Tag Archives: experiences

Predicting the Death of Big Entertainment Venues

Mountain Winery concerts in Saratoga, CAI have always loved live entertainment events. Concerts, comedians, music festivals; you name it. But, I have noticed an interesting shift over the past couple of years. I no longer have the patience for large venues. With the increasing quality of home entertainment systems and faster broadband pipelines, the entertainment decision is becoming harder. Do you go out for an event and endure skyrocketing ticket prices, challenging commutes and parking, standing in line, and crowded venues? Or, do you simply stay home and watch an event in HD with surround sound on the comfort of your living room couch?

Last summer, I visited the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA to see Brian Regan, one of my favorite comedians. The Mountain Winery is actually a pretty small venue, with incredible views of the Valley (image in this post). And, I had what I thought were pretty decent seats. But, I wasn’t in the first couple of rows directly in front of Brian. He’s a very physical comedian and I came to realize that a great deal of his impact is due to his facial expressions. I was far enough away and to the side that I really couldn’t see his expressions clearly enough. That made all the difference in the performance. After that disappointment, I decided that I would no longer go to large venues for comedy. Another one of my favorite comedians was in San Francisco recently. But, the venue was fairly large and I didn’t get tickets early enough to be in the front rows. So, I passed. Now, I won’t even bother going to a show unless I can get a great seat in a small venue. Just not worth the hassle.

Check out this Huffington Post article from Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he shares his own concerns that live arts will become irrelevant:

For two tickets to an opera you can now buy a computer and watch Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland on YouTube for free! No wonder so many people have stopped going to performances. A recent study by the NEA showed that a huge number of people are getting their arts exposure on-line and fewer are coming to the theater. No wonder so many arts organizations are suffering. Without audiences we receive no ticket revenue and the audience members we lose cease to donate as well. The claim that the arts are irrelevant is getting difficult to dispute.

A recent NY Times article also highlighted this issue, specifically referring to the financial troubles the Philadelphia Orchestra has been facing. And this isn’t unique. Several orchestras in the US are suffering in this economy.

And, it isn’t just the music industry. It is pretty clear from this LA Times article that sports has been taking a hit too:

Nearly every sport and sports team took hits, from layoffs to dips in ads, attendance and sponsorships. The Arena Football League canceled its 2009 season. The NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes filed for bankruptcy protection in May.

Several sports economists blame the downturn on a trend that started 20 years ago, when many major sports leagues shifted their focus from typical middle-class fans to corporations. That shift led to bigger stadiums and steady increases in prices all around to help pay for them.

Certainly part of the problem is the economy. It is hard to justify spending a lot of money on these events if your job is at risk or you’re struggling to cover the basics. But, part of this change is also due to a faster-moving shift to online entertainment. Improved systems performance, easier online transactions, micropayments, and the ability to interact and engage with others through social models have all created a more engaging and immersive experience. And, I think that is the key. There is a critical element here that is similar to the effect in really small entertainment venues:

You become part of the experience

You enjoy an interaction with the artist, the performer, and the other audience members that simply isn’t possible in large venues. In some sense, you are creating part of the experience yourself and that is where the new value will be created. As Max Levchin, CEO of Slide, stated in this recent Forbes interview:

The things of value inside these worlds have to be primarily created by the participants. That’s where our plans are. The real open question is whether these virtual worlds are a stepping stone between the shift from real economy to a completely virtual economy.

So, what are the venues going to do to survive? Basically, for large venues, they better start creating new and engaging experiences that offer much more than a consumer can get from the best high-speed, HD, surround-sound experience. Give us a reason to attend. Create an experience that we can only truly enjoy if we are physically there. And, instead of packing larger and larger audiences into mega-venues, I believe they should also focus on expanding into smaller, more intimate venues to acquire broader, more local audiences.

And, what are entertainers going to do? Some are already embracing the shift to online. Rather than bemoan the drops in attendance at physical venues and complaining about digital piracy, they are engaging with the game industry, social sites, etc. to weave themselves into new forms of performance art. And at least one orchestra that I know of is dynamically responding to these shifts in consumer behavior by providing a service where the audience becomes part of the experience. Literally. At a recent Yahoo! offsite, we had a surprise performance from a small orchestra that was seated amongst us. I have never enjoyed classical music in such an up close and personal experience before (well, not since when I used to play). Nothing like standing right next to talented musicians as they pour their souls into their instruments. That was indeed a transformational experience and they accomplished their goal of reminding all of us of the beauty of live music and pulling us back into an intimate venue and off our couches.

Are You Creating a Sanctuary for Your Customers?

Coffee Sanctuary in Caffee ReggioI dropped in on Barefoot Coffee yesterday to enjoy one of their fabulous Cubanos and noticed they had remodeled. It still feels cozy there, but it lost a bit of its independent spirit. I’m going to miss their quirky chairs. But, they still pull a great espresso drink and they still create nice latte art. And that, with a number of other touches, make Barefoot one of those sanctuaries that you seek out when you want a great cup of coffee that doesn’t come from the faceless corporate chains. I have a similar experience in one of my favorite dark little coffee houses in NYC, Caffe Reggio (image in this post). The funny thing is, I will go considerably out of my way to visit these places, when I could simply grab a drink at a place like Starbucks. Easy enough, since there is one within every quarter-mile radius.

Got me to thinking: How could this be extended to other products and services? Definitely easier with a local business, where you can create an atmosphere for your clients. Can also be more easily extended to services, where you can create that sense of comfort and trust through a personal connection. Much harder with other products and online services, but not impossible. Consider the latte art example. They don’t “need” to do that. It takes extra time. And they actually practice so that they can create some pretty incredible art and even enter competitions. It’s really about investing that extra time and, yes, costs to add delight and elegance to your product or service. Apple does it with their packaging and new buyers delight in the unpacking process. Heck, they even take photos and create videos of it to share.

Don’t you wish your customers did that? I’m sure you invest considerably in marketing and advertising, or you should be. Take some of that investment and roll it instead into making your product surprisingly delightful. Turn those customers into a grassroots channel whereby they are sharing their positive stories on Twitter and Facebook, uploading photos to Flickr, and sharing videos on YouTube.

The next time you’re streamlining and reducing costs, think really hard before you cut those delightful features and experiences or don’t even invest in them in the first place. View your product or service with “fresh eyes” or hire a research team to do it for you. Answer the really hard and sometimes intangible questions: Are you delivering delight? Do you add those extra touches that make someone smile? Are you creating a sanctuary from the chaos of your customers’ lives and the world around them, so that they feel comfort and pleasure in using your product or service? If you truly are, they are going to go considerably out of their way for you and pass right by your “Starbucks”, whoever that may be.

Transformational Experience

Sunset in Santorini

Sunset in Santorini,
originally uploaded by Larry Cornett.

So many of us love a cup of coffee in our favorite cafe, but I don’t think many would call that a “transformational experience”. However, having a cup of coffee in a small cafe on the edge of the caldera at sunset in Santorini? Yes, a transformational experience that created a memory that I will never forget. What price do you put on such a cup of coffee?

The book “The Experience Economy” briefly mentions a key example that helps explain how a simple good can be economically transformed into an experience for which a customer is willing to pay one thousand times more. The following table outlines this transformation for the simple coffee bean.

Economic Offering Example for Coffee Perceived Value
Guided transformation Greek coffee in Santorini cafe at sunset $$$$$
Staged experience Coffee drink in your favorite cozy cafe $$$$
Provided service Cup of coffee on the road $$$
Created good Roasted and packaged coffee
Extracted commodity Harvested coffee beans $

We all know that a cup of coffee prepared at home is much, much cheaper than buying a coffee drink at your favorite cafe. Yet, every day so many of us are willing to stand in long lines and pay much more to have that drink prepared for us. Why? In some cases, it is for the service. Replicating the perfect cappuccino at home is no easy task. However, often people are seeking the experience provided by having that cappuccino in the cafe atmosphere. Enjoying the music, watching people, and meeting new friends are all part of the experience you quite willingly pay for.

Starbucks certainly understands this and that has been a key component of their amazing success. In the book “The Starbucks Experience” Joseph Michelli describes 5 key principles for creating a business that delivers an extraordinary experience for its customers:

  1. Make it your own
  2. Everything matters
  3. Surprise and delight
  4. Embrace resistance
  5. Leave your mark

On page 11 there is a section that captures how important they realized a holistic experience was in converting a loyal customer:

“…the ambience of the store must be inviting; the store must be a place where a person will feel comfortable hanging out alone or with friends. This setting, often reffered to by Starbucks partners as the ‘third place,’ must capture a unique warmth that sets it apart from the first two places in most people’s lives: work and home.”

Consistently offering customers positive (and sometimes even transformational) experiences has been a big part of what makes Starbucks work. Even if you aren’t a fan of the chain, you have to admit they have had phenomenal global success. They get it.

The Business of Experience

Commoditization. It happens in every industry as it matures. As companies struggle to compete and differentiate themselves, they succumb to pricing pressure and feature wars. We’ve all seen it happen with both goods and services. And, we’ve seen it happen in the technology industry too. Software with even more features than the competitor with the requisite feature chart on the back of the box. Internet access pricing being driven down to almost “free” levels. Web hosting for absurdly low monthly fees with an ever-increasing set of available features.

So, what is a company to do? Well, some have spent time understanding their customers and what it is that creates loyalty. Those companies have learned that earning the loyalty of a customer goes way beyond offering the lowest prices or the most features. In fact, loyal customers will often spend more for less. As a very loyal customer of Apple Computer, I can attest to that. Why? Because we value the holistic experience of that brand and what it provides us.

An excellent book on this trend is “The Experience Economy” by Pine and Gilmore. Published many years ago, it foretold this current shift to more and more compelling experiences to win loyal customers. The following chart shows this trend as we move from an economy of goods and services to one where companies differentiate themselves through what they call “transformational experiences.”

Experience Value Chart

I can personally speak to this shift, as I have experienced it during my current trip to Bangalore India. I have flown on a number of airlines during my career, but only a few airlines have stood out from the crowd and inspired my loyalty. Yes, they all try to compete on price, services, and destinations. But, only a few seem to really understand the value of the in-flight experience. Many claim that they do, but they fail to actually deliver a complete end-to-end experience. To name only one airline that I feel has succeeded: Singapore Airlines. They get it. The attendants are amazingly friendly and attentive. The food is excellent (for an airline). The seats are very comfortable, with a full recline that allows actually sleeping. And, their entertainment system is expansive. I always end up watching way too many movies on my international flights with them. So, when given the opportunity, I select Singapore Air every time. Not always the cheapest and not always the most convenient, but the experience makes it worth it.

I cannot begin to cover this topic as deeply as the book below does, so check it out for yourself. The main take away? The world is changing, as it always does. If you find yourself competing on price and features, as many of us have been, you’re behind the curve. The key is going to be understanding, really understanding, what your customers need and what will inspire their loyalty. Understanding that will allow you to offer a complete end-to-end experience that will change the game for you.