Beyond Event Planning: A new approach to experiential design


Experiential Design is not new.
In fact, we have been doing it for thousands of years. Each time tribes gathered together to celebrate, or travelled to meet, converse and trade, experiences were intentionally designed and history was written. We have connected through ritual, regalia, food, storytelling, performance, pageantry and entertainment all designed to drive emotive human responses. From caves to castles, these connections built and overturned empires and changed the course of history as participants enjoyed spectacles of shared art, music and artistic extravagance.

In their 1999 book, The Experience Economy, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore sought to provide information on staging experiences to leave a memorable-but-lucrative impression as they tied experiences to marketing and ultimately sales. We would argue that, long before this was written, event and incentive travel professionals were already aware of the impact of experiences on human behaviour — in fact, organized reward travel began with the first incentive trip in the early 1900s! With programs thoughtfully designed to drive sales and build loyalty, we see continued success because relationships strengthened using the context of worthwhile, memorable, transformative events are incredibly powerful and enduring.

Defining Design

Event design is the art and science of creating spaces that are designed for intersections of ideas to happen. It’s the end-to-end creation of an experience to deliver maximum impact for stakeholders, event after event. It is also referred to as mindful or purposeful design, and ultimately, it’s both the cause and effect of participants being comfortable.

Those are encompassing definitions; their application, however, is always changing. As this area evolves, we seek more information and ways to experiment, testing theories of human interaction at events. Our large event industry associations have been offering updated formats where we can see these in action. Several smaller events with fewer than 100 participants, including EventCamps, the Haute Dokimazo series and the College of Extraordinary Experiences, are all pushing boundaries. Last September, a College event included 80 participants from around the globe and across several sectors, including event design, shopping centres, music, magic, art, film, academia, play, animation, festivals and more. This allowed for a wonderful set of perspectives on experience design to explore, starting with the College’s three key principles:

  • Flexible focus, where sometimes you need to lead and sometimes you need to follow.
  • Co-creation. Collaboration is key.
  • Rapid Prototyping. Test your ideas on a focus group and listen for feedback. Adapt.

Developing an experience that triggers an emotional response, the beginning step for behaviour change, requires first defining the change in behaviour, prototyping and testing an experience and ultimately delivering the experience in a way that allows time and space for contextualization and reflection.

Successful Experiences Start with Trust

First, the importance of starting from a place of trust cannot be overstated. How often do we begin an event knowing nobody? It often takes hours or days of feeling socially awkward before we make connections with others, yet it is these connections that enrich our experience, allow us to learn and to shift our thinking. They also lead us to return, often a goal for the event host. To that end, here are some simple steps toward making those connections:

  • Ensure participants are greeted with respect and courtesy, developing a sense of comfort.
  • Learn who else is with us. Who’s in the room, at the table or in a smaller group?
  • Learn the names of the other participants.
  • Find common ground, including hometowns, favourite foods, sports or whatever else. Your role in the industry if shared; simple starters go a long way

Social Physics

During a session at the College, we worked through three mini-workshops showcasing experiences in engagement, immersion and absorption. These were led by Andrew, using information gained as he earned his newly minted PhD in Experience Design. His life’s work to date has been exploring human experiences from both deep theoretical and ongoing practical viewpoints, and below he shares his take on what these words mean, and how and why these experiences can be designed and staged.

Engagement, immersion and absorption were originally conceptualized by Pine and Gilmore in The Experience Economy. Building on Pine and Gilmore’s work, The Theory of Structured Experience, written by Gary Ellis and his colleagues at Texas A&M University, provides formal definitions and theoretical propositions for staging these three specific experience types. The theory asserts that these experiences are affected by the service performance of the experience designer, for us, often this is the meeting planner and their team. Service performance must meet or exceed an acceptable threshold before the experience will facilitate high levels of engagement, immersion or absorption. Heightened levels of attention, motivation and emotion cannot occur if providers have not treated participants in a courteous, effective, responsive and respectful manner.

Once service performance is acceptable, providers can begin to intentionally design experience offerings. While the three previously mentioned experience types are theorized as mutually exclusive, Pine and Gilmore posit experience designers can hit a sweet spot by incorporating all three.

Engagement experiences are characterized by an extraordinary focus of attention on an unfolding story told in a combination of words, action and music, which taps into heightened emotions and perceived freedom. Engaging experiences can be facilitated by intentionally designing these to be coherent, provocative and personally relevant. Examples of engagement experiences might include viewing a theatrical presentation, listening to a talk, or conversing with a friend.

Immersion experiences are associated with performance and are characterized by a high focus of attention on a limited stimulus field, environmental demand for immediate action, automatic responses, immediate feedback on participants’ actions and a perception of control. Immersion experiences can be facilitated by intentionally facilitating experiences that include a proper balance of challenge and skill; self-relevance; and an intrinsic, deep interest in participation

Examples of immersion experiences may include playing a game, learning a new skill, or participating in an activity that may be familiar or new, such as painting. In the context of events, these are often the most enjoyable types of experiences. Self-relevance deepens as skills are learned, improved and applied to work or home environments post-event.

Absorption experiences are inherently sensory experiences. Absorption experiences are characterized by high levels of relaxation and pleasure, absence of demand for behavioural or mental action and absence of active thinking. Absorption experiences can be facilitated as experience providers who remain hands off during the experience and allow guests to fully relax, create a perception of solitude and encourage mindfulness. Examples of absorption experiences may include watching a beautiful sunset, sipping a fine wine or listening to a melodic symphony.

Putting it Together

All of these types of experiences can easily be incorporated during the course of an event, adding an enjoyment factor which is important to delivering memorable moments and ultimately positive evaluation of an experience or overall program.

Engagement experiences captivate guests with coherent stories, provocative questions, and personally relevant connections. Immersion experiences allow growth and progress as deep intrinsic motivation drives guests to push limits, increase skills, and challenge themselves. Lastly, absorption experiences create space for relaxation, pleasure, and mindfulness while guests become absorbed in multi-sensory stimulation. These three experiences, while powerful on their own, can facilitate the real “sweet spot” of experience when utilized together. At high levels of engagement, immersion, and engagement, guests will experience an effortless sense of concentration during which they lose their sense of time, thoughts about themselves, and awareness of their problems leading to deep, meaningful, and valued experiences.

As we develop meeting programs, considering the balance of time spent listening to speakers, actively learning new information through hands-on challenges, and time to reflect in a variety of quieter environments is key. Ultimately, it is about understanding how humans respond to various types of experiences and understand different people will respond at different levels, and that this is both normal and to be expected. Then, have fun experimenting with formats, track results and continue to adapt.

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