This pandemic will never defeat our cities and their cultural life

This has been a pivotal moment in Time Out’s rich history, and one that we did not expect

Published on: 25 Sep 2020

When your company is called Time Out and overnight, all the cities of the world go into lockdown — when all restaurants, bars, theatres, cinemas, museums, shops, music venues, hotels and travel stop overnight, how do you survive? What is your raison d’être?

Time Out is present in 328 cities in 58 countries. As well as media, we operate six Time Out Market locations in Lisbon, Montréal, Boston, New York, Chicago and Miami. We had to make tough and immediate decisions with little knowledge of what was on the horizon.

Six months in, I want to reflect on the amazing work and resilience of our team, which enabled our iconic brand to stay relevant when most people in the world were forced to spend their time In as opposed to Out.

This has been a pivotal moment in Time Out’s rich history, and one that we did not expect. There was no time for feeling sorry for ourselves. What is apparent to me, more than ever, is how vital it is to be agile, adaptable and most importantly, innovative in a time of crisis.


How it began

In mid-March, when the notion of lockdown in many cities was looming, our leadership team had daily meetings to discuss the best strategy to deal with what was coming. By that time, our teams in Singapore and Hong Kong were already working from home. On Thursday the 12th of March, we decided to send our office-based employees home. That weekend, we closed Time Out Market locations worldwide to keep staff and visitors safe. In that week, the world we knew fell apart and we asked ourselves the question: How do we keep our consumers engaged when our content and Markets are solely dedicated to going out in a world that is closing down?

We didn’t shy away from the challenge; doing nothing was not a solution. In fact, we took it as an opportunity to think outside the box. We put our heads together and collaborated on delivering a temporary brand pivot that would inform and entertain our audience around the globe, while they spent time at home.


How we innovated: Time In

During a meeting with our GM in Spain, Eduard Voltas, I said: “Well, if we cannot go out, we are no longer Time Out. We will be Time In.” That’s when the idea was born. We responded to the change that faced us — almost overnight. We temporarily rebranded to Time In across our website, social platforms and replaced print (which we could not distribute freely) with e-zines. We created entirely new website pages, verticals, and daily content to help people in lockdown connect with their city virtually and to find great things to do from home. It was an enormous effort by our editorial teams and a testament to their agility and passion for the brand. It meant that we stayed relevant to readers, and we could remain open for business.


New ways of working

Commercially, our task was tough. We needed advertisers to understand our new direction, fast. We started sending weekly newsletters to agencies with data on user trends, advertising opportunities and editorial campaigns associated with the Time In brand. This included our #LoveLocal campaign, supporting independent businesses in the culture and hospitality industry, many of whom were also reinventing themselves through delivery, streaming, fundraising and more.

All this resulted in new commercial opportunities and partnerships. We launched a digital campaign with PayPal’s #KeeptheChange, an exclusive collaboration with MEO to create the digital magazine Time IN in Portugal and a partnership with Instagram in conjunction with our #LoveLocal campaign to co-host virtual festivals called ExperienceNYC and ExperienceLDN. I am also proud to say we were the global media partner of Global Pride 2020, an epic 24-hour live stream featuring films, talks, performances and speeches from an array of musicians, performers, political leaders and human rights activists.

Our e-commerce teams also had to innovate. They went from selling theatre tickets, concerts and hotel reservations to marketing online courses, home delivery services and AirBnB reservations — which were very popular in the summer. Our audience reacted very well, resulting in an increase in traffic, social engagement and return-visits.


Reasons to hope

In July, we were devastated by the loss of our beloved founder, Tony Elliott, who passed away from lung cancer. Tony loved Time Out; it was his life project. His passion for the brand appeared in every conversation we ever had, whether in a board meeting or having lunch at one of his favourite places. Our first Time Out London August print edition was dedicated to him with tributes from his family, friends and colleagues. He inspires us all to keep his legacy alive.

Now, in September 2020, we have reopened five of our Time Out Markets in Lisbon, New York, Boston, Montréal and Chicago, with Miami still pending. We have a pipeline of new market openings in Dubai, Porto, Prague and London. Many of our wonderful chefs have returned to our Markets. Some chefs are making Time Out Market their only residency for now due to the dramatic changes and challenges this virus has thrown upon us. Hundreds of thousands of restaurants — and bars, galleries, cafes, theatres and independent venues — have closed around the world. We can see huge churn and change in all our cities, but also resilience and ingenuity. New grassroots culture is emerging; the lights are coming on.

In our Time Out Market locations, despite the lack of tourists and venue restrictions, our visitor count has been rising steadily. In Lisbon, we are beginning to see profitability once again. People are keen to return and experience the best food, drink and culture with all of the safety measures we have implemented. Our Markets are large places with high ceilings and plenty of space to distance oneself. In addition to the ample indoor space, many of our Markets offer outdoor seating with exceptional city views. We have the most advanced HEPA filters and designated cleaning crews. We have redesigned our venues to make them safe and enjoyable at the same time. We also developed a Time Out Market app so consumers can order and pay remotely and arrange for takeaway or delivery.


Looking to the future

At Time Out, we believe that the world will return to normal at some point, and we are preparing for it. People will travel and go out again, and we believe they will want to experience the city as they have always done. This is why real estate owners are approaching us from around the globe with their long-term strategy in mind. They are reaching out to us to discuss our expansion plans and potential new Time Out Market openings globally, as they seek new and exciting solutions to bring people to their buildings, and to bring ‘a taste of the city’ to locals and visitors. By collaborating with us, they are helping to reimagine the retail, restaurant and bar experience for the next generations.

Our print editions of the magazine are beginning to return in certain cities on a weekly or monthly basis, especially where there is advertising and audience demand.

Our readers loved Time In so much, we have kept it as a new vertical, but we are advocating a return to normalcy so that we all can, once again, enjoy art, theatres, restaurants, bars, concerts, cinema, comedy and travel. Time Out will continue to serve city dwellers and visitors by capturing the exciting culture that is reawakening in our wonderful, urban neighbourhoods.

At Time Out we have been suffering together with the cities; their sadness is our sadness. We have always been ambassadors to the cities of the world, and it has been heart-breaking to see empty cities, closed business and the absence of cultural life. However, we kept on rooting for our cities and their culture. We are not medics or heroes, but we aspire to bring a slice of joy to people’s lives. After all, we are in the happiness business. Cities are resilient. Human beings are social animals. Although slowly at first, and with many difficulties, businesses are beginning to re-emerge. We are confident that city culture will resurrect, as city dwellers re-establish their habits of dining out, meeting up, going out, sight-seeing and discovering things together. This is the soul of the city, and the soul of the city will prevail.