Product or Experience?

Are you planning tourist or visitor products or experiences? It matters how you think about it.

Flumin' da ditch in Hawaii, a boat trip through aqueducts.
Flumin’ da ditch in Hawaii, a boat trip through aqueducts.

Tourist products, like tours, boat rides, or programs, are often viewed by visitors as commodities. They compare your two-hour tour to other diversions of two hours, like a movie. Price becomes an important factor in the decision to buy or not to buy the product. We tend to shop around for commodities and often the lowest price is the deciding factor.

Harvard professors, Pine and Gilmore, describe experience-oriented businesses in their book, The Experience Economy as having five traits:

Thematic design

Harmonize with positive cues

Eliminate negative cues

Mix in memorabilia

Engage all five senses

They point out that people will pay more for experiences than they do for a commodity. Many of our favorite businesses have developed experiences. We pay a lot more for coffee at a Starbucks than their fast food rivals, expecting comfortable chairs, friendly staff, warm ambiance, soft music, newspapers, free Internet and encouragement to stay as long as we want. Many other fast food shops want you to leave quickly and make room for another customer. Their low profit margins require the rapid turnover of customers.

In tourism communities, parks, museums, nature centers, aquariums and historic sites we can plan products or experiences, but experiences pay better and build more lasting relationships with our guests. To plan experiences we have to put some effort into Visitor Experience Design.  Lisa Brochu describes this process in her book, Interpretive Planning: the 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects as follows:

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 12.58.08 PM

Experiences begin with the DECISION POINT, the “advance organizers” such as your website,, and brochure displays at airports. They set up what will happen and it’s important to underpromise and overdeliver. The voice of previous customers shows up in reviews on social media sites so when we disappoint someone it hangs around to haunt us.

The ENTRY phase may include the journey to the experience, but it helps prepare us along the way. It tells us that we are welcome and sets the stage for the thematic experience to come. Signage, landscaping, architecture, traffic flow and much more create a rich introduction for the experience that lies ahead.

Hawaii Forest & Trail plans experiences that include great local food snacks along the way.
Hawaii Forest & Trail plans experiences that include great local food snacks along the way.

The CONNECTIONS phase is the heart of the experience. Is it thematic, multi-sensory, and highly engaging to create long-lasting impressions? Too often, poorly planned experiences reek of “been there, done that.” If they are shared with friends later, it’s usually to tell people to skip it, or to complain on Yelp or Trip Advisor. In contrast, people can’t wait to share details about rich experiences and they often plan return visits to bring their friends or family.

The EXIT part of the experience is the place to invite people to return, get their contact information, sell appropriate thematic memorabilia, invite deeper engagement as a volunteer or donor, and thank them for visiting. It can be where you suggest how they might plan a return visit and even get a discount for making it soon.

The COMMITMENT is the follow up. Did you get the engagement you wanted from the guest? Did they buy memorabilia, leave thoughtful comments, pick up the notice of future events or programs, make a donation, become a volunteer, take a behind the scenes tour? We should be tracking the changes we want in measurable terms to know that the experience meets our objectives.

It takes careful planning to create visitor experiences that work well and achieve your objectives. How do you pay for that planning? Usually careful planning keeps you from building infrastructure that is unneeded and helps you place staff where they enhance the experience. The savings realized along with the increased business income can pay for the planning. If you need help with community or visitor experience design, let us know. We would enjoy working with you.

– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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