When James H. Gilmore spoke at Meeting Professionals International's 1999 World Education Congress, he challenged attendees to turn meetings into experiences by using the language of theater as an operating model. Co-author with Joseph Pine of The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), Gilmore is also co-founder of the Aurora, Ohio-based consulting firm Strategic Horizons LLP.

Q: Define experience economy.

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

Q: A meeting is by definition already an "experience." If that's true, aren't meetings ahead of the game?

A: It's true that 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 But the meeting industry still thinks in terms of outdated protocols about anticipating, conducting, and concluding meetings--about providing a service instead of staging an experience.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 doesn't mean that all meetings will be theatrical. A technical meeting in a conference room, using flip charts and slides, will still be a better meeting if it is driven by theatrical concepts.

Q: Isn't quality content what people really want?

A: What people want is both the information and the experience. Meeting professionals should 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.

Q: How can we create meaningful experiences at a meeting without overdoing the bells and whistles?

A: First, start the planning process by defining the impressions you want to create. What are the adverbs 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 take-aways to create memorabilia. But often these objects are ordinary things like hats or tee 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.

Q: Can meeting planners go too far in trying to create an experience?

A: Theater is the means not the end. It's a misconception to think that you have to bring in the light shows for each meeting. Use the vocabulary of theater without all the fanfare. The goal is for attendees to have an experience, not to see the theater.

Q: What influence, if any, does the Internet have on your argument for the experience economy?

A: The more people meet electronically, the more important face-to-face meetings will become. The point is that when we do take the time to meet face-to-face, it had better be good. Technology can also enhance the meeting itself, like with handheld audience polling, but it has to be integrated as part of the program and not a superficial add-on.

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: Don't design the meeting for function alone, but also 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.