How to understand and create memorable experiences

 

What makes a perfect vacation for you?

If you ask this question to a hundred people, you will get a hundred answers. At least. Different people have very different ideas about what it takes to make a perfect holiday. This is one of the main challenges in the tourism industry. Travelers prefer different kind of experiences, and they also have different requirements when it comes to the quality of the service provided, inclusions and authenticity amongst others.

To make tourism work, we need hotels, planes, food and a whole range of things. Success in tourism depends on your services and experiences and the complexity of creating these, selling them and managing them.

The entire tourism industry is a series of experiences put into system. If you manage to do this in a good way, the tourists will go back home and tell everybody about the amazing vacation they just had. They will talk about the people they met, the activities they did and the places they visited.

 
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Tourism is part of what is described as the experience economy.

The experience economy sees the world as a place where people don´t buy products or goods, but where they buy experiences, dreams and memories. If you want to manage your travel business or destination in an efficient way, you should learn and understand the vital differences between selling products and goods, compared to selling and producing services and experiences.


To differentiate design and management of tourism experiences from products, one commonly use certain characteristics:

  • One obvious difference is intangibility. You can not hold, touch or store an experience. You can´t try it before you buy it, unlike with products.

  • Another difference is heterogeneity. Every experience is different and difficult to standardize. The perception of quality will vary from person to person and it will have a lot of variables like weather, service, crowd size, other tourists, your personal mood and much more that will influence your satisfaction.

  • The third characteristic is perishability. The experience can not be re-used later. An empty hotel room is a missed opportunity for income. You can´t save an empty space for later. If you sell half the tickets, you can not sell the other half after the show. This creates challenges for pricing as well as the issue of matching supply and demand.

  • The final characteristic is strongly connected to the third, inseparability. This means that the consumption of an experience happens at the same time as the delivery, which makes it harder to manage the quality of an experience.


Understanding these characteristics will create opportunities for growing you business. So remember them.

 
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How can we connect with travelers and create memories?

Modern travelers wants more than photos, cheap souvenirs and a clean bed. They want unique, authentic and compelling experiences that engage them emotionally, connects them with the places they visit and to interesting people they meet along the way. The vacation is what they buy, the experience is what they remember.

To understand how to create memorable experiences we must dig further into the matter. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore wrote an article and later a couple of books where they argued that experiences is the next step on the ladder of economic value.

Traditionally and historically, as economies have evolved, they have also moved from extracting commodities such as food, into making goods. After a while people start to see goods the same way they used to see commodities. Goods have become the commodity. Next they need to differentiate it by adding a service. The economy transforms from a manufacturing economy into a service based economy.

But what happens when everybody offers the same services and even top quality service isn´t enough to differentiate one business from another?

The next step goes beyond goods and beyond service. We need to design and stage memorable experiences. The economy has changed from commodities, to goods, to services and then to experiences.

An easy and understandable example is coffee. Some farmers produce coffee beans and sell them to a coffee producer. The producer then burns the beans and adds flavors to create their particular brand. The next step might be to mill the coffee into different variants. At this point the price of the coffee has gone up quite a lot.

We can now buy the coffee in a grocery store, or a cafe will buy the coffee beans from a provider and add value by adding a service to it. And so the price will increase further. We can buy the coffee prepared and ready to drink. The value of this service is easy to understand. But a lot of places can serve a cup of coffee. If the business is ambitious, it might differentiate further. One way is to have different products presented in an appealing way. A barista creates art, the smell and show adds more to the price. The value of the coffee can now suddenly be 10 dollars a cup. People are actually willing to travel to infamous coffee shops, like Tim Wendelboe in Oslo, Norway, that draws people from all over the world. That is an example of the experience economy.

 
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How can we explain experiences in a useable way?

From a customers, or a users point of view, an experience is made up of three different factors:

  1. Basic factors. These factors are expected and taken for granted. They do not lead to satisfaction when they are delivered, but if they are missing they will cause dissatisfaction. A good example can be a clean hotel room. You most likely won´t brag about it to your friends, but if the room is dirty it will likely be your first complaint.

  2. Performance factors. These experiences will make you unsatisfied if they’re not fulfilled, and will for sure make you more satisfied if they are delivered. A good example is the experience you get from a warm and welcoming staff in the hotel. While an uninterested, rude or abrupt staff will leave you unsatisfied, disappointed or maybe even angry.

  3. Excitement or delight factors. These factors are unexpected and when they happen they will surprise us and delight us. The x-factor. When they are missing they will not be noticed, but these are the type of factors that make the experience a whole lot better, and it can make the experience unforgettable. Once more we can use the hotel as example. Let’s say the staff share their local secrets with you, or have a personalized gift ready for you in your room, chances are you will be delightfully surprised.


Delight or excitement is one of many ways to make an experience memorable.

One common way to think about experiences is to divide it across two dimensions. The first dimension corresponds with customer participation. This means tourists can be an active or a passive part of the experience. The second dimension describes the connection or physical relationship that connects customers with the experience. The range can be from absorption to immersion.

Whether an experience is memorable or not depends on what happens when the visitor interacts with a destination or site. It also depends on co-creation. This means that the clients create their own experiences, in the unique context of each contact point, between them and the host. The creation of value happens when these guests are enabled to personalize their experience, using the stage your business or destination set up.

I have already mentioned Pine and Gilmore, the experience economy guys. They argue that most successful experiences include four realms, not always in equal amounts, because uniqueness is also an important factor here. The client can only experience it when they stay in your hotel, visit your attraction, join your guided trip or eat in your restaurant. Experiences:

  • should be entertaining,

  • should be educational,

  • should provide a sense of escape, (take you away from the daily life)

  • should be aesthetically pleasing.

Let’s use an easy-to-understand example, an aquarium. Fish tanks are entertaining themselves and aquariums often add shows, like feeding amongst other things. There are different levels of entertainment here. With information signs and allowing us to see how fish live, it´s educational, and often the staff will add more to this. Sense of escape can be maintained as you actually take part in life underwater, and we can agree upon the beauty of an aquarium, its aesthetic qualities.

When you connect with the visitors emotions, they are more likely to remember the experience. I will continue to use the aquarium while giving examples of methods to reach peoples emotions. You will more likely get a higher level of emotional intensity if you manage to engage the customers in the following ways:

  • If you manage to create arenas and opportunities for social interaction between travelers, friends, family or hosts. In an aquarium this can be done in several ways, playgrounds, glassy tunnels, video games, competitions etc.

  • If you encourage the visitors to take part in an activity. Let people participate in feeding or let the kids fish crabs.

  • If you create a link between the visitor and the experience. A good example can be an exhibition where you show how ocean plastic can influence underwater life, and how you be part of the solution.

  • If you are able to customize the experience. Digital tools is great. You can also provide alternative routes, give people the chance to participate.

  • If you can appeal to multiple senses. Smell, sound, touch, taste, sight. Think of how you can use senses to increase the experience.

  • If you tell them a story with characters they can remember. Give the penguins and sea lions names. This clownfish is named Nemo, he originally came from the Indian Ocean…

  • If you create a theme, or a fictional “contract”. Imagine a theme from a movie. Nemo was mentioned, so continue with the Pixar theme or go for Jules Verne. The options are endless.


Changing an experience don´t have to be expensive as even small differences and minor changes can make a big difference. What you can take from this is that you will leave the visitor with a lifelong memory and stories about people and places that they will be eager to share with friends and family.

Now you know the main factors that make a remarkable experience. For the client the experience won´t start and end with the visit.

 
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Understanding the customer journey.

We know that an incredible experience have the power to turn an ordinary trip into an extraordinary journey, and that a horrible experience can ruin a holiday in minutes.

A common mistake is to believe that your guests experience begins and ends with their visit to your hotel or attraction, or that your one interaction is right then and there. It would sure make planning easy, but only taking care of your customer at the spot will not make you successful over time (unless you have a drop in concept, of course).

The guest experience is a journey made up of many elements and touch points. And just as a journey should be carefully planned to make sure that the different parts create a seamless and chronologic experience, you should map the customer journey in the same way. When planning a trip, you can not plan to stay in Oslo one night and in London the next, without planning how to get from Oslo to London. You see?

Things must be connected, they have to make sense and one step should prepare you for the next. The whole experience is the total of all the parts, added together.


A customer journey is traditionally divided into different phases. In another article “Technology and Tourism - how can we preserve the human aspect in a fast changing world?” I explain these phases in the following steps:

  • Dreaming — here you want the client to be aware of your existence

  • Planning — in this step you want the traveler to consider you as a destination

  • Booking — the client have chosen you, how can you now make the booking process smooth

  • Experiencing —  this is where the client is on location, he/she/they are now traveling

  • Sharing — this point is hugely underrated. Don’t you want the traveler to recommend you to her friends?

I can also use a slightly different way to explain how you can take advantage of this. The journey is the same, but in different wrapping, to easier understand where you have opportunities.

  • The first phase is the Anticipation stage where you build guests’ desire, where you can
    create a sense of excitement and expectation. You have the chance to convince potential guests that your site or destination really is worth visiting.

  • Once they’ve decided to visit, there’s a transit phase. This is your opportunity to use things like information and online communication to reassure visitors that they’ve made the right decision. Give them a sense of safety.

  • Then there’s the on-site experiences - all the activities and interactions that occur
    at your site. Signage, your crew, the main experience that all other steps circle around.

  • This is followed by another transit phase. When you say your farewells, make sure your last impression is good. Many providers of experiences underrate the importance this arena can have in the process of scaling their business.

  • Then there’s a reflection phase, where guests think about and discuss what they’ve experienced. This is where memorabilia, photographs and social media play an important role.

In each of these phases there are many touch-points where we can influence our guest’s journey.
Each touch-point can have a positive or negative effect on guests’ evaluation of their journey.

Last summer I was at a music festival for kids, with my family. I will use this as an example.

Before the trip we searched and found where to go with attractions that was appealing to all of us, two adults with two kids ages 3 and 6. This was a positive phase, and we all had something to look forward to. Booking went easy and the information helped us build up our expectations together with the kids. It was close to our home and we could easily get there via subway.

During travel the kids began fighting and this was not very pleasant for any of us. It left the whole family in a bad mood which stayed until we arrived at the festival. But when we approached the entrance we were greeted by a very friendly staff, which made all of us happier, and then there were a lot of entertaining things for the kids to do and participate in. We went in and someone put funny hats on the kids. They loved it and wore it while we walked around, absorbing the sounds and smells, people and shows. There were a lot of signs at the festival area, so it was really easy to navigate.

One of the kids tripped and fell and got scrubs on one knee. But don´t underestimate the magic of an ice cream cone and a band aid with a princess on it. The drama was suddenly over, and everything was good. The mood was great again. But it was hot and humid and we had to get something cold to drink. The queue was long and the kids were impatient. When we finally got to the counter, they were out of cool sodas, so we had to find another queue. Then one of the kids had to use a toilet, so we got in another queue for that. At one point we were all pretty sweaty and thirsty. But right before we left, we decided to get a new load of ice cream and on the way home everybody agreed that the day had been good. The kids got their face painted during the day, we got pictures to show for it, and we walked away with a bunch of nice memories.

 
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This was just a small example on how a day-trip can involve a lot of touch points and equally a lot of opportunities for you to create exceptional experiences. If you can map the customer journey by breaking it up into different phases and then investigate the touch points in each phase, you have the opportunity to identify the places where small adjustments in your service or design can convert a potential negative experience into a positive.

Each touch point have the power to enhance the experience with effective and friendly communication, activities and user friendliness. We have to consider the travelers understanding of our communication. This is called interpretation, and means to engage, illustrate and inform the traveler. Preferably to build this on the visitors previous knowledge and experience. Try not to overwhelm the visitors with facts. A more effective way is to use stories, examples, illustrations, talks or activities. To really get in touch with your visitors you can design experiences that involve interaction with things or the environment, with people or animals.

The more of the senses you can stimulate, the more likely you are to be remembered. Think about it. When do you invite visitors to touch, smell, taste, feel and just to be an active part of the experience? This is very effective. And if you can get the client to reveal emotions like wonder, excitement, empathy or surprise, you’re off to a good start. Emotions will turn great experiences into incredible memories.

In a modern world travelers interact daily with Facebook and Google, but only a few times a year with you, or hotels and airlines. This makes it had to build loyalty, since the interaction is limited. Therefore it is important to break down the existing silos and start interacting with the travelers where they are. This means outside the traditional engagement phases. Brand Loyalty is fragile and your ability to interact with customers in more than one phase is really important. If you have an omnichannel approach you can increase touchpoint, but also enhance them to create great customer experiences.

Dramaturgy

Dramaturgy is the way that the action in plays, movies and novels are built. To say it easy, how stories are built. To reinvent an industry you should not only be inspired by the industry. But see outside of it. For travel and experiences you can naturally to find inspiration in cinema and theatre. Characters in movies are always on the best trips. Storyboard the perfect experience. Designed like in a movie. Create a trip that deeply moves someone.

A story is often described as an exposition of a human that has a project (willingness, desire, passion,) and that experience a chain of events in a causal context. One step depends on the previous. A story is often built like this:

  • Setup - Introduction

  • Confrontation - Where the action gradually rises until a point of no return. The stakes get higher.

  • Resolution - You have a climax that turns the direction and things slow down.

The main take from this is to gradually increase the level of action until a change happens that make a lasting impression on the travelers.

Let’s say you are designing a one week trip. In the first 24-48 hours you will welcome the customers and give them time to rest and make themselves comfortable. They probably already have a lot of impressions and in the beginning they should digest them. But you don’t want them to get bored. So in day 2 or 3 you should challenge them. Take them out of their comfort zone. If you don´t get out of their comfort zone, they won’t remember the trip. If you can maintain this escape from “safety” by building up with challenges before something new happens, you will see a transformation. The person that entered is changed and a new and better version of this person is taking over. Allow this change to settle in the end of the trip

It is just like every fantasy movie you have seen. The main character starts in the ordinary world. Then leaves the ordinary world. A lot of obstacles and hurdles appear. The hero needs to overcome them. Finally they overcome them, and the world has now become a better place.

 
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So, how can we create this experiences and reproduce it to many clients?

There are so many ways to do this, but here is one practical idea.

Think carefully about how you want the storyboard to be. What is the journey you will take your clients on? Then you start designing it with empathy for that one single traveler. Design it carefully touch-point by touch-point, and ask every question. One happy client can give feedback worth many. Consider this as building a foundation. You will not be able to build a scyscraper without a strong foundation, you don’t want a dozen floors on a shaky ground. Don´t ask the client what we can do better. Ask how can we surprise you. As them what would it take to make you tell everyone you know about the product?

But be careful with choosing which client to ask. The wrong client will not be of any help, but you are likely to know this when talking to them. Henry Ford once said. “If I had asked my customers, they would have wanted me to create a faster horse”. Don´t take all they say for granted, because you are the expert.

A good exercise for creating a perfect experience, a nirvana product, is to start imagining it from one to ten stars. How would a one star experience be, how would two stars be, and so on.

AirBnb did this exercise once. For them 1 star service = you arrive - no one there. 2 star - someone are there - you have to wait 15 minutes. Shitty apartment. 5 star - knock on the door - they open let you in. 6 star - open- show you in - gift - candy - map (better than a hotel) 7 star - use my car, booked table on best restaurants, loan my surfboard, loan my car, breakfast served. 10 star service is: the Beatles check in when they arrived in the USA the first time in 1964. 11 star service: Elon Musk is at the airport - sending you to space.

You can easily convert this to your service. You will not be able to provide a 10 or 11 star service, but still do it. Somewhere in between there and 1 star is the sweet spot where the doable magic exists. Find the doable magic and build it. For some of you the target is to create a scalable product. One that can be reproduced hundreds or thousands of times. Designing (empathetic) the experience is different than scaling (analytical).

In these cases you can try to figure out what the most important factors in the experience is. You distill, you architect, you tweak. Suddenly you might get an aha-moment.

“The whole thing is magical - but if we focus on this 20 %, we get 80 % of the magic”.

Now you are into something. The 20% which delivers 80% of the magic is probably scalable, and definitively a point where you should put the effort in. You will have a simple plan, fewer potential errors and it will be easier to scale. You don´t need to be perfect to create a magic experience. In fact, perfection is never that interesting. Clients should be participating themselves. Also remember that the best experiences have to be customized anyway.

 
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Creating memorable experiences is about every element in the customer journey, put together. From marketing to transit, the on-site experience and the follow-up - all are important in creating a memorable experience that visitors will talk about long after their visit is over.

Håvard Utheim