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."
User-Focused Event Design
From the start, when planning any event, considering the needs of the community and individuals being served should be paramount and can be the inciting incident for a more creative process.
"I think it's really easy to get into the mindset of, 'Let's just keep rolling with what has worked in the past. Let's just keep doing what we've always done for this concert service or Easter egg hunt or Christmas festival,' " said Mat Duerden, associate professor of experience design and management in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University.
But the rise in technology and social media has created an expectation in consumers and participants that they have more participatory and co-creative relationships in these events, requiring a greater focus on human-centered design.
So Duerden recommends starting the process by thinking about the needs of the community. "Let's talk about what the needs are, and why those needs are there," Duerden said. "And then that might be the starting point to say, we really don't need this event we've been running for a long time because our constituents have this other need. Let's start from there and involve them in the process of figuring out what that [new event] might be."
Duerden's new book co-written with Bob Rossman, "Designing Experiences," was created to walk people through a systematic process for designing these kinds of more innovative experiences.
Recreation managers can have more success in doing this by simply adopting a very iterative process for creating these experiences—and avoiding the impulse to just work on an idea in-house for a long time before rolling out the final product to the public.
This involves identifying the needs, then prototyping a storyboard of what the event that meets them might be. "Then let's meet with some people and see what they think and tweak and have more of a back-and-forth and identify what is wrong early on—before we're actually running the event," Duerden said. "Let's fail fast up front while it's just in prototype conceptual stage, so that by the time we roll it out, this is like the 12th iteration."
A Series of Encounters
When planning the event itself, Ellis recommends looking at every step of the event from the visitor's viewpoint to see the event as a series of distinct encounters that should be structured and optimized.
"The first time you communicate with that visitor is with a promotion gimmick," Ellis said. "So the promotion experience ought to be structured." Other phases of the experience should be similarly structured, from the arrival experience, through to the reception experience, orientation phase, participation phase, signoff and takeaway phases.
"The most important thing I can say about planning is to keep in mind that the event experience is a process," Ellis said. "And each phase of it ought to be structured. Don't let it take care of itself. Ensure service quality and delighters at each phase of that process."
According to Steve Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals and Events Association (IFEA), one way to help do this is to consider filler entertainment and activities at certain points of the process. "If you have concerts at 1, 3 and 5 at a festival, what are you going to do in the meantime? Do you have wandering entertainment or some place where people can take selfies and pictures?" Schmader said. "If people have to walk from point A to point B, is there stuff along that route that's entertaining?"
This process can also include a level of prototyping that goes beyond running ideas to include actual test runs to ensure that service standards will be met. "With events, we often think that we've run through everything in our head, but it hasn't actually been tested," Lacanienta said. "So whether that's how the registration line looks or how some of your activity booths look, actually set those things up in a mock way and do them. Make a prototype of your registration line and have 15 people run through it. So when that gameday comes, you've already prototyped it multiple times, and you're fairly certain it's going to work the way you say it's going to work."
According to Duerden, charting the various touchpoints visitors will experience, both verbally and visually, is a great starting point. "And then the key is to say, 'What do we want people to say or think at each of these touchpoints?'" Duerden said.
This enables you to specifically design the experience so that any design decisions you make lead people to say and experience that thing at that time. It also makes it much easier to train staff, particularly volunteers or seasonal staff.
"You can say, 'Remember, we have these policies and procedures and things, but ultimately, for the touchpoints you're involved in, we want people to say this very specific thing: 'Wow, it was super easy to check in and the people here are really friendly,'" Duerden said.
According to Duerden, the benefit of this approach is in giving frontline staff members direction that provides specificity, but also gives them autonomy, because you can't tell people how to respond to every single situation that could arise.
"This can be a really nice training tool. It can be a really nice design tool. And on the back end, it can be a really nice evaluative tool," Duerden said. "So you can just ask people, 'When you checked in, what did you think?'" Then you can compare those results to your goal for that touchpoint to evaluate your success.
Starting Simple for Real Improvement
At the same time, if you're doing an event that you have run successfully before, and it's meeting the needs of the community in basic ways, you don't need to focus on overhauling everything.
At the Event Management School IFEA runs with the NRPA, Schmader often sees students overwhelmed by their options. "People sometimes say at the school, 'I have so many ideas, I don't know where to begin,'" Schmader said. "And I'll say to them, 'Pick one.' Don't be overwhelmed by the fact that there's so much. Then pick one and do it well. Improve your event in that one area. You do that, you've now made your event better."
Duerden also noted that, as psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Frederickson have found, not all moments of an event experience are created equal. "Kahneman calls it the peak end rule," Duerden said. "When you think back on an experience after time has lapsed, most things sort of fade into the background, but you remember the pits, the peaks and the ends of experiences on average."
A prototypical example would be a day at Disney, where if you had people rate their experience every 30 minutes, they might rate things a 7 out of 10 because of things like long lines and OK but overpriced food.
"But in reality, that's not how you're going to remember the experience," Duerden said. "You're going to remember the fireworks show at the end. You're going to remember the picture you took with your daughter when she was overwhelmed with how awesome it was. You remember these peak parts."
To avoid the pits, it's important to provide a basic level of service throughout. But you don't have to invest everywhere. "You should think strategically about the moments you want to turn into peak moments, and how to nail the ending of experiences," Duerden said. "A lot of times the ending of a big event is waiting in a parking lot and that's the memory you go home with."
To mitigate that issue, Schmader recommends doing everything you can to make that process easier. That could include providing buses or renting parking lots somewhat within walking distance that can spread out the crowds a bit more. It could also include taking a cue from Disney by setting the tone with mellow exit music, by keeping some food vendors and shops open as people exit to thin out the exiting crowd, or by providing additional entertainment during that phase.
"If you can figure out a way to make the endings great, that can be a really great resource allocation and strategy," Duerden said.
Lacanienta is also seeing more and more events enlivened through a greater focus on making attendees more active participants who play a key role. "They have the opportunity to co-create the event in a way that is personally meaningful to them," Lacanienta said. "As opposed to saying, 'We built this thing, come experience it,' it's 'We built this skeleton for a thing and we need you to come and help us unfold it.'"
This could include creating a narrative structure using the hero's journey that allows the participant to role-play as the hero of the event. Or it could be as simple as going beyond having a food truck rally to instead have events where people can interact with chefs and cook. Or have the chance to interact with artists and paint instead of just viewing art.
"If we're doing some sort of gardening event, let's get them gardening," Lacanienta said. "Let's send them home with a planter box that they can take to their house and continue to nurture and use. It's just thinking about more ways that participants and community members can be doing versus watching or sitting."
Events that get people involved, get the basics right, nail the peak moments and focus on community needs are those with the greatest chance of success — and with the best hope of delighting the key audiences you serve. RM
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