Campfires 16 & 17: Experience Design Will Elevate Your Next Vacation

Whether you’re still tentative about travelling or had your plane ticket booked the moment restrictions were relaxed, the way we think about our vacations has shifted dramatically since early 2020.

Many of us now live in a state somewhere between excitement and fear, curiosity and cautiousness, which has exacerbated some of the tensions that already came with going on holiday – the need to balance design versus discovery, plugging in versus logging out, and the “where” versus the “why”, for example.

We’ve already touched on how the travel landscape might change in the coming months – but for the 16th and 17th editions of the WXO Campfire, we wanted to put our members to the test by asking how they might use some of the tools they use to design experiences to design better vacations, both for themselves and for their clients or customers. 

(Reminder: while these ideas are useful for the future of travel, we believe that the tools and lessons used to design vacations will also be useful for experience designers across the Experience Economy. Frameworks, not finalities!)

Sponsored by Finn Partners, our gathering included travel designers and PRs as well as nightclub operators, gaming experts and immersive theatre pioneers, to name a few. From blindfolded camping to the “Netflix of experiences”, their ideas didn’t disappoint. Here are just a few ways that experience designers might level up your next vacation.

1. Merge the digital and physical realms

We already live in a world where we can choose to participate digitally or IRL – think going to the cinema versus firing up Netflix, or going to a restaurant versus ordering from Deliveroo. But to our Campfire, thinking of experiences in this way is limiting.

“The digital and the physical are not binary – they’re one fluid palette.”

Varghese Chacko, Founding Partner & President of NYC Nightlife United

Instead, when we merge the virtual and real worlds, we keep customers curious and can design a better journey for them. Stefan Weil is currently working on a new kind of retail experience where the storefront will look the same as a screenshot from the online sales experience.

“There are some people who ask, “‘Why do you want to do that?’ But we’re talking about visitor journeys. We believe that there’s a kind of magic when the virtual and the real merge into one.

I like thinking about the human factor, which people sometimes forget. They think we’re all avatars. But we are still humans – so we must find a good way to combine the spatial and the virtual.”

Stefan Weil

So what might this merging look like? Louis Alfieri thought that by adding motion capture technology to a real-world experience, we might be able to escape the interruption of constantly checking our devices and remain in flow. 

“Say you go camping. All the objects in the ‘internet of things’ around you – the lights, the bait you have in your fishing box, etc – could interpret your movements as data and customise to your needs. That way you’re still able to completely be in the moment and not be taken out of the experience, but it actually enhances the experience for you.”

Louis Alfieri, experiential entertainment entrepreneur

This reminds us of Paul Zak’s work on measurement using neuroscience in Campfire 9, as well as our discussion from Campfire 15 about how when done well, AR can actually bring us further into the moment rather than taking us out of it by providing extra layers of information and personalisation.

Elements from the world of online gaming, such as scoring performance, could also inspire new ways of designing IRL experiences.

“How do you make the physical environment equally as addictive as online games? I think it comes from learning from the digital environment: learning the tools and the mechanisms for how to make this physical environment instantly gratifying. How do you take an online community and create its real-life equivalent, for example?”

Sai Aditya

Where traditionally we’ve tended to think of experiences as episodic and story-driven, through this lens we should perhaps see them as split into levels that hook people in as they progress. According to Stefan Weil, “the whole of society is now driven by gamification” – so maybe our experiences should be gamified, too, to keep people coming back for more.

2. Don’t put technology before story

Adding elements of the digital realm into reality might sound like a no-brainer – but if the creative idea is missing, it all becomes meaningless. As we’ve heard time and again, technology should be the device that aids your storytelling: not the end game of your experience.

“You can get into pixel depth and 4k versus 8k resolution, but if the creative isn’t there, it all falls apart. I’ve always seen the physical and the digital as a continuum and an absolute dialogue. If you look at tools like projection mapping, haptics and volumetric screens, we’re reaching a point where, whether we’re doing it digitally or physically, we’re creating little pocket realities.

But if you’re not thinking about what’s going on in that space – the relationships between people and the space and people and each other – you’re not really giving guests a chance to ground into that reality and let themselves go into the experience.”

Noah Nelson, Founder, No Proscenium

As Rob Morgan taught us in his Campfire 14 Firestarter talk on the potential of AR, the most important tools you have to play with are your protagonists and the story you tell. You can’t tell people that they’re in a dragon’s cave – but you can tell them they’re a dragon in disguise.

3. Make technology either beautiful or invisible

Whether on vacation or in our everyday lives, digital technology works best when it disappears – like Louis’ earlier idea around generative camping, or experience design professor Mat Duerden’s point in Campfire 14: The Sparks about AR being able to add extra layers of information to a walk in the forest, enriching the overall experience.

Building on Louis’ ideas of how to merge the digital and physical from earlier on, Stefan put forward the idea of a hotel that reacts to your needs by integrating responsive technology into the physical environment. He also floated the idea of using virtual reality to connect, rather than separate, different groups of people, for example with diving – a kind of “Netflix of experiences”.

“Before you commit to the real thing, you could put some VR goggles on and have a virtual experience. Some people will decide to go diving for real, but even those who don’t will be able to share the experience with them.”

Stefan Weil

There’s also a tension for those of us who live our lives online, but feel the need to unplug when we go on vacation.

“I think it’d be really hard for me to do, but I wonder how we could create an experience and a vacation without any digital devices, while at the same time creating a memorable experience? I live in pixels and screens and audio and I want to get away from that for vacation so I can focus on what’s really important and truly escape.”

Bryan Hinckley, Global Vice President of Immersive Environments, Electrosonic

4. Start with the “why”

Rather than getting tangled up in technology to design better vacations – and experiences in general – maybe we need to go back to the very root cause.

Why do people really want to travel? What need is it fulfilling? Knowing this changes everything from how you design an experience to how you market it – and if you figure out the problem people need solving, you’re more likely to give them what they want.

Andrew O’Loughlin thinks about this hierarchy of needs within his arena of sports design.

“I look at different layers of value within an experience. There’s the functional – people buy a ticket to a sports event because they want to watch or participate. But it’s social connection, belonging, emotion, aspiration, identity, that set the hierarchy of needs. So how can we create experiences on each of these levels and at each of these moments across the journey?”

Andrew O’Loughlin, sports experience expert

5. Treat travel like therapy

We’ve just lived through an extraordinary time and our mindset is still not “normal” – whatever that means. Travel designers have to appreciate that people are approaching vacations from an altered mindset, and that even outside of the pandemic, different people will have different needs to accommodate. 

Part of the experience designer’s responsibility is to help them get into the right mental state to enjoy and absorb the experience – perhaps by creating steps into an experience, as we discussed in Campfire 12: Taking The Stairs Versus Thresholds. (See our review of The Royal Opera House’s latest VR experience for a real-world example of this.)

Understanding the journey the customer is going on is key to Tahira Endean’s work in transformation.

“It takes an inner journey and there’s a positive mindset about being brave to make choices, as well as making sure that people really know what they’re going into and that they’re as ready as they can be to get into that space.”

Tahira Endean, event designer

This takes trust, as travel designer Helen Lau explains.

“Some clients don’t have the time to do research, or they don’t have knowledge of the place. Some just want to be surprised, so we just give them a guide and take them from spot to spot and they’re totally exhilarated because they trust me.”

Helen Lau, travel designer

Understanding what different clients need might require bringing different perspectives on board. Anita XXX meets the challenge of designing for different generations by having a co-creation of mixed ages, as “they think differently, they use things differently, and by having them into groups together, they’re actually learning from each other.”

And right now in particular, people are looking to design their vacations from a place of emotion rather than logic.

“Within travel, we used to have a demographic profile – age, income, etc. Now it’s all about emotion. How are people feeling about travel? Do they want space? It’s now a totally emotional decision.”

Debbie Flynn, Global Travel Practice Leader, Finn Partners

And as we’ve discussed many times before, what makes people happiest is helping them to spend their time well – as our founder James Wallman writes in his book Time and How to Spend It and experience design professor Ben Hunnicutt in The Age of Experiences. Ben pointed out that with the advent of the three-day weekend, we’ll need to consider even more how we spend our increased down time.

6. Find new ways into the experience

When we travel to a new place, we often stick to the same places, rituals and dynamics. But to be surprised, delighted and transformed, we need to learn to see through new eyes – arguably the main point of travel in the first place. So how best to shake us out of our routines?

Inspired by the concept of Spiral Dynamics, Noah Nelson suggested putting a group of friends into a communications “blackout” for the first 24 hours of arriving at a destination. Each person would use that 24 hours as a lens to explore, then bring back and share what they’ve discovered.

“Taking this philosophical lens and investigating on the ground, and then everyone could go and follow up on the stuff that sounds most interesting – but either way, deliberately not talking to the friends for 24 hours so that we all we all brought something to the table.”

Noah Nelson

Perhaps we could also find new ways of seeing by delving into other cultures or times (side note: exactly what we’re trying to do here at The WXO by connecting Experience Economy experts from around the globe). 

Alain Thys is on a mission to change the funeral experience, partly by using a “book of global inspiration” drawn from funeral rituals in different cultures around the world. By borrowing from these, we can totally change a standardised experience and perhaps create a better emotional fit. Meanwhile Debbie Flynn wondered if we could look at narratives from books or people based in certain destinations as a way to experience them from a different time or perspective.

Or perhaps we can find new ways of seeing by…not seeing at all. The Transformational Travel Council’s Jake Haupert and Tahira Endean discussed the idea of blindfolding travellers, based on the idea that when you remove one sense, it heightens the others and helps people get into a flow state – what Jake calls “the in-between letting go and letting flow”.

“I’m going camping in a couple of weeks, and I’m going to bring a blindfold and start each day in darkness to see if that is able to shift my senses in attention, so I can engage in the experience in a deeper way.”

Jake Haupert, CoFounder & CVO of The Transformational Travel Council

(Let us know how that one pans out, Jake.)

7. …and better ways out

According to the Peak-End Rules, people are most likely to remember the highlights and the end of an experience. This applies as much to travel as to any other experience – even if your vacation has been amazing, if it culminates in a seven-hour traffic jam and lost baggage, that’s what you’re likely to remember most and tell people about.

Inspired by UX designer Joe Mcleod’s work on “endineering”, Finn Partner’s Kylie Bawden wondered if you could endineer a better close to your vacation – perhaps by stopping overnight, or having an incredible meal when you get home rather than just hitting the back of your fridge.

The WXO Take-Out

  • Despite the challenges facing travel as we adjust to a new mindset and a new – and unstable – reality, the tried-and-tested tools that experience designers use to create extraordinary experiences can also be applied to unforgettable vacations.
  • Resolving the tensions between virtual and physical, and technology and no technology, might still be some way off – but the layers of value and information that the worlds of gaming, AR and motion capture present have the potential to enable more responsive, generative experiences that address our full hierarchy of needs, all on one fluid, digital-to-physical plane.
  • And ultimately, as with all experiences, designing the perfect vacation comes back to understanding the “why”: the story at the heart of what you’re doing. Understand this – and how it differs between different generations, states of mind, and travellers – and you’re already halfway there to giving people what they want.
  • One final thought: even as they talked about how best to design a vacation, our Campfire said that they prefer to have an authentic and spontaneous vacation themselves. How to design for discovery? Maybe that’s a question for another time…

We’d love to hear about the tools you use to design experiences for a spectrum of people and outcomes. And if you use any of these in your work, we’d love to hear how the results turn out. Click here to let us know.

Interested in taking part in discussions about experiences and the Experience Economy? Register your interest in becoming a member here to be the first to know about upcoming WXO events, both digital and IRL.