OOH and place-based traffic is up, but is it sustainable?

With numbers rising – but not yet at pre-pandemic levels – what can you expect when buying OOH?

Canadians are more out-and-about, soaking in the summer and embracing whatever activities they can with fewer restrictions. New data from COMMB shows that travel and activity around OOH and place-based venues increased significantly starting at the beginning of June, while numbers levelled off in July.

With most provinces in phase three of re-opening showing businesses and travel behaviour patterns close to pre-pandemic norms, the data shows that visits to retail and recreational venues across the five major provinces tracked – Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia – were up 15 percentage points, since June, now at an average of 10% below pre-pandemic levels. Quebec and Ontario showed the biggest increases, although activity is still below norms. Nova Scotia fully back is back to normal activity at +1 above norms.

Resto-bars are showing a similar trend. Workplaces have had the least amount of variation with the five-province average up three percentage points to -31%. The five-province average for transit was up nine points to -39%. Nova Scotia again was the most active, up 17 points to -31% below norms.

The findings do show that activity levels in Canada are slowly returning to normal levels, but is this upward trajectory sustainable? And, are advertisers ready to resume their OOH spending?

Kevin Brault, VP of travel at VMC Media, says his agency is seeing renewed but cautious interest from legacy outdoor clients for fall campaigns and beyond. While most OOH mediums, especially transit, mall, resto-bar, and cinema have been especially hurt by COVID-19, he says the overall optimism of phase three re-openings has sparked interest.

“We can also anticipate some growth as a result of dollars shifted from spring campaigns into fall months. However, agency planners still need to guide clients with caution. While COMMB’s report is encouraging, we don’t anticipate traffic to steadily increase in indoor venues like malls, resto-bars and cinemas until capacity can be increased, or consumers feel more comfortable spending time in these settings. The same with commuter stations. It will be a very slow re-build.”

Despite this, Brault says OOH can in many ways help provide a ‘restart’ for advertisers looking to go back to market and can provide some brands still in recovery mode with a great opportunity to come back to market really strong in the months to come.

Tom Skarratt, associate director of business solutions for Horizon Media Canada, says these latest numbers will help us show clients that channels like OOH have the potential to reach consumers again at scale with frequency. “Retail clients are back to spending in OOH and this fall many clients will return to using select OOH channels We are in the early days of telling what the true impact will be for retailers. With late summer and fall being key back-to-routine times, reported sales performance lifts in August should further improve.”

Skarratt does caution that in-store traffic increases will be highly susceptible to the status and impact of a second wave of COVID-19.

His colleague, Tim Harris, associate director of business solutions, says that it makes sense we would be seeing an increase in travel related to retail and recreation destinations with many Canadians experiencing ‘COVID fatigue’. He expects workplace-related travel to continue to be the main drag on overall mobility as businesses that rely on large tower downtown office space take the most cautious approach to reopening their physical operations.

Harris says, “The increase in mobility seen in the past two months is encouraging to both OOH vendors and advertisers looking to return to investing in this media channel, but we do need to respect that we are not fully back to pre-COVID levels of mobility. OOH has a role to play along the consumer journey, but we need to acknowledge how the landscape has shifted and previous strategies and tactics may not be appropriate or viable in the immediate to short term.”