hanging chain link fence, for example, came from New Hampshire-based artist Soo Sunny Park. It contains glass in the fence to play irisance. It is shiny, naturally lit and rough at the same time – it begs to be photographed. However, the team has not installed a camera in the hall, because it is a main road. I still wanted a photo.

Although the room is nice, I felt how things could go wrong once people flooded the place. For example, the fence is low. I am 5 & # 39; 2 & # 39; and could have bumped my head easily. "We know this is a piece that should probably be raised," says Malhotra. “This is also how the artist intended; a balance can also be found with the sustainability of the space and allowing 1,000 people to come in. "It's a literal chain link fence that hangs in the air, which seems risky.

Prior to the opening, the team devised ways in which the art could be destroyed or how visitors could injure themselves. For the Park exhibition, they scraped every sharp corner and learned from her how to best care for the fence, such as wiping the glass with soft gloves to clean it, almost like you would with glasses.

However, it is often only when the Color Factory team sees how people abuse their space that they find solutions. They managed to order a machine called the HyGenie for example, to clean their ball baking balls, but their confetti room – which uses film set of snow tumblers filled with confetti to rain colorful paper on guests – needed a unique solution to clean dirt and collect fallen pieces. They turned to snow blowers to gather all the tissue paper confetti in one place. (Malhotra & # 39; s team only decided on the paper material after testing 20 different types of confetti to see what they looked like when they fell and how they held to the ground.) For Houston, they also doubled their number of tumblers, so they not having to refill the confetti during the day. However, the confetti is still getting dirty, so the Malhotra team came up with what Lind calls the "hairball remover", a tube that uses Velcro to grab her so that confetti can get through and come out clean. Hairy confetti, it seems, is not cute for Instagram.

Another room has a neon record with the text "You Are Magic" and requires visitors to touch fingers or hands to complete a circuit to light the neon. Texas-based artists Alicia Eggert and James Akers have designed it to focus on & # 39; human collaboration & # 39 ;, says Malhotra. They cover the lower-hanging neon with plexiglass to keep people safe. Shattered neon: also not cute for Instagram.

Other improvements in Houston come in the form of more simple but essential room upgrades. The team is working with Ohio-based illustrators Andrew Neyer and Andy Pizza for the second time to design a life-size coloring book that allows visitors to color the walls. Previously, staff had to repaint the illustrations every week, using a projector to project the design onto the wall – a nasty nightmare. Now they have sealed the contours of the drawing on the wall with a clear glossy top layer and another material that creates a removable surface. Profane things used to draw, says Piepmeyer, so now a wandering penis does not close the room. A major upgrade.

All of this maintenance R&D not only maintains the site smoothly, it also protects the intellectual property of Color Factory. They do not patent their ball box, but make them must-see ball box. They are fighting a pop-up arms race. "We protect our ideas through scale," says Lind. "As sure, put a ball box in it, but you'll never put a ball box in it this one. Yes, do a confetti tumbler, but it will be your confetti disgusting. "


I consider the Malhotra team, as well as the Color Factory's daily staff, as professional resetters. The hordes of visitors are like toddlers being released into a room, pulling out every toy and game and leaving the mess behind for their parents. The team takes a day off every week for a reset in which they update the exhibits and undo the chaos that people have caused. In New York, for example, they will repaint handles that are chipped. Every three months they also close for a full reset week in which they repair more labor and time-consuming projects, such as making new drawers or giving a worn room a complete facelift.

The most controversial but obvious aspect of these pop-ups are the photos that inspire them. The Color Factory team does not see itself as a glorified photo booth, although cameras are installed in the rooms. Lind even mocks competitors who think building a pop-up is as easy as making extra large props. "We must be very careful that we never feel that we are addressing our audience," he says. "Or even saying," We are going to give you an experience "and then you walk in, and you have no experience, you have a lot of backgrounds, because that is not experience."

Experience, I get it. But even after spending time at the New York City and Houston locations, I still don't know how to refer to Color Factory. It is a pop-up, but not really because the efforts of the team suggest more than a chance in the short term. It is & # 39; experiential & # 39; but not an amusement park, arcade, or museum. Color Factory describes itself as a & # 39; collaborative interactive exhibition & # 39 ;, that feels closer, but also as an MBA word salad. Although the company and its other competitors, such as 29Rooms, resist the idea that people come for Instagram, we really have to become: people come for the gram. Color Factory recognizes this fact in that it builds cameras in most rooms, so people don't have to take out their phones at all. The idea is that, yes, your time is documented, but you are not distracted from friends or family while you are messing around with your smartphone. At the New York City location, the company says people take an average of 6,300 photos a day – a total of 2,310,000 photos since opening. Many grams.

The investment of the camera is essential, and above all, Color Factory distinguishes itself from its competition. Malhotra works together with an external camera company, Hypno, to make the recordings, but the artists are also discussing photo operations. The Malhotra team worked with their neon artist to test different light scenarios and how they would take photos, for example, but Color Factory relies heavily on Hypno to determine what a good photo is. The goal is to take photos that guests cannot take themselves: one photo can be taken with a wide-angle lens, the other from above. A new camera in the ball pit is at the same height as the balls, so that people look submerged in a sea of ​​plastic. The team is proud of that.

Color Factory has also invested in new passes for this location, so that visitors can scan a badge at each station to automatically take a photo. Like how at the end of a roller coaster your shouting is automatically broken, visitors can scan their badge when they enter a room and have their photo taken in the perfect place. The photos & # 39; s are then sent by e-mail at the end of the visit. The Houston location features mirrorless Canon EOS RP cameras, which, according to Omar Elsayed, co-founder of Hypno, compensate for poor lighting conditions or other technical issues, although he and the team cannot save an unpleasant room.


"The best photo for these people is ultimately the photo that makes them look like they're having the best time," says Elsayed. "That is not something that controls the camera, that is what drives the experience."

Lind also understands: "A pen in your pocket makes you no more a writer than a good camera makes your room look beautiful."

Image from Color Factory

For a place that was once billed as a pop-up, the team does a lot of permanent work. Lind wouldn't give me an exact idea of ​​the length of the Houston lease, but he said they wouldn't put that much money in a room with the intention of leaving in three months. Moreover, the team has to deal with city codes and permits, which means that they had to install a sprinkler system throughout the entire building, which is certainly an investment.

The competitors of Color Factory also set up larger, more expensive operations. The ice museum published his last financing round in August this year, worth $ 200 million, in addition to his plans to open a flagship location in essentially the same neighborhood in New York City as Color Factory.

"We all keep a close eye on each other," says Lind. They have seen the employees of the Museum of Ice Cream who are outside of Color Factory, and of course the Color Factory team also checks the locations of their competitors. Lind tells me that he and his wife have visited Museum of Ice Cream and that his wife has written "Color Factory rules" in magnetic fridge letters. Lind told her to confuse & # 39; & # 39; but she protested that & # 39; where & # 39; used to be. (Eventually she scrambled the letters.)


The team also looks at the Instagram & # 39; s of their competitors and above all protects their employees. Pop-up talent is hard to find, but especially charismatic people who love art and are patient enough to deal with unruly people. "New York is a blood sport for all of us – for tickets, for people," says Lind. “When certain pop-ups appear on the street, they try to hire our people. I'm sure Museum of Ice Cream is doing this to us now. I would be shocked if they weren't. "

In addition to expanding to new locations, the experience ecosystem means that companies promote their merchandising – Museum of Ice Cream sells ice cream at Target – and generally try to get bigger and better. Meow Wolf spend $ 60 million at a flagship location in Denver, along with locations in Las Vegas and Santa Fe; 29Rooms is now touring the country in cities such as Los Angeles, DC and New York; and Candytopia is in Miami, Philadelphia and Phoenix.

The only thing they can guarantee: a relentless pursuit to conquer the experience economy. They will continue to design ever larger confetti cannons, deeper ball boxes and neon as bright as the sun in an effort to outdo each other. And they won't play fun either. They poach the competition, talk a lot about it and bring in blobs and blobs of money to further finance an escalating arms race. But that is the small drama that you will not see on Instagram.