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Belle of the book ball: Book Tok drives demand for immersive fantasy events among younger users

By Eva Rothenberg, CNN

New York (CNN) — Social media has always peddled a fantasy, from lavish vacations to perfectly plated entrees to airbrushed selfies.

But some entrepreneurs are using social media to sell a more literal fairytale, promising a night of wish fulfillment for anyone who ever dreamed of living in another world.

Over the past two years, a wave of new companies has started hosting fantasy-themed balls, masquerades and similar immersive events for adults, benefitting from a combination of post-pandemic Millennial and Gen Z consumers eager to spend money on experiences and the popularity of romance and fantasy books on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

Some events expect participants to fully commit to a fictional character and follow a specific storyline. At others, attendees dress up in fantasy-themed costumes and mingle with character actors. Tickets range from $60 for one night to thousands of dollars for multi-day group getaways.

Seizing a niche of the global events industry, which Allied Market Research projects will grow to $2 billion by 2032, these companies are promoting their events almost entirely on social media and reporting a windfall in sales numbers mostly from people in their 20s and 30s.

Disney kids, now with discretionary income

Immersive fantasy experiences aren’t new. Disney and Universal offer families a foray into fantastical worlds to the tune of billions of dollars in revenue. Dungeons & Dragons has been a tabletop classic for five decades. Conventions like San Diego Comic Con and Dragon Con draw legions of science fiction and fantasy fans. And every year some 200 Renaissance fairs are held across dozens of US states and Canada, where participants come dressed as knights, jesters, damsels, pirates or even goblins, wizards, witches and fairies.

But the widespread proliferation of adult-oriented extravagance is a more recent development.

“It’s that demographic that escaped to the books of Narnia and to Harry Potter, and to Treasure Planet and Atlantis,” said Katherine Stinson, who started Houston-based Eudantria Events in 2022. “This is where we escaped to as kids. And now, as adults, because we have adult money, we can do all the things that we wanted to do as kids.”

Eudantria Events promises highly immersive fictional storylines for guests to follow, and its website offers an original world-building guide complete with unique lore and character archetypes. Potential attendees can even take a short personality quiz to discover their fantasy realm of origin.

Stinson said she posted a video on TikTok in June 2022 explaining her concept for a fantasy-themed ball. Two months later, tickets went on sale for $175 each and sold out the same day, with 420 people confirming their attendance.

One of them was 24-year-old Dana John from Texas.

“I was already really into dressing up and taking part in like this fantasy immersion kind of stuff,” she told CNN. “And then I was recommended this video on TikTok back in 2022, so I checked out that company and saw that they had all these different events. So I was like, ‘Of course I’m gonna go, that’s awesome!’ I love knowing that this kind of magic gets to exist in our world and that there’s community around it.”

Since then, Stinson says she’s seen an explosive demand for upscale experiences. She projects her 2025 ball, a “villain era” celebration in New York City, will reach between $800,000 and $1.2 million in production costs.

The most basic tickets for Eudantria events sell for $750, but customers are more drawn to tickets priced at $2,500 and higher, according to Stinson. These premium tickets include private transportation, accommodations, and access to a lounge equipped with makeup and prosthetics, where assistants stand at the ready to transform attendees into the magical being of their choosing.

Social media has increasingly allowed companies to more easily scope out and target niche groups of consumers in an increasingly fragmented market, said Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

“(With more technology) it’s logistically easier to design events like this and cheaper to promote them,” he said. “If I know there is a group of people who are interested in a particular topic and I can see that from online forums, it’s cheaper and easier to reach them.”

Book Tok drives demand

Other emerging organizers sell tickets at between $100 to $425.

Instead of marketing to fantasy lovers who have roots in role playing spaces like Renaissance fairs and comic cons, these organizers advertise their events as “book balls.” They target users on Book Tok, the immensely popular TikTok subcommunity dedicated to reading and discussing books, typically romance and fantasy novels. Some events are themed after specific books, others after romance tropes like “enemies to lovers.”

Costumed participants can dress up and rub elbows with characters from their favorite novels or enjoy the fantasy setting as observers. Sometimes events are simply fantasy themed, without reference to specific books or fantasy worlds.

This somewhat democratizes the events, lowering the knowledge barrier to entry that often exists in more diehard circles, said Matt Harris, the creative director at Hushfable, a UK-based fantasy company that is holding its first ball this month.

The event is themed after Sarah J. Maas’ bestselling “A Court of Thorns and Roses” book series. After tickets went on sale last summer, the event quickly sold out at more than 1,000 participants, each paying between $230 and $320.

Fantasy content creator Juliette Sureau was recently hired to play a main character at the event.

Before dipping her toes into more mainstream balls and dances, Sureau belonged to a bubble of what she calls “ultra nerds” — fantasy lovers who attend conventions, role play and play Dungeons & Dragons. When Sureau was 12 years old, her goal was to become a knight. “I learned fencing, horseback riding and archery,” she said. “And then I got really sad when I found out (the) Medieval Times (restaurant chain) doesn’t hire female knights. Dreams shattered.”

She attributes the growing demand for fantasy events to the commercial success of fantasy romance books, especially among Millennial women. According to event organizers, a majority of attendees are women, sometimes with a male partner. Single men are rare. In fact, Hushfable founder Sophie Valfroy estimates about 90% of her guests are women.

The past year has also seen a spike in the popularity of “romantasy,” or romance fantasy books. The hashtag has nearly a billion views on TikTok, and online searches for “romantasy” skyrocketed in 2023 and continue to surge this year, according to Google Trends.

“These types of books brought all of these romance readers and maybe even some erotica readers over to this fantasy genre,” said Sureau. “They’re busy working 9 to 5, and all they want to do is curl up with a romantasy book and go to a ball for a night.”

Holly Simone, a 26-year-old living in London, found out about fantasy-themed balls through Book Tok.

Simone formed online friendships with other Book Tok users and said that she eventually saw a Tik Tok video promoting a ball themed after the “Court of Thorns and Roses” series in London in February.

“Everyone I went with I had met online, and it’s full of people who met through these niches,” she said. “The atmosphere was incredible, girls were just complimenting each other. It’s just incredible to be a part of a community that is full of positivity, not just online, but also in person.”

After the event, Simone and her newfound friends immediately began looking for other fantasy-themed balls in the area, and decided to attend Hushfable’s ball at the end of March.

“As a bookish girl, you know, I don’t like going out. Club nights are not really my thing,” she said. “And we keep making a joke saying, ‘We don’t go to clubs, we go to book balls.’”

An escape from Millennial malaise

While there was an appetite for immersive fantasy events long before 2020, organizers say the upheaval of the pandemic invigorated popular demand for these experiences.

“It let us all know that we missed the human connection,” said Shawn Strider, a 26-year veteran of the fantasy event scene who has directed the annual Labyrinth Masquerade Ball in Los Angeles since 1997 and has seen it grow several times over. “People were scared and needed something like this in their hearts.”

Stinson was inspired to start her company after seeing the political and social divisions rife on social media at the height of the pandemic. “I was fighting with people on the internet every day, and I was miserable,” she said “I realized I couldn’t fix the world’s division, but I could start doing things that were mending that pain.”

Organizers envision their events as spaces for escapism and community.

“You know, work dredges on for a lot of people,” said Brittany Proctor, a Michigan-based entrepreneur who’s been hosting fantasy balls in the Midwest since 2022. “And they’re looking for those outlets to find escapism and joy in.”

Maja Djikic, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto who researches adult development, said these events are important psychologically because they allow people to flex emotional or mental muscles that they may not otherwise.

“Let’s say that in your everyday life, you’re not very assertive. But then you enter this imaginary world in which you get to play (an assertive) sort of character. So you get to try to develop this aspect of yourself in rather safe confines of an imaginative world,” Djikic told CNN.

Will the magic spell ever be broken?

Organizers say demand is growing, and with it the number of these events being offered. In fact, Proctor is considering scaling back some of her events due to the sheer number of these fantasy balls that have been cropping up in recent years.

“I’ve already been asked when I would start selling tickets for next year when I’m not even done for this year,” said Valfroy of Hushfable. “So people are just asking more and more. And I think it’s going to be like this for a long time.”

Although he argues that there will always be an appetite for immersive fantasy experiences, Strider is slightly more skeptical about how the market will bear a possible glut of events and warns of the potential to overpromise and underdeliver.

He worries about a “Fyre Festival scenario,” referring to the 2017 fiasco where customers who shelled out more than $12,000 on a purported luxury festival in the Bahamas arrived to find half-built tents and limp cheese sandwiches.

“Some of these events feel very boutique, and that can burn people’s pocketbooks, but I like to believe that all of these people are putting their hands to create something magical,” he said.

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