Companies can't afford dull meetings anymore. Not according to James H. Gilmore, co-author with Joseph Pine of The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999). Gilmore challenges companies to treat conference rooms as sets, agendas as scripts, and the attendees as theatergoers. Executive Editor Regina Baraban caught up with him recently by telephone from the offices of his Aurora, Ohio-based consulting firm, Strategic Horizons LLP.

Corporate Meetings & Incentives: "The experience economy" is the buzzword right now--but what exactly does it mean?

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

CMI: Meetings are already an "experience." Don't they automatically fit right into the experience economy?

J.G.: True, a meeting is inherently experiential. But we still think in terms of outdated protocols about providing a service instead of staging an experience. In the experience economy, meeting organizers 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 all meetings will be theatrical. But a technical meeting in a conference room, even if it uses the typical flip charts and slides, will still be a better meeting if it is driven by theatrical concepts.

CMI: Does this mean that companies need to start thinking about meetings in a completely different way?

J.G: Not really--just in an expanded context. For example, don't design the meeting for function alone but for all the senses. Every 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.

CMI: Isn't quality content what counts the most?

J.G.: Meeting attendees want information and an experience. We need to 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.

CMI: How do you advise meeting organizers to walk the line between entertainment and experience?

J.G.: First, define the impressions you want to create. What adjectives do you want people to use when they talk about the meeting: serious, fun, unique, efficient? Then use positive cues to communicate those impressions.

For example, take memorabilia, such as hats or T-shirts. Wouldn't it be better to attach meaning to the objects attendees 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 are cues to the experience to come, and people will save them to help remember the meeting. At an event last year, we gave attendees an "admission pass" instead of a name tag, and they used the back of it to answer questions during an opening exercise.

CMI: Can't companies go too far trying to integrate experiences into their meetings?

J.G.: Absolutely. It's a misconception to think you have to bring in the light shows for every meeting. You can use the vocabulary of theater without all that fanfare.

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

J.G.: Customize them. Too many incentive programs focus on the group, not the individual. Gather information about the qualifiers, from recreational and food and beverage preferences to nicknames, and tailor the program to them. This is not the same as variety. If someone doesn't golf, don't list it 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.

CMI: Unlike incentives, mandatory business meetings are straightforward activities. Why do they need to be more than that?

J.G.: Just because people have to be there doesn't mean they are listening. Get attendees actively involved, and they won't tune out the meeting content.

There is often a false sense of consensus at mandatory meetings. But you can use different techniques to get frank conversation to happen. This can be done with software programs, where people can "speak" anonymously by typing comments on their computers, or with low-tech interventions. For example, I recently sat at a board meeting where a corporate name change came up--always a sensitive issue. I shifted the focus from the name to why the idea of change had come up in the first place, and we had a much healthier and more honest discussion as a result.

CMI: Today's training meetings combine education and entertainment using hands-on techniques. How will they change?

J.G.: They will use even more creative ways to facilitate adult learning. For example, I'm working with Whirlpool Corp., applying our ideas to the company's internal training program. What we came up with is a program called "Real Whirled," a wordplay on the MTV show "Real World." Instead of training entirely in the classrooms at corporate headquarters, new hires spend a week at an actual house using the company's appliances. They shop for groceries, load them into the refrigerator, and cook dinner on the stove for visiting senior executives. At the end of the training, people are given a video of their experience that is much more meaningful than a company video about product design.

CMI: Airlines and hotels are often criticized for lack of service. How can they meet the challenges of the experience economy?

J.G.: If hospitality suppliers customize their service, they automatically turn it into an experience for the meeting planner or the group. For example, when guests check into the L'ermitage in Beverly Hills, they receive a business card with their room's cell phone number. Hoteliers should pick a theme that is consistent with the unique identity of the property.

The airline challenge borders on the impossible. What other business has people rubbing elbows on a shared chair arm? The question is, how can the airlines turn that into a good thing? Perhaps by tracking their frequent fliers' preferences for talking or not talking and basing seat selection on personal interest profiles. For a group, the most expensive seat on the plane might be next to the keynote speaker.

An airplane is a great place to read. What about providing a news clipping service on the seat backs for business travelers? And why not turn the travel time into meeting time? I've done this for Whirlpool with what I call learning excursions. We visit different venues that offer out-of-the-box experiences and have our debriefing meetings on the bus. We're talking about doing the same thing with the company's top executives in the corporate jet.

CMI: You say in your book that one of the tenets of the experience economy is paying for experiences. How does this apply to corporate meetings, where people have to attend?

J.G.: Corporate meeting organizers should always ask the question: If attendees had to pay, what could be done to make the meeting worthwhile? A meeting should always be designed as if it were worth a high price--it will result in a more compelling experience.

Principles of Experience Design 1. Theme the experience.

2. Harmonize the impressions with positive cues.

3. Eliminate negative cues.

4. Mix in memorabilia.

5. Engage all five senses.