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Bring on the Experience Economy

By M+E Staff

Today’s groups and attendees are no longer content to sit in one venue for three days, eat basic banquet food and return to their hotel rooms right after dinner. While the level of this expectation has surged to new heights in recent years, this shift toward experiences has been gaining ground for 20 years. 

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore first used the term experience economy in a Harvard Business Review article in 1998 and released the book “The Experience Economy” a year later, chronicling how the foundation of economic value has shifted from extracting commodities to making goods, offering services and now creating memorable experiences. Fast forward nearly two decades to the Incentive Research Foundation’s “2017 Trends Study” that highlights 10 key trends for incentive travel and reward and recognition programs, including one described as “the emerging next level of experience.” 

Talking to numerous industry professionals in Colorado from a wide variety of sectors confirms that this next level is definitely in motion. 

“Meeting professionals have realized that sessions where one person is presenting and the rest are listening may no longer be the single most effective way to learn. Hands-on and experiential activities help attendees to retain what they’re learning at meetings and also provide an opportunity to engage on another level with the experts and presenters. Planners are now redesigning entire meetings with this in mind,” says Rachel Benedick, vice president of sales and services for VISIT DENVER, The Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Truth is, the hospitality industry has long been a part of the experience economy,” suggests Dr. Cynthia Vannucci, CHME, CHSP, CMP, CHE, professor for Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Events. In her opinion, the experience economy is a really big marketing issue. Meeting and event planners are “competing now for a person’s interest and subsequent time commitment,” she observes. 

Expecting More

Associations like corporations are feeling the impact of the experience economy. Jill Livingston, owner of Denver-based Eclectic Hive, is immediate past-president of the Wedding International Professionals Association, which hosts quarterly meetings that are a combination of education in the form of a speaker paired with a “meeting of the minds” session. 

“We all want to learn something and walk away from an hour presentation with knowledge to push us forward,” Livingston says. “Yet, what we are learning is that collectively, we crave a connection to our peers: learning from them, asking for support in the areas that halt our progress and engaging with familiar faces that otherwise would remain just faces in a crowd of a presentation.”

Wendy Klein, CMP, director of sales and catering for Rialto Café/Concept Restaurants, observes that clients are planning shorter programs to allow for more networking and discovering local attractions with fellow attendees, as opposed to staying within the confines of a meeting room. “Experiences are becoming an integral part of the meeting and event environment—it may be cutting a meeting short so your attendees can go wander around town and hit the local craft brewery. Or with events, it’s along the lines of the food and beverage offerings and how they are presented.” 

For venues like the ones she represents, working with groups has become not so “cut and dry.” Klein explains, “Where you were usually detailing meeting room set, meals and A/V within your four walls, now you are spending time finding transportation, venues that can and will accommodate your people, and activities that will encompass a wide range of people and personalities, etc. It creates a lot of nuts and bolts.”

From an A/V Standpoint

Arvada-based CEAVCO Audio Visual hosted and presented the educational program for Meeting Professionals International Rocky Mountain Chapter (MPIRMC) in February 2017 and addressed “Exceptional Experiences,” specifically how content, technology and space can be strategically woven together. 

After the general session, learning about content was in the form of a “how to eat a hamburger” demonstration, where Meridith Grundei, owner of Lafayette-based Red Ball Speaks, demonstrated how to make content and presentations as effective as possible. At the technology breakout, CEAVCO Vice President of Design & Creative Eric Newkirk illustrated the possibilities of video mapping. For space, a roundtable discussion with planners led by Senior Production Designer Rick Eichenberger examined how different types of spaces create different emotional connections and experiences. 

Eichenberger has noticed that events held in nontraditional spaces such as historical buildings, museums, theaters and parking lots are in demand. “A lot of clients and attendees are tired of old ballrooms,” he observes. “They’re looking for a new experience.”

While unconventional locations are engaging from an audience perspective, they pose unique challenges for the production team. When Eichenberger produced the MPIRMC gathering at CEAVCO’s equipment warehouse, his team embraced the environment, retained the warehouse’s look and feel, and made it a conversation piece. He notes, “The audience entered and said, ‘Wow, it’s still a warehouse, but this is beautiful.’” 

Beyond the Usual Blueprint 

Larkspur Events & Dining in Vail views each event they host through “a conscious lens that diners are looking for more than the traditional blueprint of meetings, receptions and dining,” says Director of Sales Meridith Lowe. “We have seen a substantial increase in interest in our culinary programs, where the guest has the opportunity to learn, demonstrate and then plate their chosen cuisine.”

 The culinary programs provide an experience for groups of 10-32 participants that are divided into teams and paired with Larkspur’s professional chefs and mixologist. The chefs provide a demonstration on the evaluation and nuances of the planned menu, and teams each prepare one course of the menu. One example of the culinary experience includes preparation (mise en place) in the kitchen, a customized cocktail  reception with passed hors d’oeuvres, and a three-course tasting menu with wine and cocktail pairings.

 “This is a fun and interactive team-building event that is sure to bring many laughs and create lasting memories,” Lowe says. “In addition to the team growth aspect, our culinary programs provide our guests with practical skills that they can bring back to their home kitchens and utilize for years to come.”

Eclectic Hive has organized unique dinners that start with a hand scrub station, eliminate the use of cell phones and utensils, and end with a wine crush. The custom hand spa station has been an especially big hit with both corporate and social groups, Livingston says. “Guests create their own hand scrub from a bountiful display of seasonal fruit purees, oil, essence, dried herbs, peels, salts, etc. In lieu of doing a standard cocktail reception, this provides guests a fun activity, a way to decompress and a fun takeaway gift.”

She adds, “We did this same concept but centered around personal refresher sprays.  Similar ingredients, but guests made their own spray bottle to refresh and energize on a hot day.” 

New Approaches

At Colorado Ski Country USA’s annual meeting in June at The Curtis—a DoubleTree by Hilton, a session on affordable mountain housing was presented with an experiential twist. A discussion by panelists Kate Berg of Summit County, Rod Stambaugh of Sprout Tiny Homes in Pueblo, Zack Giffin of the FYI television show “Tiny House Nation,” and Philip Jeffreys of Aspen Skiing Company was followed by the opportunity to view a tiny house by Lyons-based SimBLISSity Tiny Homes placed in front of the downtown Denver hotel. 

“The goal of bringing the tiny house to the conference was to talk about an issue our industry struggles with—affordable workforce housing—in a creative way, offer a potential solution, and then actually have attendees be able to see what we were talking about with their own eyes,” notes Public Affairs Director Chris Linsmayer.  

Experiences and attendee engagement in a unique way was the goal at two other sessions as well. “One was a session on virtual reality: how it works, how it’s impacting the tourism world and how ski areas could start their own virtual reality campaigns. We had a station set up throughout the day where people could stop and try out VR for one or two minutes, even if they couldn’t attend the session itself,” Linsmayer explains. “We also had a session on wellness in the workplace focused on employee retention and burnout that featured a 10-orso-minute meditation.”

Deb Brannon, owner of Altitude Events in Arvada and meeting planner for Colorado Ski Country USA, says integrating experiences into the annual meeting makes her job fun but also requires more details and logistics. “We had to pull permits, ensure the sizing wasn’t too big to bring the tiny house into downtown Denver and more.”

She also helped coordinate the details to get a luxury covered wagon from Utah-based Conestoga Wagon Co. to The Ritz-Carlton, Denver for the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association annual meeting in March 2017. “This was a way to demonstrate to the dude ranch industry another option for glamping,” she says. 

Jason Olson of Utah-based Conestoga Wagon Co. acknowledges that he “got a lot of looks as a 12-foot-tall, 25-foot-long and 10-foot-wide wagon rolled down the streets” as he delivered the covered wagon to The Ritz-Carlton, Denver and later to the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo. 

All guests want to experience some form of “impact or action” when attending meetings and events, suggests Stacey L. Skelton, owner/director of sales for Compose Events in Denver. “Guests enjoy being involved in the end process, whether that is cooking their own food or being a part of a corporate painting.” 

Instead of watering down the purpose of the gathering, it’s “pushing the event planner to be more creative when designing the event for their client’s mission,” she notes. “When the guests get involved, they come away with more purpose with an experience.”

Opportunities for Destinations

It is a trend that convention and visitor bureaus like VISIT DENVER are welcoming. “For us as a city, the experience economy is great; unique experiences help create memories for attendees, and it’s our hope that those fond memories are what drive them to come back to our city as a visitor!” says Benedick. “We are seeing more interactive opportunities for attendees both inside and outside the conven – tion center, amplifying both learning and networking experiences.”

One of her favorite aspects of this new realm is that “people are performing and using the skills they are learning about, versus just listening to them or watching someone else do them,” Benedick says. One of the best examples is SnowSports Industries America’s annual Snow Show—rebranded as the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show for 2018 and beyond—at the Colorado Convention Center. There are demonstrations and some experiential activities indoors and on-snow demos at Copper Mountain for buyers to experience products.

“Whether it’s playing a casual lawn game at an outdoor networking event, using an interactive kayak on a show floor or any other hands-on, interactive experience, this trend makes for a more memorable way to retain the information people are getting for meetings and provides a different, more impactful way to get to know people,” she emphasizes

Kathy Reak, senior director of convention sales for the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, has noticed that it has become an everyday topic and not just a passing discussion with clients and prospective groups. “Everyone is looking for an experience that will wow attendees,” she says. “Meeting planners are asking, ‘Where can I take my group where they can experience not only the area, but be blown away by the experience and learn something, too?’ They want more than the standard off-site dinner; they want dinner with interactive options and oftentimes team-building opportunities that are fun and creative.”

Like Benedick, Reak welcomes the opportunities presented by an experience economy and the results. She says, “People learn in a relaxed environment and having something different than the usual opens their minds and makes a conference not only more enjoyable and more memorable, but attendees take away more knowledge.”

To illustrate her point, Reak, who also serves as president of the trade association Destination Colorado, provided a few exam – ples from Colorado Springs and beyond. “I recently heard that someone used a gondola for their breakouts—10 minutes up and 10 minutes back. They mixed the group of people up at the top, and they had an opportunity to talk about two different subjects with two different audiences.” 

In smaller communities, providing bikes for the attendees to get to lunch or dinner is a fun idea, she suggests, or meeting at an off-site venue like Colorado Springs’ new 30,000-square-foot WhirlyBall, an entertainment center where the meeting space can be utilized and team-building incorporated into the program all in one location. 

“It provides us a chance to think outside of the box and engage partners and attractions we may not always have worked with before. It takes a little longer to accommodate these types of requests, but it makes what we do even more fun,” Reak notes. 

With so many choices today, creating a meeting that includes both learning and out – standing experiences is a way to stand out from the crowd, grow registration and generate excitement.