James Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, authors of The Experience Economy, the 1999 book that argued that businesses of all kinds must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, recently published a new work, Authenticity. This book takes their business theories further and could help meeting planners not only make their events experiences, but make them real in a way that will resonate with attendees. When AM asked them how, here's what they said.
AM: Meetings by their very nature are contrived. We take people out of their normal environment and ask them to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. How can you make an inherently fake experience a real one? Should you even try?
Gilmore: It's no longer enough to just offer an experience — the definition of a meeting's success is whether people define it as being real or not. Before that can happen, you have to recognize that the meeting is fake if you want to render it real.
Take the awards ceremony, for example. If 70 percent don't show up or walk out as soon as dessert is served, that's your reality. Accept it and figure out what you can do based on that reality. One organization hired a mentalist to predict who would win. They filmed the predictions based on five nominees, then Fed Exed it off to the meeting. The mentalist not only predicted who would win, but also what they'd be wearing. And he was right.
Pine: And be true to your organization. You have to know who you are and what you're about first, so you don't do things that are inconsistent with that.
Gilmore: If you suddenly switch gears to try to be more authentic, people will say, “Where did that come from? That's not this organization.” So part of it is accepting who you are, then figure out how to render that more real, not try to be authentic on someone else's terms.
AM: Is site selection critical, or can you create an “authentic” meeting anywhere?
Pine: We recently did our ThinkAbout meeting in Nashville. We had found a hotel that reeked of authenticity, the Hermitage. But because they couldn't give us enough rooms, we decided to go to Opryland, which is contrived, from the singing frogs on out.
Gilmore: We thought, the Hermitage isn't going to satisfy everyone's perception of real. But in Opryland, everybody will view it as fake. Which was perfect: Because we're talking about authenticity, let's go somewhere fake. Find a juxtaposition that makes what you're dealing with seem more pronounced because it's so different. Sometimes organizers try too hard to match their meeting to the place, when much more interesting things could happen if they went in the opposite direction.
AM: You talk a lot about polarities in the book, about rendering authenticity through oppositions, like your example of a meeting about authenticity in a fake place. How else could that work?
Gilmore: While point one is being true to yourself, point two would be working with your polar opposite to enhance the value of what you provide. Look at who traditionally comes to your meeting — who would be the polar opposite delegate? Take the example of the National Christmas Tree Association, which in fact is the natural Christmas tree association — those who grow the trees. Think of how much more interesting the meeting landscape would be if they included the artificial tree manufacturers. For medical, doctor-patient is your key polarity. So where are the patients at the event? How can we possibly learn about a disease state without the human side?
The creative tension that comes when opposites meet is where real conversations take place. Too much association stuff is done to maintain the status quo, to not make waves.
AM: How does originality fit into the authenticity picture?
Gilmore: Find ways to take what's already there — name badges, for example — and use them in a different way. For our events, we don't call them name badges; we call them “admission passes” — it forces us to think differently about how to use them.
Pine: And not just to have them be something hanging around [attendees'] necks, but to use them in the event in some way that makes the badge their own.
Gilmore: This year, we focused on the five genres of authenticity in our ThinkAbout conference. So we had them write on their name badges the genre that most appealed to them, and then what their company should be using. Then we had a mixer where people found others who had answered the same way they did. It worked great. I love when I see the badge-recycling bins — you might as well post a big sign saying, “We give up, we won't even try to make this something you'd want to keep to remember the event.”
Pine: Invitations are another place where associations do not do a great job — you can usually just substitute the words from one event to another. For our ThinkAbout events, we do something that refers to where we're going to. When we went to Las Vegas, it was on playing cards; when we held an event at Camden Yard in Baltimore, it was a baseball program.
Gilmore: For this year's ThinkAbout University meeting, the invitation was a blue book and a test. On the test, we'd ask you to name three reasons you'd go to the meeting, and you'd go to the blue book for the answers.
Fakeness is not necessarily a bad thing. Thinking about the real fake versus the fake real can give you launching point for thinking about making your meeting more authentic.