What turns an ordinary experience into an extraordinary one? Understanding this will enable event designers to be able to produce effective, impactful and talked-about events.
Cultural and event research revealed four key elements that are commonly found within stand-out experiences: community, ritual, novelty, and transformation. Understanding how these features create experiences that are extraordinary is the first step to harnessing their potential. Putting them into practice in event production requires thinking about ways in which the venue, theme, running order, and activities can deliver the elements that make an event extraordinary.
A sense of community spirit can be built among participants by facilitating the breakdown of pre-conceived ideas about social status that the participants may bring with them. Costume is a great example of this – although not appropriate for all events – as are activities or entertainments that are unfamiliar, such as creative breakout activities, or providing participants with craft or cooking classes. Doing something new puts everyone on the same level. Facilitating ways for participants to actively contribute to their experience is another crucial way to build community. This can be as simple as getting participants to vote and give feedback in a forum.
When it comes to the character of an event, traditions and rituals have a very important role. Most events already include ritualistic elements; these might include the formal way that speakers or artists are introduced; the presence of traditional round up or welcome dinners; communal behaviours, such as lowered voices in a gallery; applauding performers in a concert hall; or repeated activities such as firework displays. These types of elements can be incorporated in a multitude of ways, in fact, this is a great opportunity for creative thinking, such as switching on decorative lights; or providing small collective activities that can act as precursors to parts of the event, for example, having conference participants fold origami name badges, playing a tune with a common item etc.
Providing something that is new to the people undergoing the experience is imperative. Whether that is a novel venue, food or drink, activity, or idea – the quality of newness in an experience has been suggested by researchers to be key to evoking high levels of stimulation and engagement in participants. As with the other elements, novelty is a crucial factor in differentiating special events from the everyday flow of experience.
Novelty is one of the easiest features to weave into an experience, as the inclusion of something new or unusual can be programmed into most aspects of an event. It may be evoked in ways as simple as subverting the expected running order; thinking outside the box when it comes to venue choice; implementing new technologies such as VR and event apps.
Separating participants from their established external lives and identities induces a powerful feeling of transformation and can create a state in which people are far more open to new ideas and transformative behaviours. Putting participants into a new environment is particularly important, whether by hosting the event in a venue or by theming the space if the event is taking place in a workplace, school, or any other everyday location. Some events, like music festivals, can provide a very real and physical separation from everyday life, but others may have to take a more conceptual approach, by avoiding encouraging social hierarchies; offering opportunities for participants to experiment with different activities, ideas and roles; or ensuring participants have everything they need on site to create distance from everyday chores and responsibilities.
So what makes an experience extraordinary instead of ordinary? A combination of factors impact the behaviour of the audience; the event is marked out as ‘special’ by the ways the participants engage with, feel, and remember the event. Providing a framework of activities and environments that are new and stimulating; that can trigger a strong event community; that evoke a sense of transformation; or provide a meaningful structure to the event will optimise the memorability and impact of an experience.
Extraordinary experiences will be talked about, photographed, and shared long after ordinary experiences have faded and been forgotten. So, finding ways to elevate each aspect of an event from the ordinary into extraordinary is key to how people, ideas, and experiences can leave a legacy that lasts beyond the event.