ave you talked to the executive director of your industry’s
trade association or professional society lately? If you have, then
you know the tremendous turbulence felt in association management today.
In years past, these organizations were the sole providers of the annual
conferences and trade shows that everyone who was anyone faithfully
attended. Today, companies no longer rely on such events as the sole
means of engaging customers. They opt instead to host their own product-launch
events, user conferences, mobile-marketing tours, and other corporate
This shift in business-to-business behavior coincides with a broader
shift in the economic landscape among consumers. Indeed, the experiences
that each of us take in as consumers influence the way we conduct ourselves
in B2B settings, altering both our expectations of vendors and our
customers’ expectations of us. Today, goods and services are
no longer enough; what people want are experiences.
THE PROGRESSION OF ECONOMIC VALUE
To understand how advanced economies have shifted over the past 200
years, just look at chickens.
Yes, chickens can be used to demonstrate how we have progressed from
an Agrarian Economy based on extracting commodities, to an Industrial
Economy based on manufacturing goods, to a Service Economy based on
delivering services, and finally to an Experience Economy based on
Not too long ago, nearly everyone raised chickens. You can still buy
commodity chickens from various mail-order houses. Live chicks cost
about $1.25 apiece from outfits like Iowa-based McMurray Hatchery.
Today, few of us buy commodity chickens. Rather, we buy chickens as
packaged goods, processed and frozen by companies like Springdale,
AK,-based Tyson’s, and available for $1.99 per pound at the grocery
store. Or we buy from a chicken-cooking service such as Kentucky Fried
Chicken, at $1.99 for a few pieces or a sandwich.
For a chicken-eating experience, however, head to Medieval Times, located
in eight cities throughout North America, where you’ll pay $41
to $48 (plus $5 for premium seating) to eat a chicken breast while
immersed in a re-enactment of a medieval knight-jousting tournament.
Guests cheer for their favorite knight while they dine at rugged tables
that surround the dirt-floor arena. And they eat their chicken with
traditional medieval utensils — their hands.
Guests aren’t paying for the chicken or the cooking — they’re
paying for the experience. Medieval Times actually operates a lower-cost
service than a traditional restaurant. Servers merely slop food and
pour pitchers, so the restaurant doesn’t need as many servers
per diner, and it has no silverware or silverware-shrinkage costs.
But the resulting experience is premium-priced, and it gets customers
to spend more money — and more time.
People now spend less time and money on goods and services, and more
on experiences that engage them in a personal and memorable way. As
an integral part of the Experience Economy, corporate events represent
a unique opportunity to create offerings as distinctive as Medieval
Times for your company.
But a corporate event doesn’t automatically qualify as a compelling
experience. Too many events merely provide an information service,
rather than a truly memorable experience. Here are four principles
that can help you enhance the events you stage, illustrated by examples
drawn from consumer experiences that have used them successfully.
1. CHARGE ADMISSION
Perhaps no idea in our 1999 book, “The Experience Economy,” has
created more controversy than that of charging admission. But, your
experience won’t be worth an admission fee until you stop giving
it away for free. Too many events are given away for free in the name
of so-called “experiential marketing,” and too often the
experience isn’t engaging enough, robust enough, or compelling
enough to translate into sales of the goods and services being hawked.
It’s only when you charge admission that you are forced to design
experiences that command such fees. And if it’s worth an admission
fee, guests will pay it.
Let’s take another look at Medieval Times. Consider how it explicitly
charges an admission fee, unlike, for example, Planet Hollywood. Medieval
Times prospers (it opened its eighth location in Hanover, MD, in 2004)
while Planet Hollywood has closed numerous outlets just to survive.
Planet Hollywood’s problem is not its premise. Its theme is based
on film — the dominant medium of our age, and one for which people
have long purchased tickets to experience. Perhaps if it charged admission,
it wouldn’t be floundering.
While many user conferences and numerous private trade shows do charge
admission, other B2B events, such as hospitality events and product
launches, still grant free access.
Those who choose not to charge admission run the risk of becoming the
B2B equivalent of Planet Hollywood. And one day, when money is tight,
management will question the merit of hosting events that don’t
So ask yourself: “What would we do differently if we charged
2. “ING” THE THING
Meet Dave Haymond of Global Gumball. Rather than invent a better gumball,
Haymond designed a gumball experience. You’ve probably seen his
now ubiquitous Gumball Wizard outside retail outlets — providing
a gumball-spiraling experience before the gumball plops out of the
The device doesn’t offer better gumball delivery as a vending
service. In fact, based on traditional service metrics, it actually
provides worse service because it takes longer to receive a gumball
after you place your order. (One of the distinguishing characteristics
of an experience is to get customers to spend more time with you — not
less.) The Gumball Wizard has added value because it offers the experience
of watching gumballs spiral around and around.
The Gumball Wizard is a wonderful example of “inging” a
thing — focusing not on the traditional features and benefits
of the goods and services, but on the experience of using the good
We came up with this “ing the thing” directive after reading “Fodor’s
Adventures to Imagine: Thrilling Escapes in North America” by
Peter Guttman (Fodor’s, 1997). In the table of contents, we found
the following chapter headings, among others: Houseboating, Cattle
Driving, Tall-Ship Sailing, Tornado Chasing, Canyoneering, Wagon Training,
and Seal Viewing. It was obvious: Experience words end in “ing” (or
gerunds), so companies need to “ing” their things.
We can point to a whole host of “inged” consumer products:
Heinz green ketchup (colorizing), Sanford flip-chart markers (scenting),
AOL (you’ve-got-mailing), Jones Soda beverages (photo-labeling),
Nike ID or Vans footwear (online customizing), to name a few.
Consider two questions: 1) What “ing” word in your lexicon
is being ignored as the basis for a compelling experience? 2) What
word can you invent for a new-to-the-world experience?
3. MIX IN MEMORABILIA
In 1998, Pleasant Rowland, former schoolteacher and founder of American
Girl LLC, maker of the American Girl doll collection, decided to expand
her business beyond direct-to-consumer catalog sales. But rather than
open a traditional store, she produced an experience: The American
Girl Place, just off Michigan Ave. in Chicago.
There, mothers and daughters spend time together at The American Girl
Theater, where for $25 apiece they can take in a 70-minute stage production, “The
American Girls Review.” They can have “grown-up dining
experiences” at The Café for an admission fee of $16 for
lunch or tea and $18 for dinner. Girls can pose for a $21.95 photo
shoot with their dolls and take home a copy of American Girl Magazine
with their pictures on the cover. They can even have their dolls’ hair
styled in The Hair Salon for $10 (a simple ponytail) or $20 (to restore
a doll’s original hairstyle).
The American Girl Place so engages guests that visits average more
than four hours — and the more time they spend, the more money
they spend. Think about it: A family can walk into the American Girl
Place and spend hundreds of dollars — before they buy one physical
thing. Of course, guests return home with more dolls, furniture, clothing,
and accessories as memorabilia of their experience.
Several pieces of American Girl Place memorabilia stand out because
of how ingeniously they are integrated into the experience.
First, after the conclusion of the theater production, cast members
return to the stage and invite audience members to turn their programs
over and join the cast in singing “The American Girl Anthem.” Little
girls cry. Mothers glow. And nearly everyone keeps the program to remember
Second, the silverware and napkins at The Café are held together
by hair scrunchies, which the young ladies inevitably inquire about — only
to be told that they’re complimentary. But they must pay to take
home the Treat Seat, the foot-tall highchair in which their dolls sit
during the meal.
We believe there is a universal human desire for people to collect
memorabilia from experiences they want to remember. The key is to mix
artifacts into the experience — items customers actually use
experience — to which people can
affix personal memories.
You can gauge how compelling your experiences are by how much demand
you have for memorabilia. Nearly all corporate events fail in this
arena. Trinkets and “promotional” materials serve as cheap
tchotchkes, unattached to any specific memories formed during the experience.
Others, like eBay Live!, featured in “Using Events to Build Customer
Community” on p. 36, have made memorabilia an integral part of
the event, with items such as collector pins and trading cards. One
attendee even sold an eBay Live! napkin on eBay after the event.
4. USE PAYING LABOR
Build-A-Bear Workshop was founded in 1997 by Maxine Clark. Inspired
by a local factory tour offered to grade schools and scout troops,
Clark noticed a special twinkle in the children’s eyes and decided
that personally produced bears had potential as a distinct economic
Today, there are more than 170 Build-A-Bear Workshops worldwide. Each
site is really a retail factory, not a retail store, where customers
pay to make their own stuffed animals. There are eight stations in
the manufacturing process: Choose Me, Hear Me, Stuff Me, Stitch Me,
Fluff Me, Dress Me, Name Me, and Take Me Home.
Customers perform all the manufacturing tasks, except at the Stitch
Me station, where company Master Bear Builders assist. (These Builders
also supervise the Stuff Me station to ensure materials are not wasted
by overstuffing.) The venue essentially employs paying labor — people
who actually pay to work in the retail factory to
create their own bears. Business
is so brisk that most locations take reservations for “shopping.”
We’ve seen customers put to work in other enterprises as well.
Shrimp-boat operators in the southern United States are now charging
people to work a morning of hard labor “shrimp boating.” At
the end of the excursion, each customer gets a T-shirt and a photo — and
the shrimp-boat operator takes the shrimp to market.
Research scientists routinely employ people who pay to work archaeological
digs, and tall ships charge would-be sailors who pay to help bring
ships to port. We could go on and on.
We are so divorced today from the Agrarian and Industrial Economies
(and to a certain degree, even the Service Economy) that people will
actually pay to perform tasks that would otherwise be done by a paid
Similarly, in a B2B context, certain activities are so foreign, yet
so intriguing to customers, that they might pay to perform the task
you would otherwise assign to staff or suppliers. For example, at your
next customer event, why not put customers to work on product development — designing
features to make your product better fit their needs.
Most companies view corporate events as a way to make marketing more
experiential. That’s all well and good, but we’re talking
about a fundamentally new way to attract and retain customers by offering
It’s not about experience marketing. It’s about marketing
As Peter Drucker stated in his book “The Practice of Management,”
“The aim of marketing is to make
selling superfluous.” To that we add: The aim of an experience
is to make marketing superfluous.
The experience is the marketing. The best way to market any offering
is with an experience so engaging that potential customers can’t
help but pay attention — and pay up.