Wildflowers above Thompson Creek
The difference between the retail and purpose based approaches to experiences is one of mindset: a focus on the short versus the long term.
Update – April 2021: We’ve done a lot of work defining what makes an adventure ours over the past few years. These were some of our thoughts along the way. You can find an updated version of this content here.
It was only two or three years ago that we started to realize that even if we were all using the same words, we meant different things when talking about experience development. It became obvious when we were involved with Travel Alberta’s SHiFT program in Sylvan Lake.
There were apparent differences between the operators involved in the Central Alberta edition of SHiFT compared to the one in Banff the year before. Some of these differences were for obvious reasons: the businesses were much smaller, they had a different ideal guest, and tourism was the primary industry in Banff but a secondary focus in Sylvan Lake.
None of these explained what we were seeing nor what we were starting to notice about how we approached our tours. The difference we saw was deeper, it was about how they approached their business. The fact that they were smaller and owner-operated was part of it, but what became obvious was how driven they were by purpose, the reasons why they had started their business in the first place.
Once we realized this we still had the challenge of putting it into words. The best explanation we’ve found so far is the concept of finite and infinite games, as described by James Carse and more recently Simon Sinek.
A finite approach focuses on manipulations like price, promotions, fear, aspiration, peer pressure and novelty. It’s a theatrical approach, requiring an audience and performed according to a script. This is the approach made popular by Pine & Gilmore in their book The Experience Economy. It is the approach we see used by most consultants, economic development officers and others involved in supporting tourism operators.
An infinite mindset, on the other hand, starts with a cause that others want to support, allowing us to work together toward a common objective. Short-term goals and metrics become focused around getting better at what we do as we work toward our bigger cause, which by definition will never be fully achieved. This is the approach we see used by operators in lesser-known destinations, where something more than passion drives them to build their business.
In our context, the infinite approach is like a living drama. The guests are active participants, choosing to live their own adventure. The role of the guide is to be a trusted mentor, empowering the guests to answer the call to adventure by providing guidance, confidence, insights, advice or training. The transformation happens within the guests who are the hero of our adventures.
Both approaches have benefits. The challenge is to use the right one that aligns with the mindset of the partners we work with.
A guest enjoying a moment on the ice bubbles of Abraham Lake
Here’s a summary of the two approaches. The differences can be subtle, but the change of perspective has a big impact on the final product.
THE RETAIL APPROACH
This is the finite approach, the traditional experience development model based on Pine & Gilmore’s The Experience Economy.
It’s a great option for many, especially those in mass tourism looking for a short-term solution to capitalize on trends. It also works great for those operating in closed environments like nature centres, museums and sites or those delivering interpretive programming.
This approach gives products a special event feel, creating excitement around each offering.
It usually starts with identifying, based on trends, a new product idea or a new market. In some cases we may be looking at combining the two, attempting to reach a new market with a new product.
Through scripts and manipulations, we connect the market with the product. In this case manipulations are not necessarily negative, but they are effective mostly in the short term. These include price, promotions, fear, aspiration, peer pressure and novelty. Gamification, the addition of take-aways or partners to increase the price, exclusive access, playing up the fear of missing out, and the focus on new experiences are common in tourism.
The guest is at the centre of the experience but in this context the focus is on what we want them to do.
Pros and Cons
The biggest advantage is that this is an easy approach to implement. It is based on business practices that are familiar to many and can be implemented as a somewhat simple recipe. This also makes it easier to find guides, since training can easily be standardized.
Because of the focus on manipulations like novelty, the fear of missing out and behind the scene access this is not a sustainable approach. We need to constantly re-invent products, making this an expensive approach in the long run.
Similarly, adding takeaways and partners is an easy way to show added value to justify a higher price point. This, combined with the need for novelty, creates a commodification cycle that requires to either replace elements of the tour on a regular basis or rely on promotions and discounts.
This is a great approach for mass tourism but leads to superficial encounters. It often leads to tours that promote travelling like a local but with the tour having little appeal to locals.
THE INFINITE APPROACH
We agree that we need a better name for this approach. Purpose-based, infinite and transformational don’t bring up the right picture. That aside, we find that this approach works best for organizations focused on the long term with a clear purpose that goes beyond short term profits.
It works best in the open environments that are common in adventure tourism where the guides must have the competency required to go beyond a script as they adapt to the changing conditions.
The first step is knowing who we are and our destination’s sense of place. It’s about asking ourselves why we should be the ones to offer this product here. The next step is to identify how we operate. It’s time to define our guiding principles, operating requirements and the other details needed to create a memorable experience.
Once we have this foundation in place, it’s time to connect with guests who align with our purpose. Having a clear understanding of who we are makes this part easy.
Finally, we can work on what is the best option that solves our guests’ needs while meeting our goals.
The guest is also at the centre of the experience in this approach. In this case however it starts with empathy, looking at the experience from the guest’s perspective and considering how we can help them with their adventure.
Pros and Cons
It is a lot more work upfront to create this type of experience. However, once the hard work is done, the clarity it provides makes creating and adapting experiences much easier.
The experiences created this way have a timeless appeal to them but this approach makes it harder to capitalize on trends and short term opportunities.
Finding guides is harder and new guides require more training before they acquire the skills required to go beyond the script. At the same time, guides are attracted to organizations that share their cause. This improves guide engagement and retention in the longer term.
There is no recipe to follow. This makes the process appear daunting at first and harder for established businesses to make the leap. At the same time, it seems to be a more natural approach for most adventure companies we have worked with.
PARADIGM SHIFT – THEATRE OR DRAMA?
“Thus, no two people can have the same experience, because each experience derives from the interaction between the staged event (like a theatrical play) and the individual’s state of mind.” – Pine and Gilmore
The theatre metaphor is used throughout Pine and Gilmore’s work and has become a common tool in experience development.
In the retail approach the guests participate in a series of scripted activities. The role of the guide is to direct the play, either directly as a sage on the stage or indirectly as a guide on the side.
As we move toward the transformation economy in Pine and Gilmore’s paradigm this means that we continue with the manipulative approach, applying changes from the outside rather than instilling them within the guest.
In this approach we shift within the paradigm of goods and services to experiences and transformation.
It seems fitting that James Carse also used theatre as a metaphor in his 1986 book, Finite and Infinite Games. In his view, finite games are theatrical. They require an audience and are performed according to a script. Infinite games, on the other hand, are like a living drama. They are enacted in the moment and involve the participants in the process.
In this scenario the guests are active participants, choosing to live their own adventure. The role of the guide is to be a trusted mentor, empowering the guests to answer the call to adventure by providing guidance, confidence, insights, advice or training.
In a dramatic approach, the transformation happens within the guest, the hero of our adventure. This requires a change of paradigm, a different way to look at the familiar.
These are the elements we bring together to create the adventure. This is our framework to determine which options will best work together.
Authenticity, desirability, feasibility and viability need to be addressed at every step of the experience development process.
All of these activities have the power to transform participants. The difference is on what they aim to change.
A package is about savings for the guests, a collection is about added value and an experience is about the feelings it creates.
A look at two different ways to craft experiences we often come across, each of them appealing to a different type of operators and guests.