Feature Article - September 2019
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Building Better Events

Plan, Execute, Excite

By Chris Gelbach

As you strive to hold and envision better events, you don't always have to spend more or go bigger and grander. Often, according to some leading thinkers in event design, you can create major improvements just by taking a more systematic, user-focused approach to the events you create and execute.

Gary Ellis, professor and head of the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University, has worked with colleagues to create such an approach to events. It draws both on literature from Texas A&M marketing professors and from the seminal book "The Experience Economy" by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore.

Nailing the Fundamentals

The work from Texas A&M marketers focused on five general dimensions that define service performance. These fundamentals for any quality event can be remembered using the acronym RATER, which includes:

>> Reliability: providing service correctly and precisely.

>> Assurance: communicating your competence and helping the visitor realize you can meet their needs and solve their problems.

>> Tangibles: providing a neat, orderly, attractive and appealing physical environment.

>> Empathy: being able to stand in the shoes of the visitor to understand the needs of not just the market, but also the needs of individual visitors.

>> Responsiveness: immediately attending to peoples' inquiries and needs.

"These five general dimensions define service performance and are absolutely essential to a good experience," Ellis said. "What we've found in our research, however, is that providing those things will not delight visitors to an event or a recreation experience. The only thing they do is prevent dissatisfaction and complaints."

How to Surprise and Delight

According to Ellis, the features of the experience or recreation event that do delight guests and activate their interest in recommending the event and returning to future iterations of it are the features detailed in "The Experience Economy."

According to Andrew Lacanienta, assistant professor in the Department of Experience Industry Management at Cal Polytechnic, these features can be encapsulated by Pine and Gilmore's THEME acronym, which includes:

>> Theming the experience.

>> Harmonizing impressions with positive cues.

>> Eliminating negative cues.

>> Mixing in memorabilia.

>> Engaging the five senses.

"That acronym is like experience design 101—and it's something that everyone can do," Lacanienta said. In creating the theme, Lacanienta recommends that recreation managers also come up with a backstory and consider how event attendees could fit into the story. Do they watch passively, or can they play an active role in how the story unfolds?

The positive and negative cues likewise refer to how cues in the environment enhance or detract from the theme. "So if you're in a Western-themed experience, everything about that should make you feel like you're in the Wild West," Lacanienta said. That could include everything from employees adopting cowboy accents to wearing costumes.

"You could look at things like the signage, the garbage cans," Lacanienta said. "Does the garbage can look like a plastic garbage can, or a garbage can that you would find in the Wild West? It's just thinking about those cues that leave an impression with people that they're in a different time, place or set of circumstances."

Likewise, memorabilia could include giving kids a sheriff's badge or some jerky at the end of the experience. Engaging the five senses is the idea of further fleshing out the thematic world by including sensory experiences—aromas, sounds, tastes and touches—that you wouldn't inherently expect as part of the event.

Lacanienta, Ellis and other researchers saw the impact of this kind of themed-world creation firsthand when they tested the use of theming in a residential 4-H youth camp. They discovered that theming of the activities significantly elevated the quality of the experience for the kids, in addition to boosting the enthusiasm of the activity instructors responsible for creating the themes.

"And one thing we exemplified with that camp research study is that this can be done by anyone, and it can be done at a super cheap cost," Lacanienta said.

At the same time, there is a cost in that it requires recreation managers to focus more on being creative. "I think that's one of the challenges and issues that my research team and I need to address," Ellis said. "Because it's a lot easier to just roll out the balls. But I tell my students, anybody can roll out the balls. And you're in my parks and recreation class because you're going to learn how to do it better."

The other potential pitfall Ellis noted was that if you try to bring these sort of thematic "delighter" elements to an event, they only work if basic service expectations are also being met. "If you have poor service quality and try to do these things, it will only make people more unhappy and more likely to complain," Ellis said. "They have to occur on a foundation of service quality."