Flash Players

Pop-Up Projects Aren't for the Faint of Heart

The pop-up restaurant C Food opened on Sundays only from May to September 2016 in a London, England courtyard.



From high fashion to fast food to the tech world, pop-ups are cropping up just about everywhere. Whether it's to spur brand awareness or test a physical store's feasibility, these quick-hit operations are multiplying. But short-lived shops don't necessarily start with stress-free projects. These efforts involve accelerated schedules with deadlines set in stone—and require project managers who crave adrenaline.

The pop-up trend has spawned organizations dedicated to executing such projects, including Isenberg Projects in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, which launched in 2012. Since then the company's portfolio has included more than 100 pop-up projects, ranging from a brick-and-mortar shop for a snow-boarding company to a holiday gift spot with live reptiles and tarantulas in Boston's Seaport Hotel.

“Pop-ups are rapid-fire by nature,” says principal Emily Isenberg. “A lease agreement doesn't usually get inked until 45 to 60 days before project launch, so everything from space considerations to designs has to be completed on a very accelerated schedule.”

Delays spark dread in the heart of any project manager, but for pop-ups they can spell project death. Short-lived and often tied to a holiday, popups often have inflexible deadlines. That can mean trouble when permits are needed for space build-outs and food service.

Fashion brand Opening Ceremony opened a pop-up shop inside the Brooklyn Museum in New York, New York, USA.


“When it comes to permitting, we do whatever we can to make it work and forecast risks ahead of time,” says Niani Tolbert, founder and CEO of Creative CNTRL, New York, New York, USA. The organization counts consumer food brands, fashion labels and superstar artists including Kanye West among its pop-up clients.


“Pop-ups are rapidfire by nature.”

—Emily Isenberg, Isenberg Projects, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

During a recent project, Creative CNTRL produced a one-month pop-up at a mall in San Jose, California, USA for the Singapore-based kitchen appliance company Zimplistic to showcase a new machine that makes Indian flatbread. The team wanted to showcase the flatbread with other foods, but there are strict regulations for temperature-sensitive items such as dips, vegetables, cheese and meats, Ms. Tolbert says. To mitigate risks in case they weren't able to acquire a permit to offer these foods, “we decided that purchasing prepackaged dips or ordering dips from a caterer was a better use of our time. We were able to get exactly what we wanted with less effort.”

“Each project has very different goals regarding ROI. Some are transaction-driven, and others are more focused on market awareness.”

—Emily Isenberg

Down to the Wire
With immovable deadlines looming, pop-up projects’ execution phases may lack padding, making scope changes especially risky. Ms. Tolbert says teams need to devote time early in the planning stage to set expectations with project sponsors, discuss realistic budgets and understand where their priorities lie—even down to the price of a display table. “Some people may feel completely okay swapping in a US$1,000 table, and others want to stick to Target or Ikea,” she says. Knowing budget elasticity upfront can mitigate the risk of the team having to scramble.

ROI presents yet another challenge. When an event lasts only a few hours, days or weeks, it can be hard to gauge success—particularly if the team hasn't agreed ahead of time on which metrics matter. “Each project has very different goals regarding ROI,” says Ms. Isenberg. “Some are transaction-driven, and others are more focused on market awareness.”

Lessons learned are useful: Details of how past pop-ups have defined and tracked ROI can help project teams specify what they'd like to achieve. Ms. Tolbert recommends creating dedicated landing pages for specific pop-ups in order to track and analyze web traffic. After all, the best pop-ups deliver value that extends beyond the event itself, she says. “It's about keeping in contact with people—and that means measuring web traffic, getting feedback and capturing attendees’ information.” —Kate Rockwood