Back in 1999, Joe Pine and his partner Jim Gilmore helped define a new economic phenomenon when they published The Experience Economy – Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage.
Pine and Gilmore’s philosophy was that “goods and services are no longer enough,” and that all businesses must learn to “orchestrate memorable events for their customers that engage each one of them in an inherently personal way”.
Since then, the book has been translated into more than 15 languages, and has become an essential read for business leaders. After an updated edition in 2011, a hardcover edition was re-released in 2020 with a new preface.
As the pair predicted in 1999, the ‘Experience Economy’ has grown steadily, becoming one of the predominant sources of GDP growth and job creation. For years, it seemed as though nothing could slow the shift from buying goods to buying experiences, and the experience sector went from strength to strength.
And then of course, COVID-19 hit, closing restaurants, pubs, theme parks, museums, cinemas, galleries, theatres and so many of the other places where we go for experiences around the world.
“The pandemic killed the physical part of the experience sector of the economy and that had a hugely detrimental effect on people,” says Pine, speaking to me via Zoom. “The physical sector was decimated by the lockdowns. It’s something none of us could have predicted or foreseen.”
While people couldn’t go to their usual places for experiences, they still craved entertainment and connection, and innovative companies quickly found ways to meet those needs.
“We are social beings, and we insist on having experiences,” says Pine. “They moved from physical to digital, from social and communal to familial and individual. At times like this you always get innovation and there has been wonderful innovation in experiences that would not have existed without the pandemic.”
One of Pine’s favourite experiences during lockdown, he tells me, was by theatre and experience makers, Swamp Motel, who put on a hugely popular immersive online detective game called Plymouth Point. “You interact live with people to try and figure out what’s going on; it was a great experience,” he says. “That company has actually hired more people over the past year because what they’re doing is so successful.”
As the physical experience sector opens up, many of the lessons learned during the lockdowns will enable them to provide a better offer than before, says Pine. Here he sets out some of the biggest trends he’s seeing and what companies need to do to survive and thrive during the years ahead.
“One of the signs that the Experience Economy is very healthy is that whenever a place does open up to whatever capacity it can – guess what? It fills up to that limited capacity,” he says. “People will never stop wanting exciting and meaningful experiences.”
Pivoting to hybrid
One of the biggest trends going forwards will be hybrid digital and physical offers, says Pine.
“As companies responded to the lack of people coming to physical venues, more and more of them turned to digital events. But that alone is a poor business substitute, as it has yet to prove capable of generating the same level of revenue,” he explains.
“The right approach is to stage hybrid experiences that amplify the live experience virtually.”
Pine sets out four stages to the hybrid experiences model. “Firstly, stage the live experience for however many people can attend – these people can be charged 100 per cent of the usual admission fee.
“Secondly, simultaneously offer the experience digitally to those who want the live experience but cannot or are unwilling to attend it physically. This same-time, different-place simulcast of the live experience can amplify it to many more people, who can be charged some portion of the physical admission fee.
“The third level involves taking all of your sessions of the experience and offering them for sale on an asynchronous basis, after the event. These ‘different-time, different-place’ viewers can absorb the bite-sized chunks you offer online whenever and wherever they desire – except in real-time, that is. That’s reserved for those who pay the higher fees for the live performance, whether in reality or virtuality.
“Level four is the recap. Any hybrid experience stager can at least summarise the highlights of the hybrid experience: in short, free videos on YouTube and other social media sites – to get even more people to wish they had been there live, and through such amplification create demand for the next experience.
“Done well, for many experiences I fully believe this hybrid experience model has the potential to create more revenue than pre-COVID experiences that ignored virtual possibilities.”
Another big trend going forwards will be a huge increase in queueless attractions, says Pine. This will help with managing crowd flow – essential to accommodate social distancing – and increase the intensity of the experience offered.
“With today’s technology, there’s very little reason to wait in line for any length of time,” he says. “You should be able to experience something, somewhere, and then get to the next attraction just in time. Disney has got close to it with the Fast Pass, but everyone should be doing it. It’s going to be a big deal.”
This could also help with experience providers looking to address the need for social distancing by allowing similar numbers of people into their offer but encouraging a faster turnaround.
“Queueless systems could get them to the point where they’re just going from one ride or attraction to another,” says Pine. “They might spend less time in your attraction, but they’ll feel they have had a much more intense experience without that downtime in between.”
This links to the next big trend Pine advises operators to get on board with: the ability to offer mass customised itineraries.
“Creating a mass customised itinerary efficiently allows people to get an actual itinerary for the time they’re spending with you,” he explains. “The first company I know of to do it is the Carnival Corporation with its Ocean Medallion wearable device, which allows the company to know each individual guest and their preferences.
“As a guest, before you get on the cruise, you upload your passport and fill in a form saying what you like to do. You’ll receive an itinerary so you have an idea of how the cruise will flow, and whenever you get within range of a crew member, your details pop up. This means you don’t have to show your passport, your cabin automatically unlocks, crew can greet you by name and know your favourite cocktail or drink without asking. As the operator learns more about what experiences you like, it makes personal experience invitations to mass-customise that itinerary for you.”
The potential for this technology is huge, explains Pine, particularly for multi-attraction facilities where mass customised itineraries can be created for each guest and family unit. “Briq Bookings in the Netherlands is doing this very successfully for family entertainment centres – it allows them to have tremendous capacity utilisation to smooth things out over their facilities. They’re also seeing increases in food and beverage sales, as meal breaks can be scheduled in.”
A positive outlook
Looking ahead, Pine’s prediction is optimistic for the sector. “I think that the experience sector will fully recover in the next couple of years,” he says.
“The biggest change will be the infusion of digital technology into experiences.
“Hybrid experiences, and the use of digital technology within our experiences are here to stay. Attractions need to renew their capabilities around digital technology and recognise that is no longer optional, it’s essential.
“The decades-long shift from goods and services to experiences is still taking place – there’s no reason for that to abate long-term.”