Experiential Tourism- From Concept to Competitive Advantage
By Joe Veneto, the Opportunity Guy

The tour and travel marketplace is undergoing large shifts and changes. At first glance, operators and tour suppliers cite consumer demographics and the upcoming tidal wave of Baby Boomers. But a closer look reveals that the changes in today’s market are occurring with every segment of customer. Today’s traveler is healthier, wealthier, more educated and better traveled than previous generations. The consequences of these realities for tour and travel suppliers are enormous.

No longer are people content to just get away or travel to a destination. The importance and type of experience they are looking for is a major part of their travel equation. Regardless of the age group and marketplace demographic, people want unique and compelling experiences wherever they go.

While 2004 was a good year for travel and 2005 looks promising, the changes below the surface are continuing. Savvy companies realize shifting customer realities are multi-level. As a close colleague often says, “Good results can be distracting.”

In order to effectively compete with this ever changing reality a few key questions should be asked to discover your strengths and positioning as they relate to customer changes. How does my company add client value in the marketplace? What are the attributes that make my products and services unique and compelling? How is my business positioned for the long run?

In the travel arena, operators and supplier companies compete on a variety of different levels. For some it’s price, some operate on volume, others have a technological advantage and some serve a specific market niche. In each case, barriers to compete in one of these areas may be prohibitive. However, there is one competative strategy that will endure for the long term. This strategy involves competing using unique product experiences as the point of differentiation. By creating compelling experiences for customers, travel companies will ensure a long-term sustainable marketplace advantage.

Many organizations need to determine the product playing field on which they are competing in the marketplace. There are three different levels and the best comparison to demonstrate this is by using types of ice cream. At level one, also known as the vanilla level, operators and suppliers are connecting commodity products and services such as hotels, airfare, transfers and rental cars. When connecting these commodities, available almost anywhere through a variety of sources, customers are driven primarily to price as the deciding factor. The second product level drills down to combine more complex and value added products. This is known as the haagen dazs level. Meals, attractions and value added features not easily found or accessible to customers are combined. Like haagen dazs ice cream flavors, consumers are willing to pay more for the products that are more unique and different.

The third product level is the Ben & Jerry’s tier. Here companies develop unique compelling experiences only available through their company. The products and services are exclusive, unique and unforgettable. Like Ben & Jerry’s unique flavors, the company’s product experiences are so different that customers will pay a premium. In addition, the uniqueness of the experiences keeps other companies competitors at bay. Where is your company operating?

The hallmarks of such experiences are the following: engage me, make it interactive, appeal to my senses, immerse me, VIP me and make me feel special, give me an insider’s view, introduce me to cool people such as experts, authorities and celebrities, or finally the most powerful, give me bragging rights. Any of the above attributes wrapped into an experience, will create compelling products and services for customers.

Recently, the Philadelphia CVB, recognizing and addressing the shifts in the market to experiential products and services, developed a series of new experiences for the Group Tour & Travel Market. The CVB approached partners to create two levels of new products. The first group was experiential, engaging customers in unique and innovative ways. The second group was immersion where people were completely immersed in the experience.

Some of the experiential partners include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Morris Arboretum, the Academy of Natural Sciences, Joe Poone’s Restaurant, Bistro Romano a Murder Mystery dinner theater, The Mural Arts Association and others. Each partner worked with the CVB and Opportunities Unlimited consultants to craft and develop unique and unforgettable experiences. The products were also tested with groups of new customers before launching for fine tuning and to ensure success.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art created an immersion experience with their partners at the Fleisher Art memorial. Groups first take a guided tour of one of three areas of the museum’s collections, French Impressionist painting, Rodin sculpture or Chinese painting. The pieces described during the tour are then used as a model for the immersion classes at Fleisher. The lessons at the Art memorial immerse people in art classes in painting and sculpting with museum instructors.

At Joe Poone’s restaurant the experience is built around Joe Poone, one of Philadelphia’s most popular ambassadors. Joe creates a Walk & Wok tour of the city’s Chinatown district visiting all the neighborhood’s local spots. Joe treats people to an “insider’s view” of life there. Then, people return to his restaurant for lunch or dinner. For an immersion experience, customers can join Joe in the kitchen for a hands-on cooking lesson.
All of Philadelphia’s new experiential products may be found on the CVB web site at www.pcvb.org.

In order for organizations to quickly design and create compelling experiences, they need to embrace innovation. This involves testing new products and services on a regular basis. Getting close to your customer to take their pulse and assess changes occurring will provide insight to uncover needs and increase the rate product of success. When was the last time you introduced new products and services to your customers? What type of customer research did you do to ensure success? What mechanisms do you have in place to continually evaluate your current offerings?

By inventing unique experiential products, companies will be able to a charge a premium. The increasing demand for unique, value added experiences wrapped up in a compelling way will remain consistent as long as customers continue to brag about their vacation travel experiences.

Joe Veneto, aka The Opportunity Guy is an expert in the design and development of compelling package products and experiences. He may be reached at Opportunities Unlimited phone: 617-786-9096, www.opportunityguy.com or via e-mail at joe@opportunityguy.com

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Joe Veneto, "The Opportunity Guy," is principal of Opportunities Unlimited, a management consulting and training company. He collaborates with organizations in Tourism, Hospitality and Service-related industries to achieve results by creating new business opportunities. His areas of specialty include sales development, innovative product development, destination marketing and customer service. Joe is a 20-year veteran of the tourism industry and has worked for national tour operators and major industry wholesalers.

Opportunities Unlimited provides management consulting services, custom designed seminars and results-oriented training workshops. Clients include government tourism agencies, marketing organizations, hotel groups, historic attractions & museums, restaurants, tour operators and others. Joe's unique industry experience enables him to create practical, results oriented programs tailored to his client’s business needs.

In addition to his consulting, Joe is a nationally recognized speaker on the Tourism & Hospitality Industries. He presents programs annually for National Associations, Regional Tourism Groups, Industry-wide Conferences and Convention & Visitors Bureaus. He has also authored several articles that have appeared in various travel trade publications.

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