Forget planning meetings and start creating experiences. James Gilmore and Joseph Pine have the business world abuzz over their new book, The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. (Harvard Business School Press, 1999). Gilmore, co-founder of Aurora, Ohio-based Strategic Horizons, recently shared his ideas with ICP Executive Editor Regina Baraban.

ICP: What is the experience economy?

JG: It's the next wave of economic output, when experiences will form the basis of commerce. Just as goods displaced commodities and services displaced goods, experiences will displace services.

ICP: Isn't a meeting already an experience?

JG: A meeting is inherently experiential. But the meeting industry still thinks in terms of outdated protocols about anticipating, conducting, and concluding meetings--about providing a service instead of staging an experience. In the experience economy, meeting professionals will use the craft of theater as a metaphor. They'll think about set design, not room setup; the script, not the agenda. This does not mean that all meetings will be theatrical. A technical meeting, using normal props of flip charts and slides, will still be a better meeting if it is driven by theatrical concepts.

ICP: Does this mean thinking about meetings in a new way?

JG: It means thinking in an expanded context. Don't design the meeting for function alone. Design it for all of the senses. Take every element of the meeting, write it down, and think about it differently. Every single element can be treated as an act of theater. In our book we talk about five experience-design principles: Theme the experience, harmonize the impressions with positive cues, eliminate negative cues, mix in memorabilia, and engage all five senses. These provide the expanded context for meetings.

ICP: What drives our need for experiences in a meeting? Isn't quality content what people really want?

JG: People want both the information and the experience. Think in terms of both/and instead of either/or. Experiential staging won't take you very far without quality content. But if the content presentation is dull and monotonous, people won't learn.

ICP: How do you advise meeting managers to walk the line between entertainment and experience?

JG: First, start the planning process by defining the impressions you want to create. What are the adjectives you want attendees to use when they talk about the meeting: serious, fun, unique, efficient? Use positive cues to communicate those impressions. For example, we sometimes lavish meetings with takeaways. But often these objects are ordinary things like hats or T-shirts. Instead, think about attaching meaning to the objects attendees actually use during an event, like notepads or name tags. For a business meeting, print the day's agenda on the notepad. For a creative brainstorming session, provide notepads in different colors and shapes. These things are cues to the experience to come, and people will save them to help remember the meeting. At an event we held last year, we gave attendees an "admission pass" instead of a name tag, and they used the back of it to answer questions asked during an opening exercise.

ICP: Travel incentive programs generally are more experiential and entertaining than other types of meetings. How would you take them to the next level?

JG: Customize them. Too many incentive programs focus on the group, not the individual. Gather personal information about the qualifiers and tailor the program to them. This is not the same as offering variety. If someone doesn't golf, don't even put it on his activity list as an option. Why present people with something they aren't interested in? The ultimate manifestation of this is the individual incentive, and we will probably see more of these in the future.