The Experience Economy

Photos courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga CVB,  Mean Mug, Stir, and Vision Hospitality


By Lucy Morris
In today’s thriving economy, quality products are a given, and superior service is expected. In order to set yourself apart as a business, you must go a step beyond by offering meaningful, personal connections. We’ve officially entered the age of experiences.

Understanding the experience economy is a piece of cake, at least according to business partners and co-authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, who coined the term in 1998. Using everyone’s favorite dessert, the pair illustrated the idea that commoditization drives economic evolution. With that, businesses that want to be successful today must differentiate themselves from competition by providing meaningful and memorable experiences to customers.

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

In the days of the agrarian economy, parents would bake a birthday cake from scratch using common commodities (like flour, butter, eggs, and sugar) that required little economic investment. Eventually, the agrarian way of life gave way to the industrial economy, based on manufactured goods. With that, parents could spend a few dollars on a pre-made cake mix and save themselves time and effort. Once these goods became commoditized, the service industry gained traction, with parents able to order a custom cake from a bakery or grocery store. While the cake itself cost significantly more, the service provided an easy reprieve for busy parents looking to conserve their time wherever possible. But now, even the service industry has become commoditized, giving way to the newest economic boom – experiences. In today’s experience economy, parents can outsource their child’s birthday party to the likes of a trampoline park or bowling alley, equipped to provide activities (not to mention a cake that’s included in the cost) – and memories that will last a lifetime.

Quality Is Expected, Authenticity Is Required

Customers today are looking for authentic experiences when making purchases. They’re seeking out memorable, personal, emotional connections, which means product, price, and service no longer reign supreme.

Take cellphones for example. When these technological titans hit the scene, the convenience was beguiling. The idea that you could call someone any time, regardless of where you were, was exciting. Suddenly, the now-antiquated Nokia “brick” was everywhere.

As technology advanced though, sleeker, more attractive phones began surfacing, and those with better offerings eventually rendered the former wonders obsolete. From there, we were met with a barrage of different service providers, each claiming its unique assets. Individuals began to compare services, switching from one provider to another depending on what they needed most – be it unlimited data, a family plan, or a killer camera.

Now, these assets are standard on most devices, and service providers are virtually interchangeable. So where does a company that sells cellphones go from there? If it wants to be successful in today’s economy, it will begin to put its value in experiences instead.

An Apple a Day

One of the best modern-day examples of the experience economy is Apple. While many consider it to be a product-first tech company, its leaders think about it differently. In fact, they’ve even said that Apple Retail is the company’s largest product.

Years ago, the brand began opening retail stores that were focused on experiences over products – and they quickly became distinct destinations. While the purpose of these retail locations is, of course, still to sell Apple products, the way they go about doing so is entirely novel.

People who are considering purchasing Apple products can visit these storefront destinations to learn useful and meaningful information about the technology, either through communication with the highly trained staff, or through hands-on interaction with the newest models. They’re not bombarded with marketing ploys, but rather connected with educational information and introduced to other experiences like music, art, photography, and design through the devices. This information goes beyond the product – it instills dreams and aspirations. People flock to these stores for the community.

If you decide to purchase a product, there’s no long wait to reach the front of the sales kiosk, either. Rather, the staff member that’s been working with you can quickly ring you up right then and there, using one of the company’s portable devices. You leave, having just created a personal experience, and the time you spent was valuable.

Setting the Stage

An experience transpires when a company engages customers in a way that creates a memorable event. This is done by “setting the stage,” or using services as the stage and goods as props to evoke emotion.

Consider Best Buy’s Geek Squad. The company recognized the value in experiences and managed to turn a computer installation and repair service into a show. Referred to as “special agents,” the repair men and women wear white shirts, thin black ties, and pocket protectors. They travel in themed cars. No matter the reason they are dispatched to your home or office, the encounter is memorable.

Creating an Experience

Locally, businesses across various industries are capitalizing on the opportunities to elevate their offerings beyond just goods or services, instead providing full-fledged experiences. Here’s how they’ve done it.

Recruiting and Training Talented Staff
Tennessee Aquarium

The Tennessee Aquarium has been voted the best aquarium in America for overall guest satisfaction, and there’s no surprise why. From the moment a guest – not a customer, a guest – steps in the door, they are greeted with a warm, knowledgeable staff member who is focused on making their trip special. “Our goal is for guests to have a memorable experience with their family,” says Aquarium CEO Keith Sanford. “Members of our guest services team are trained to ask questions and discover why guests are visiting. If they find a couple that just got engaged or a couple celebrating their honeymoon, for instance, they’ll take them behind the scenes to make it memorable.”

The team participates in monthly training opportunities, and huddles take place each morning before the exhibits open. “During these huddles, we talk about any issues or positive things from the day before and discuss any events that will take place that day or night. We want to prepare the team with as much knowledge as we can before we open,” says Sanford.

Beyond that, they take recommendations to heart. “We had a couple visit from Birmingham, whose child is autistic,” Sanford says. Currently, the aquarium is in the works to become the first attraction in Tennessee certified for sensory training. “We want to ensure that everyone can have incredible experiences when they visit. This can be a noisy space at times, so we provide headphones, weighted blankets, fidget toys, and quiet rooms where individuals can go to unwind if they get overloaded.”

Communicating with the Customer
Hair Benders Internationalé

Local salon and spa Hair Benders Internationalé proves the way to a positive experience is through inclusion at the highest level. “All of our team members share the same vision of making our clients’ days by making them look and feel great,” says operating manager Hariett Stafford. “We want our clients to leave happy, knowing they’ve received the highest quality service in a warm, friendly atmosphere.”

To achieve the standards they set for themselves, the team at Hair Benders Internationalé knows that communication with the customer is key. “In-depth consultations are always provided at the beginning of each appointment. This is very important to ensure a successful outcome. These consultations allow customers to ask questions about the services or pricing so that everyone is on the same page before any service begins,” Stafford says.

Another important facet of these communication ideals is letting customers know when their desires may need shifting. Stafford explains, “Sometimes a client wants a service that may not be achievable. An uneducated stylist might try to perform the service to keep the client happy, but this could actually leave them much more upset after the service. For example, taking a client from very dark hair to very light hair in one appointment. The professionals at HBI will make a determination on whether or not performing a service will produce the desired outcome and make alternate recommendations to the client if the integrity of their hair will be compromised.”

When communication is clear and efficient between staff and customer, a service can evolve into a positive, memorable experience.

Making It Personal
Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau

For the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, each day is a day to celebrate what the city of Chattanooga has to offer. Tasked with bringing tourists of all ages and backgrounds to the area, how do they manage to make it personal for every visitor?

“Before the visitor even arrives in Chattanooga, much work has gone into helping them envision the experience they’ll have once they arrive and the memories they will gain as a result of their choice to visit Chattanooga,” says CEO Barry White. “Every time the CVB reaches out to potential visitors, whether it is through social media, television advertising, or public relations, we are working to set an expectation that their time in Chattanooga will be well spent.”

To do this, the CVB team works diligently to curate experience packages for visitors based on their goals for the trip. “The ideal vacation is different for everyone, but we do share common interests such as outdoor adventure, love of food, or a passion for music and art,” says White. “Depending on if they’re traveling as a multi-generational family looking to bond, a couple looking to relax and reconnect, or a group of friends looking for memorable times, we have developed specific experience packages that will best connect them with the city.”

By prepping visitors with the information they need to achieve their specific travel goals, each experience is highly individualized. This leaves a lasting impression and a desire to return in the future.

Ensuring Time Well Spent
Mean Mug

One of the classic examples of the experience economy lies in the evolution of the coffee industry, and local coffee shop Mean Mug is at the forefront of the progression. While coffee is a product easily consumed at home, locals continue to flock to the local shop for the experience – so much so, in fact, that the store opened a second location in late 2017.

“Eight years ago, the coffee industry in Chattanooga was very different. We saw a need to create a concept that blended the traditional coffee shop with the local restaurant by providing great local coffee and a creative menu with homemade food,” says co-owner and head chef Monica Smith. “We wanted the feel of the old-school shop with an approachable staff and a quirky atmosphere where all guests feel welcome and where the coffee snob and coffee novice can happily co-exist.”

On any given day, you can enter either location and find individuals working solo on their computers, business contacts meeting to discuss the specifics of a new deal, or old friends catching up over cookies and cappuccinos. “We strive to provide excellent service as well as consistency with our product in a comfortable and unique atmosphere,” Smith says. “We want visitors to feel that their time spent with us was meaningful.”

Providing Entertainment

Located in the historic Choo Choo complex, guests who visit STIR are treated to more than just a tasty dinner made from ingredients primarily sourced within 100 miles of the city – they’re privy to a show. Drawing from the concept of setting the stage, they use their specialty cocktails as the “props” that elicit emotion. “When we were planning the concept for STIR, we knew we wanted to focus on craft cocktails made with artisanal ice,” says general manager Fletcher Thompson. “We did a lot of research about the ice – it’s something other restaurants overlook. We try to stay away from the middle of the road, and it shows in our experience.”

The restaurant offers seven unique styles of ice ranging from shaved to pebbled to spherical, hand-cut from an enormous ice block by the full-time ice chef. “The ice is made using purified water, and the specialty cuts make it melt at a slower pace,” says Thompson. “This means your drinks won’t be diluted or lukewarm, which can elicit negative connotations.”

Beyond the ice, the drinks are crafted at a sprawling bar. With substantial indoor and outdoor seating arranged to peer in, guests can watch as their drinks are made by the highly trained bar staff, dressed to impress– and to scale ladders. “Anyone that’s going to be behind our bar is an accomplished server already,” says Thompson.

By the time a guest receives their drink, they’ve already taken in an entire experience and developed positive memories. “Our goal is for guests to leave satisfied with every aspect of their visit.”

Creating a Connection
The Edwin

The brainchild of Vision Hospitality Group CEO Mitch Patel, The Edwin is a boutique hotel located in the heart of the city. Set to open later this year, the team is placing significant stock in providing a highly curated hotel experience. “As traveling has evolved over the years, more and more people, myself included, are searching for unique experiences that create a sense of discovery and belonging,” says Patel.

To instill these emotions, The Edwin is focused on authenticity. “The proximity to art, Southern cuisine, and the iconic Walnut Street Bridge made it clear that we had the ideal location to create a truly authentic Chattanooga experience for locals and visitors,” Patel says. “Every aspect of The Edwin, from the 70 pieces of locally commissioned artwork to the rooftop whiskey bar overlooking the Tennessee River, was carefully designed to connect guests to the unique aspects of the city.”

From the moment a guest enters the doors of the hotel, the experience is all-encompassing. “Now more than ever, guests are seeking out immersive travel experiences,” says Patel. “The Edwin couldn’t exist anywhere else – it was created to be uniquely Chattanooga. We are working to collaborate with and highlight the very best that our great city has to offer, from artisan bakeries to world-renowned local artists.”

But building a connection cannot come from insincerity. Patel explains, “Sincerity of service is something you cannot teach, so we have focused heavily on developing a staff of service professionals that are passionate about their craft. They understand that unexpected and individualized efforts create the most memorable stays.”


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