What makes an experience memorable?

It’s a fairly simple formula, actually.

fishing, Manitoba

Take a moment to think back to one of your most cherished travel experiences—something that goes back, say, more than five years. Close your eyes and let the images and feelings of that trip surround you.

It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it?

What were the images and feelings that came back to you first? What were the strongest among them?

As a facilitator of visitor experiences, I’m fascinated by the idea of memory-making. What is it that makes an experience really stick in our hearts and minds? Can we generalize about the elements of memory-making? Can we capitalize on them to help our visitors create great memories for themselves? It turns out that there has been a fair bit of research on the subject in recent years, and I’ve been going through a number of studies that tend to agree: memory making is a fairly standard formula, and here are its elements.

1. Agenda fulfillment

The first piece of the memory puzzle is called agenda fulfillment. In order to have an experience really stick, the experience should be at least an adequate one; it should have met our expectations. And interviews with visitors, months or years after a visit, bear this out: “I was really hoping for experience x, y or z and I got my wish. It was everything I wanted.”

It sounds simple: meet your visitors’ expectations. But in order to meet them, we need to understand and anticipate those expectations, and this has proven to be a fair challenge for those of us in the heritage business. In the past, we assumed that people expected to learn, and if we taught them something, they’d go away happy. It ain’t necessarily so. Nowadays we look at visitors’ social values, and we discover that there are myriad, complex reasons why they come to see us. The simplest model for understanding visitor motivations, in my view, is Dr. John Falk’s visitor identity system: you have the explorer, the experiencer, the facilitator, the recharger, the hobbyist/professional. I have written of these before; if you haven’t investigated them, drop everything and do so now. Another excellent system, though a little more complex, is Explorer Quotient.

We’ve made big strides in the last ten years or so in understanding our visitors’ agendas; I hope it’s safe to say that we’ve made equal strides in fulfilling those agendas. We won’t be making memories for our visitors until we do so.

What I find most interesting about the research surrounding memorable visitor experiences is that agenda fulfillment is just the first of four prerequisites. That’s right; meeting visitors’ expectations isn’t enough. We need to go above and beyond.

2. Novelty

Research suggests that the next quality of a memorable visit is novelty: something new and unexpected. It makes sense, really. I can think back to some of my most cherished travel memories and what sticks out in my mind are the things I hadn’t planned for.

I’m walking the streets of Old Jerusalem. It’s the eve of the Sabbath, and the town is shutting down. A gentleman approaches us. He has a problem; his children have turned on a number of lights in his home, and as an orthodox Jew he can’t turn them off himself today. Could we help him?

Being open to the unexpected is a quality all good travellers share. Doesn’t it stand to reason that as facilitators of visitor experience, we should surprise our visitors from time to time? It doesn’t have to be much. Particularly in the heritage sector—I find our visitors’ expectations are pretty low, to be honest. A moment of unexpected humour, a twist in the agenda, an ‘unplanned’ sneak behind the scenes or a spontaneous encounter with an expert in the field… these aren’t too difficult to engineer.

To surprise and delight is at the core of making great memories.

Woman in Rome.

3. Affect

Great memories are the product of the emotions. Virtually all studies of memorable visitor experiences converge around this point: affect, or emotion, is key. I will never forget the greatest comment card I have ever received:

“In my life, I can think of a handful of experiences that changed the size and shape of my soul. This was one of them.”

The event was R. Murray Schafer’s Princess of the Stars, a wilderness theatre spectacle in which visitors traveled at dawn to witness a giant, sweeping musical drama that unfolded on the shores of a northern lake.

Moments of affect or emotion come in many shapes and sizes, and facilitating them doesn’t always need to be epic in scope. I suggest that we can inject affect into our visitors’ experience by simply being open to it ourselves. How do we feel about the places we love? Are we allowing our passion to shine through? I still see interpreters who feel they have a duty to remain neutral as presenters, and that’s a tragedy. If we wanted neutral presenters, we’d use signs and apps. Feel your passion. Love your resource. And never feel a moment’s shame for wearing your love of your work on your sleeve.

4. Rehearsal

The final piece in the memory puzzle is rehearsal. Visitors need to revisit their experiences in order to remember them. Telling stories, posting on social media, writing in a journal, or seeing a cherished souvenir on a bookshelf are all ways of creating touchstones between the present and our past visitor experiences.

There you have it. Want to create memorable visitor experiences?

Agenda fulfillment, plus novelty, plus affect, plus rehearsal equal memorable experience.

It doesn’t seem so difficult when you see it laid out like that, does it?

Now get busy.

For more reading:

Start with The Museum Experience Revisited by John Falk and Lynn Dierking.

Then read Exploring the essence of memorable tourism experiences, in Annals of Tourism Research · October 2011 Impact Factor: 3.26 · DOI: 10.1016/j.annals.2011.03.009

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Posted in Planning, Product Development, Visitor Experience and tagged , .

4 Comments

  1. Great article Don!!!
    It’s fun to reflect on my own experiences and the programs I’ve written and performed in the past.

    On occasion, it is such a treat to re-encounter a visitor that shared a memorable experience from a program I delivered in the past. A very rewarding experience, to know they were affected in a positive way and that they carry that experience within them still.

    Whoo Hoo!!!

    • Thanks Mariee- I agree, it’s an honour to have someone recall one’s program. I love when it happens- I often take the opportunity to ask open-ended questions about what they remember. Sometimes I play a bit dumb —not a stretch for me—and say things like, “Oh, really? What was I doing? What did I say?” to try to understand what made the experience memorable for them.

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