Trade Show 2021: The Experience Economy Roars Louder

experience economyPost authored by Brian Strickland, Director of Sales, Sports & Enthusiast

Trade show guest expectations are escalating, yet the biggest challenges for event organizers still lie ahead.

At IMEX America 2016, I had the privilege of leading an Inspiration Hub session where we scanned five years out and imagined what events might look like in 2021. While technology was a constant thread throughout, there was another topic that commanded even more attention with this group…

The Experience Economy

This new business era was first called out by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in their 1999 bestseller, The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. Less than two decades later, the Experience Economy continues to roar, as business leaders scramble and rethink their customer engagement strategy.

No one is immune from the Experience Economy disruptions – especially the events industry.

To illustrate the history of progressions from one economy to the next, Pine & Gilmore tapped a common experience: birthday cakes.

  • During the Commodities Economy: Ingredients (butter, sugar, eggs, flour, milk, etc.) were gathered to bake a cake from scratch.
  • During the Goods Economy: Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines and others came to their rescue with all ingredients in one box. Add water, pour and bake.
  • During the Service Economy: Appetites for something faster and better surged but time was in short supply, so families ordered professionally decorated cakes from the bakery or local grocer.
  • Enter the Experience Economy: Many parents are now outsourcing birthday parties to hosts like Chuck E. Cheese, Build-A-Bear, theme parks, sports arenas, etc.

What once cost pennies to make, now runs hundreds of dollars or more because priceless experiences are wrapped around that birthday cake. In turn, the economic value (as perceived by buyers) soared.

experience economyDuring the IMEX talk, I used another everyday consumer product to help participants grasp the impact of the Experience Economy: coffee. In the commodities era, a cup of coffee brewed at home cost pennies per cup. But as new and more desirable elements were introduced, differentiation and pricing skyrocketed. Today, a cup of coffee at Starbucks, brewed just for you, with your name scrawled across a cardboard cup, runs five bucks or more. But now, it’s delivered amid a host of treasured esthetics (sound, lighting, cozy and contemporary furniture, etc.).

As we wrapped up the coffee value progression story, I then asked the group:

“How many thought you were the Starbucks of your industry?”

Quite a few raised their hands, so I posed one more question:

“How many can charge 500% more for conference registrations than you did twenty years ago?”

In the Experience Economy, it’s about great content coupled with amazing experiences, but there’s one more caveat. It’s about bringing a premium product to a market who values it. Are you confident that you know what your market values today? Have you been monitoring how quickly this is changing?

Are people coming to your conference because they choose to or because it’s required? If CEUs and certifications are the carrots you’re holding out to boost attendance, it’s time to rethink your value proposition. Others are already helping your guests jump through these certification hoops more affordably and with less hassle.

To convince executives to step away from their offices for a few days to attend your conference, you’ll need to deliver hyper-relevant, rewarding experiences that can’t easily be found elsewhere.

Designing Experiences That Matter

It’s not as hard as you might think to design and deliver event experiences that matter, but it will require a shift in thinking – starting with the user experience, or in our case, the event guest experience.


Remarkable user experiences happen at the intersection of three key experience drivers:

  1. Architecture
    The structure and hierarchy of information shared – in our events world, this hits both your digital presence (website and event microsite) and your conference program + audience. Is your website and event agenda in lock step with your value story?
  2. Visual Design
    Visuals are the most obvious, yet least quantifiable task of manifesting a feeling in the user’s mind. The brain processes visuals much faster than text, which begs the question: Is your visual design helping or hurting you?
  3. Interaction Design
    Paths and actions that give users the ability to manipulate and add to an otherwise static environment. Are the encounters guests navigate through at your event purpose-driven and meaningful, with a dash of planned serendipity, shaped by user data you’ve gathered?

Each of these three experiential buckets contains a whole new subset of considerations to be addressed. We’ll be digging into these in future posts because each requires more thinking and measurement before you fine-tune your next event plan.

With that said, as you close out 2016, now would be a perfect time to start reviewing each stage of your event guest’s journey, along with the experiences you’re delivering right now. The 8 Phases of a Successful Event blueprint would be an excellent starting point for this exercise.

At which stages are you truly WOW-ing your event guests? At which stages are experiences getting stale and predictable? What will you trim back or remove to make way for the new and more vibrant experiences you’ll be delivering in 2017 and beyond?

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4 Responses to Trade Show 2021: The Experience Economy Roars Louder

  1. Great article and explanation of Joe and Jim’s economic theory. Meetings and conferences, by definition, have always been WAY ahead of the economic curve and delivering experiences long before it was defined in this way. If you think about “learning” and apply the economic model, it could look like this:
    Commodities: Books
    Goods: Libraries, bookstores, DIY kits
    Services: Schools & Universities, specialty skills training, community classes,
    Experiences: Meetings & Conferences

    So your point is well taken, how do we UP our value proposition? Joe & Jim suggest the next stage in their economic progression will be “Transformation” ~ and that is where meetings have the real opportunity to shine. Not just creating a great, memorable experience, but in truly transforming how participants live their lives, apply their learning, do their jobs, etc. Learning will need to transform from “teaching” to “application”, and meetings will need to help attendees become better at putting their knowledge to use. Changing the behaviors and mindsets of the participants, especially after they leave the meeting, will be the new measurement tool for successful conferences. Not an easy task.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and tools to help us get there!

    • Brian Strickland says:

      I would love to connect. I have some additional materials that may be helpful for you. Let me know if you would like to connect. You can reach me at I will also be doing a follow up post to this blog soon on the next step in the process. Thank you for the great comments!

  2. Lisa Nelson says:

    Well written post. I love the birthday cake example, makes the point crystal clear. I agree on the point about my visual design too. Thanks for the insight!

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