04 May 2019

Are you experienced?

  • The amount of money people are spending on events rather than things in the US and the UK is rising steeply
  • People are blasé about TV or film – they now need something more unusual to stimulate them
  • The rise of social media has added to the prestige of experiences – you can now show off more easily

By Jack Kessler

Music is blaring. Lights are strobing, bodies gyrating. There is glitter everywhere. This is Daybreaker, an early morning dance movement based in 25 cities around the world, where people come to “sweat, dance and connect with ourselves and each other”. It is also how I ended up in a nightclub at seven in the morning, sober and alone, approaching strangers to ask if they were having a good time.

Daybreaker is a noisy example of a striking shift in our consumption habits. The so-called “experience economy” is booming. New and established businesses are competing to fulfil demand for experiences, based on everything from food and film to nature and art. They share a common offer – providing consumers with a memorable experience.

A Daybreaker early morning dance event in New York

Figures from the UK Office for National Statistics show that we spend more of our leisure budgets on doing things than we used to. Spending on live entertainment – such as theatre, concerts and events – has risen by a quarter since 2012. There is a similar story in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey shows that between 2012 and 2017, the average American’s spending on admissions to the arts, movies and other entertainment rose by 15 per cent.

This is a grand theme that economists have already started to grapple with. Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore, who are credited with coining the phrase “experience economy”, use the example of a birthday cake to illustrate the history of economic progress.

In an agrarian economy, parents make birthday cakes from scratch, mixing commodities such as flour and eggs that cost just a few cents. With the development of a goods-based industrial economy, parents start to buy pre-made cake mixes for a few dollars. In a service economy, they often buy a cake from a shop for $10 or $15 – ten times the cost of the pre-mixed version. Today, many parents neither bake the cake nor hold the party – they spend hundreds of dollars to “outsource” it to businesses that hold children’s parties. Then the cake is often thrown in free.

Pine says that these rising costs result from the increasing value of time: “We are living longer, we have more leisure time than ever before, and we want to do more with it.” A washing machine may save you time but an experience is about time well spent.

An experience is different from goods or a service because the product being sold is memory. Uniqueness is crucial – each experience is based on the interplay between event and individual, and much of that occurs in the mind.

The distinction between physical and intangible is not always precise. All consumption is ultimately in the mind. And the foundation of branding is about imbuing an emotional element in the relationship between consumer and product.

But in our quest for satisfaction, businesses are engaging in an arms race to provide us with the most intense, memorable experiences. If you live in a big city such as London or New York, there have never been more opportunities to trade money for memories.

In little over a decade, Secret Cinema has transformed into a multimillion pound business. Tens of thousands of people pay up to £175 essentially to watch old films. It is a well-oiled experience machine, which cranks into action the moment you buy a ticket. For the recent performance of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, customers received an email from Captain Prince, calling for a truce between the houses of Montague and Capulet. They were then assigned a character with a backstory and given a dress code.

Actors get the party going at Secret Cinema's "Romeo + Juliet" screening

At the show, guests are greeted by actors who provide real-time narrative, before entering a recreated mansion filled with bars, music, actors, dancers and drag artists. Everyone is dressed up so you don’t know who is an actor. Only right at the end do the lights go out and the movie begins.

Ayomi Rupasinghe, head of marketing at Secret Cinema, says people are looking for an escape from reality: “It doesn’t feel like an event or dressing up – you are being transported to the world of the film.”

The numbers are astonishing. 130,000 people came to their last two shows, Blade Runner and Romeo + Juliet. And it is set to get bigger – the next partnership is with the James Bond franchise.

The overriding aim is to make it a memorable event, and personal interaction is key. Rupasinghe says: “The actors respond to what the audience is doing, so even in a huge crowd, you get a personal interaction just for you that no one else in the event has experienced.”

If dressing up in a Hawaiian shirt as a Luhrmann-inspired Montague is not your thing, there are countless other options.

Bompas and Parr offers food and drink-based immersive experiences. Established in 2007, it has held large events with big-name brands such as Coca-Cola, Johnny Walker and Mercedes. Shows have been hosted by the Barbican in London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. At a recent event, Lost Lagoon, guests had to navigate by boat the world’s largest indoor lagoon, while facing creative challenges as part of an immersive theatrical production and being provided with rum-based rations. It all ended with a party and bar provided by the rum brand Captain Morgan.

Event organisers Sam Bompas and Harry Parr get in the nautical mood in the Lost Lagoon

Co-founder Sam Bompas is clear what they are selling: “The whole premise is tomorrow when you wake up you’ll have fabulous memories, enhanced relationships with your friends, countless photos to share on your social media channels and epic stories to tell.”

The property rental giant Airbnb perhaps best demonstrates Pine and Gilmore’s theory. As well as pricing native renters out of their cities, it now offers guests up to a thousand “Airbnb Experiences”, where people can choose from such things as spending £20 for 90 minutes with sloths in Costa Rica or £78 for an evening of deep dish pizza and comedy in Chicago. In a recent report the company said that in February 2018 bookings for experiences had grown by 2,500 per cent in the previous year, with some of the most popular experience hosts earning over $200,000 a year through bookings.

Airbnb began as a simple service offering a place to sleep and perhaps experience a new city. It has been transformed into a provider of experiences itself. Perhaps soon the accommodation will come free.

We already know that we pay for experiences, even if it is just a visit to a farmers’ market for £8 chorizo as a pricey but more enjoyable experience than the supermarket. But Airbnb Experiences might be a preview of what comes next, the industrialisation of experience which Pine and Gilmore predicted would form the next chapter in the history of economic progress. We are witnessing business and the internet gearing up to ‘network’ the experience economy, just as business allied with television and traditional advertising to give us what we didn’t know we wanted, at a price.

The experience economy affects not just on what we consume, but how we feel. Experiences makes us happier than buying material goods. Paulina Pchelin and Ryan Howell, of San Francisco State University, found that, compared with material purchases, “individuals experience more positive emotions, happiness, and relatedness satisfaction when they allocate their resources to experiential purchases”.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, people prefer things they can experience and share with someone else. The second is that experiences do not so easily lend themselves to comparison, which Theodore Roosevelt called the “thief of joy”.

Physical goods and experiences both show there are limits to the human capacity for happiness. Avner Offer, emeritus professor of economic and social history at the University of Oxford, explains the problem with seeking happiness: “Novelty, by definition, depreciates very rapidly.” Our capacity for enjoyment is “saturated by habituation”.

This is reflected in our expectations, which Bompas thinks have changed. “Before, we were happy to go to the pub and have a beer with a bit more hop. Now, people are looking for more.”

Scott Gould, an author and engagement consultant, says that drive for “more”, makes us who we are: “We are driven by a human desire to find meaning. As a species, we always want more. It’s what drove us out of the caves to cultivate the land.”

Live experiences are the latest attempt to get higher doses of stimulation. Since the 1950s, radio has given way to black-and-white television, then colour, then satellite television and now programmes on demand. Each came with a progressively larger price. Live experiences, such as paying £175 to see a film, are the logical next step in our quest for satisfaction.

While the experience economy may be the next stage in the journey of economic progress, it is important to remember that people have not fundamentally changed. We still think, feel and share, and want others to see us in a particular way. Consequently, the experience economy still operates on the fundamentals of human behaviour.

Royal Academy Lates, The Electric Forest

The desire to show off is not new – Instagram just gives us ways to do it more easily. Imogen Willetts, of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, runs “Lates” programmes, which host themed experiences. She explains social media’s role: “Our events are fodder for people’s Instagram, and we are always thinking about what might be the Instagram moment. Showing off has moved from material consumption to experiences via social media – and that’s not a bad thing.”

It is no coincidence that the experience economy is booming at the same time that social media, specifically Instagram, has become so prominent in our lives. Businesses and curators know this, and construct events and exhibitions with things that Instragramers love – colour, symmetry and free wifi. Think of the Museum of Ice Cream in New York with its pool of sprinkles and frozen sculptures, or London’s Ball Pit Bar, which has more than a million balls and a dance floor, and a cocktail bar.

Visitors play with sprinkles at the Museum of Ice Cream in New York

The best experiences generate memories, not content. They are the ones where you forget to take a picture or that you even own a phone.

“The history of economic progress,” Pine says, is “paying a fee for what used to be free.” Today’s experiences can be seen as the equivalent of when people would spend Sundays singing in a church, or engaging in communal experiences like family meals. Today we have packaged these experiences and given them tiered pricing.

Daybreaker was in many ways joyous, although if I went again it would be with friends and without a notebook. Daughters brought their mothers. Friends came to dance, not pull. The absence of alcohol meant fewer lost handbags and tempers. The near absence of men meant less aggro. It was the sort of atmosphere where, even without a coat check, you did not worry about your belongings being stolen. Based in Shoreditch’s “Queen of Hoxton”, it felt very East London, but was I having too much fun to care.

Evangeline Richards, who was at the Daybreaker morning disco, explains the regenerative power of a meaningful experience: “As I left the club, I walked past this guy who was on his way to work. And even though I was up earlier than him, his day is just going to work, sitting down at a desk, maybe having a cup of tea and a KitKat at 11am. But I have this memory of a nice, colourful event I’ve been to. I can look back and think, ‘Oh yeah, I did that on Wednesday’.”

Photographs Getty Images, Max Meichowski/Royal Academy, Camilla Greenwell/Secret Cinema

Further reading