How to Build Extraordinary Experiences

How do you design extraordinary event experiences for your guests? Kevin has an expert in this field in our studio today. Welcome Paul Bulencea.


Paul is the co-author of Gamification in Tourism: Designing Memorable Experiences, public speaker, experience designer and a co-founder of The College of Extraordinary Experiences.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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How do you design extraordinary event experiences for your guests? I have an expert in this field in our studio today. Welcome Paul Bulencea.


Hi Paul, welcome to our studio.


Hello, thank you.


We are going to talk about extraordinary experiences, but why is it in the event industry we are always talking about experiences?


I think the major challenge is to make people realize that events are experiences. And that they should think in the framework of how they can carefully design each point of this experience. So that it corresponds with a greater vision.


Okay, and how do you do that? Because you have a lot of experience in creating experiences, how do you start with that? Because of lot of events are still the sum of certain elements, but not an experience as a whole.


Well, the easiest example that I give to business people that ask me how to do that is, I put them in the shoes of a birthday planner. Because everyone more or less at one point has planned his or her own birthday or the birthday of someone else. And when you’re planning a birthday your main goal is to create an extraordinary birthday and an amazing birthday, etcetera. And then you have to come with ideas of what to do necessarily, what you should. Most of the people choose to go for the standard, let’s to go a restaurant or let’s have a barbecue which is something standard that people might expect. So it’s not that extraordinary for your guests. You might also ideate with friends of how to organize this birthday, and a lot of you might come up with a lot of different ideas and you don’t know which one to choose or how to generate better ideas. A major tip that I give to people is think of theming your birthday. So for example if you have a theme for your birthday, like inspired by Batman. Then you know that all the ideas that you come with, they either correspond to this theme or they don’t. And as soon as you start ideating it becomes easier to think within that framework of a theme, it also becomes easier to discard ideas that do not correspond to that theme. And then you have to think according to that theme: how do I approach, how do I write the invitations for the guests? Well, they should be somehow in Batman style, maybe I send some sort of a code that they have to crack, or something of that sort. How would the drinks look like, how would people dress up? Maybe they will dress up in black, what will the songs be like? Well, they would be like they’re from Gotham City. So, as soon as you have a theme it’s easier to create and come up with ideas.


So, I understand that a theme can help create an experience, but how do you then take the next step? Because I read about some of the events you organized and they are just a step higher than a theme party. They are really extraordinary experiences. That’s even a step further.


Well, I think the theme is the major part that you should focus on. And then after you have the theme, what I use or what we use to design is the hero’s journey. So this is a template that could be easily implemented by event planners or designers. And the hero’s journey is a template model of what all stories have in common. This has been written in the ‘40s by Joseph Campbell who read a lot of stories and identified that there is a major pattern between all world stories. And later on, I think in the ‘80s or ‘90s, someone came and made this pattern a bit shorter, and called it the writers journey. Which a lot of people used in Hollywood to base their movies on this writers journey. If you think of movies like Star Wars or the Matrix, or Harry Potter, they’re all inspired by the writer’s journey. And by using this template of hero’s or writer’s journey’s it is very easy to come up with an event that is an extraordinary. So, if you think of… I’ll just define it in steps right now. It has three major stages. It’s the ordinary world, the day to day life of the hero, - that is not the hero yet - and then there is the special world, where a lot of things happen and it could be the event in itself, and then there’s the road back. After the event has happened, you come back to your day to day life. We use this template and in each stage we have several steps. So, for example you have your day to day life, and then in every story there is a call to adventure. Something happens that disrupts your day to day. So let’s say, in an event case you receive an invitation. That is a call to adventure, that is a call to go somewhere to travel and to be in another world with other people with other rules. And immediately after that step there is always typical to human behavior - and that’s why it’s shown in moves and stories as well, is the refusal to go on the journey. So you think okay, maybe it’s too expensive or okay maybe it’s too far away, I don’t have time. Maybe it’s too much for me or I have other things to do. And then, in every story, you have the Gandolph of the story, you have the Morpheus of the story, you have the Yoda of the story, in which you’re meeting the mentor. You’re meeting a guy, you’re getting advice of how to overcome this refusal to cross this threshold into the event’s zone into the experience zone. So, after you meet the mentor usually what happens is, you decide to go on the adventure. And then you have the step called crossing the threshold which means taking an airplane, taking a bus, taking a car, and arriving at the destination. Well, once you are at the destination you have tests and challenges and allies to help you overcome them. All these small tests and challenges are all made to make you a more powerful person, so that in the middle of the whole narrative, you face yourself or you face some bigger challenge and you overcome it. With the help of these small tests. So, if you think of the event industry, usually people go to events with the hope to come back home with new knowledge. But in order for you to internalize new knowledge, you kind of need to unfreeze your state of mind. Because at an event usually you get hit by information that kind of challenges what you think and believe your practice and so on. So you need to be prepared to get this in. So this would be the biggest challenge, challenging your own assumptions let’s say. So, after we have this challenges you usually get the reward. Right?




That could be a booklet of the conference, that could be a diploma, that could be new friends, that could be anything. And then you go back home. So you have the road back, and then you have what is called resurrection. You come back changed. Because, maybe a lot of people could relate that they attended some events and they came back so changed, then everyone asks them how was it. And it was very hard for them to define what exactly happened, so people don’t talk too much about the event. Because they know they can describe it in words. Then you go back and you come back with the elixir. The elixir is your knowledge that you can share with others. And also make them understanding become better. Because you are the hero and you have been through this journey. So if you design events by having a theme, and you look at your event through the Campbell Story narrative, the hero’s journey, it is easier to design for the every step before, during the event and after the event. For example, you know that you launch a call to adventure, whatever it is, it should correspond to your theme. And then that call to adventure by knowing the hero’s journey, you know that people will say, hey I might not go, even though they opened your email and clicked on the link, you see that still there is no purchase made. Well then, if you know the hero’s journey, you know that there should be a meeting the mentor step. That might be a follow-up email, that might be sending something in their phone, that might be a new blog post. So you’re very aware of this, so you design for it.


Do you have - maybe that’s a little bit more concrete - an example of an event you organized, where you can see those steps?


Yes, we do have. And I’m not sure how much I should share but I’m just going to give you some examples. So, for example in crossing the threshold, you are being met by allies. As soon as you enter this special world - our event is located in Poland and people arrive at the Berlin airport. So, as soon as they arrive at the airport, they meet their first allies. They’re being greeted. Just for people to understand, our event has a lot of storytelling that is imbedded within the event. For example it’s a college of extraordinary experiences, and we are making it in an old castle in Poland. It looks like something inspired from Harry Potter. And of course at this old castle - because it’s a college and we make it special - we also have castle goblins. And the castle goblins are no other than people that usually help with logistics moving chairs. Or they’ll help with people getting water or they’ll help with people that have questions. So they’re the main helpers of the whole event. So, we took out the goblins from the castle and brought them to the airport. As soon as people cross the threshold in this special world, they’re already met by allies. Who can help them understand how to navigate through Poland, how to get to the castle, because the goblins will take them to the castle. So, this is a concrete example. Another example would be defining an enemy, right. Every society needs to have an enemy in order for it to have meaning. So, in our college of extraordinary experiences we define the enemy as the hydra. And the hydra has a lot of heads. So if we’re thinking of experiences design, usually as an experience designer, you have a lot of doubts of how to create experiences. So you have fear… You might also be met by arrogance from your own company, you might also act in a complacent way. So all these were heads of the hydra, that we designed in our event, tasks and challenges for people to face their fears, to face their thinking of being, doing something that is normal, to change the reality and then face the hydra. And then at one point after they got this training and they showed that they’re worthy enough to pass the big test, they had to slay the hydra in real. So that means they have to take some torches and find the hydra in, what we call, the dark forest and just throw fire at it and burn it. This is something very symbolical, but if you think about it and you embody the experience it does something to your mind, saying that you achieved something: you destroyed this hydra, even though it was in a fictional world. As soon as people go back home - because at their road back home we tell them, right now you’ve got the reward… you’ve slayed the hydra but be aware there are a lot of more hydras there. So here you learn how to do it, and you have to be prepared. So, these are some concrete examples.


You were always talking about the way back; do you give people something to remember the experiences?


I think in extraordinary events, memorabilia is one of the key things for people to come back to event and remember it. And also have the knowledge to implement it. So we realize that there are a lot of different models and approaches of how to create an experience, so we did not give one single model to people. Instead, the college we had; ten professors, or more than ten professors, and we asked each professor to write their own small game card of experience design. So each professor had between five and eight cards with tips of how to create experiences. We have a card of I think 90 or more than 90 cards, deck of cards of 90, which we gave to people to equip them with once they go back just to shuffle through them. And these cards could also be found hidden in the castle, the collector edition cards. You can just search and then find them on secret passageways and so on.


That’s really great, and it’s an interesting way at how to look at events. Paul, thank you very much for your time.


My pleasure.


And you at home, thank you for watching our show, I hope to see you next week.