I can still vividly remember riding in the back of my grandparents’ 1980-something Mercury Grand Marquis on our way to Disney World for the very first time. The windows in the car were rolled down, because my grandfather wouldn’t dare use air conditioning on a day cooler than 100 degrees, and I can still smell the fresh brown leather as we anxiously awaited our arrival to Orlando and our first sighting of “The Mouse.”
After what seemed like an eternity riding the parking lot train, we arrived at the park gates, rushed through the turnstile, and emerged from the tunnel, and there it was: Main Street U.S.A. It was simultaneously unlike anything I’d ever seen, but also everything I knew it was supposed to be. The smell of popcorn, the balloons and, of course, the fire station. The fire station was my lighthouse because at that age I wanted to be a firefighter, and it was the first time I ever got to walk inside a “real” fire station. Pure magic.
I’ve been to a multitude of Disney parks around the world, all-in-all just shy of 100 times. Anytime I’m near “The Mouse,” I have to drop in, even if it’s only for a few hours. Regardless of the park, each one of my visits brings me back to that very first trip with my grandparents and all those memories.
There was no greater leader in the experiential space than Walt Disney. He transformed his media company into a tangible experience that creates powerful memories like mine for millions of people each year. Mr. Disney and his team of imagineers figured out ways to touch each of our senses and convert those into both very real feelings and revenue opportunities. He created the ultimate participant experience by leveraging opportunities in food and beverage service, ride-line management and brand integration.
The experience economy concept first gained prominence in the late 1990s as a result of a seminal work by B. Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore. The concept has become so popular and, in many cases economically beneficial, that just this past month, a variety of high-profile companies opted out of traditional advertising opportunities during Superbowl 54 to engage in unique activations to showcase their brand value. Here are just a few examples.
- Pizza Hut delivered nearly 30,000 free slices of pizza using branded Ford F-250 trucks (partnership!) and those famously annoying scooters in and around Miami.
- Lowe’s hardware, in its first time partnering with the Super Bowl, built out the Lowe’s Hometown experience, creating a theme neighborhood (not all that far from the idea of Disney’s Main Street) highlighting each of the 32 NFL teams and giving all fans a “home” during the festivities.
- Courtyard by Marriott, in one of the most creative activations to date, built a replica Courtyard by Marriott guest room inside a stadium suite for one guest and three of their friends to enjoy the ultimate Super Bowl experience all from the comfort of their “hotel room”(Zelaya, 2020).
Each of these brands made the business case that their activation would yield more value at the local level through in-person experiences, and that the value created would exceed what they could expect from spending millions of dollars on television advertising for 99.9 million viewers (NBC News). Welcome to the Experience Economy.
The meetings profession has begun to take notice of the vital importance of experiences, and we’ve started to see a heavy influx of experiences and activations at meetings. As we look at the participant experience for meetings, it can be summed up in the evolution of the meeting coffee break. What was once viewed as a simple service, providing coffee and refreshments for meeting attendees, is often now an experiential opportunity for event owners and their host venues to captivate meeting participants using freshly fried doughnuts with exotic dipping sauces while being served mimosas from an upside-down aerialist.
In this new Meeting Experience Economy, I see three major areas as critical to the participant experience: Experience Alignment, Sensory Engagement, and Surprise and Delight. I’ve broken down each below to show how you can integrate these focus areas into your meeting experiences.
A great experience or activation is one that aligns with your audience and connects back to the purpose of your meeting. To create this alignment, ask yourself these questions:
- Are you creating an experience that is inclusive and accessible to all demographics present at your event?
- If you’re providing an off-site bike excursion are you or your sponsor partners prepared to offer the experience to someone with a physical disability?
- If you’re providing a gift for participants, are the men, women or other under-represented groups an afterthought in your gifting experience?
- How does your experience activation support or enhance the purpose or goals of your meeting?
Misalignment of an experience or activation can create a potential negative revenue impact that can be directly associated with an experience issue.
We can all generally agree if something looks good or smells bad, but in the participant experience economy, we have an opportunity to create or enhance sensory engagements when designing our experiences.
- Does the food provided by a visually stimulating culinary action station taste and smell as good as it looks?
- Did the venue provide the right utensils for the type of food being served?
- Were messy finger foods the right selection when everyone is dressed up for a celebratory evening?
- Do the lighting features and scenic elements enhance the content being presented or are they an unnecessary distraction?
- When entering your relaxation area, do the smells or fragrances associated with the activation create a relaxing feeling or do they exacerbate a fragrance sensitivity for certain participants?
- Is your entrance or exit music creating the types of feelings you want for your pre or post-program, or is it simply a playlist provided by your AV partner that’s not reflective of your audience?
When it comes to creating a sensory experience for your participant, be sure to walk through the entirety of the experience in your participant’s shoes. How could you enhance the sensory experience without it becoming a distraction or negative experience for your participants?
Surprise and Delight
We often think that we will be forced to spend a lot of money to create a memorable participant experience. For an association like ours, where we don’t have extra dollars to create high-end activations, we often look for opportunities where we can create an experience in an unexpected moment. The following are just a few examples that can be low-cost and high-impact:
- Positioning registration desks across from the hotel check-in to create a one-stop shop for guests to start their meeting or conference experience.
- Partnering with the hotel to provide complimentary bag delivery to a participant’s guest room.
- Having the staff and volunteers of an organization greet and welcome participants as they walk into an opening session.
It can be valuable to ask yourself, “How am I demonstrating that I know what my participants need at their event before they do?” To identify these opportunities, take the time to diagnose what your participants’ pain points are, then develop convenience options and solutions you can offer them that will surprise and delight them.
As anyone who has taken part in a Disney experience can attest, the absolute best and most memorable participant experiences are those which illicit a deep sense of connection with your event or brand. Through alignment, sensory engagement and surprise, you can create opportunities that will build a long-lasting relationship with your event and your brand, and capture some of that magic that follows “The Mouse” wherever he goes.
Kyle F. Jordan, Ed.M, MS, CAE, CMM, CMP
Managing Director, Learning and Conferences
Financial Planning Association