Expert in meetings, conferences and events
What is an experience … no, really?

What is an experience … no, really?

When I talk to fellow event professionals, clients, or co-workers, I often feel like there’s a difference in how we understand the word ‘experience’.

And I’m the first one to admit that it has a lot of connotations, so it is a bit different from person to person how we see it.

In this post, I’ll explain the differences between experience design og meeting/conference experience design.

The origin of the experience economy

Originally, experience economy or experience management was a means of getting clients to pay more for your product or service by adding an extra element … the experience.

The concept was ‘invented’ in the US in the 1990’s by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore who stated that “Work is theater, and every company a stage”, and ever since especially the hospitality and event industries have worked on creating experiences for their clients.

And though some people think that we’ve passed the experience economy era and have gone on to something new, it’s a fact that we as humans become more immersed in activities if they’re designed as experiences. This means that if you want somebody to learn, engage, and interact, you better design some experiences.

How most people understand experience

But the word experience also covers the feeling you are left with after attending a concert, going to a magnificent party, or meeting a celebrity. And this is where things start to go askew, because that is NOT the kind of experience I work with!

Even in the meetings and events industry we don’t agree on what an experience is: A few years back, I attended an industry event where they showed that their understanding of experience was the blinking neon lights kind. The kind where they believe that if you throw a party and wow the participants with food, gifts, and great bands, you will automatically get an experience out of it. That is also NOT the kind of experience I work with!

In order to distinguish the two different kind of experience design, I’ve tried to come up with a description to know one from the other – it might not be the be-all and end-all of describing experiences, but it’s the best I can come up with.

The dramaturgical/scenographical experience – experience design

This is the kind of experience where you pull out all the stops to make sure the participant has a great experience – stops of the kind that includes, props, scares, rituals, keeping the participant occupied at all times, etc.

Think of standing in line to go on a ride in Disney World (where they’ve made sure you’re entertained so that you find the waiting time not so much of at nuisance). Or the event I mentioned above where the dramaturgical/scenographical part is dominant.

These kinds of experiences are more in the entertainment sphere than the behavioral science experiences I work with. I would dare say that these kinds of experiences are aimed at those who create experiences for others – those who need inspiration to design experiences for clients etc.

The behavioral experience – meeting/conference experience design

Now, this is where I go to work.

The kind of experiences I work with are the ones where you design for change. You make sure your participants are part of an experience in order to learn more, be more motivated, connect more, and immerse themselves more (in the experience). The experience you design is with this in mind – not entertainment.

I call it behavioral experience design. You count less on neon lights and celebrities and more on behavioral science and know what buttons to push in order to nudge people to enhance their learning etc. You design experiences for change – not entertainment.

For example, when we design a behavioral experience, we focus on getting all five senses activated. We know that certain scents help you remember, and that doodling can help you focus on listening.

We also know that the setting in which the event takes place has an impact on your behavior, and that the hosts (to mention just one thing) are important for the overall experience.

And we know that communication and managing expectations are an integral part of the experience.

These kinds of experiences are aimed at the end user – the person who needs an enhanced learning experience to go back to the office and used the information or skill learned.

Is it really two different things?

Honestly, no. It’s not two different things to design these experiences. Of course, you can support learning in a dramaturgical/scenographical experience – after all, you also include the senses, design the setting, and communicate about this event (and all the other elements that creating an experience requires – there are many more than I mention here). And it’s important to think about the dramaturgical/scenographical side of a behavioral event experience too.

It’s just the formats that are different, and since most people associate the word ‘experience’ with the dramaturgical/scenographical experience, it’s often difficult to explain why an experience is not just an experience … we all know the word, and it seems obvious what it means.

However, the dramaturgical/scenographical experience is what gives the meetings and events industry the reputation as a party industry. If you’ve been in the game for a while, you’ve probably been met with “Oh, so you’re a party planner” when you meet that inevitable someone at a dinner party who asks you what you do for a living. And it’s not always easy to explain that that is NOT what you do.

So: I have a dream that one day … all professional conferences will be experiences designed to change behavior instead of either mere entertainment or boring lectures.

What’s your dream?