A tour through the New Belgium Brewing Company's sunny, Fort Collins, Colo., headquarters starts with an invitation to taste what the company's all about--literally.
"We're going to drink five beers this size over the course of the tour," says tour guide Marie Kirkpatrick as she passes around 4-ounce glasses of spiced ale to the dozen or so visitors. "Is everyone OK with that?"
Over the next hour and a half, visitors will not only get to taste five craft beers brewed on site, but also peer into the giant canisters where barley is cooked into beer, smell the fruit peels and spices that flavor the brews, and go for a ride down the corkscrew slide meant to remind employees to have fun.
Though the wine industry was the first to capitalize on the concept of the "experience economy" --the idea that consumers crave experiences rather than just products or services--entrepreneurs in a variety of fields are now finding success by opening their doors and inviting customers to see, smell, hear and touch their wares.
Here's how to incorporate the concept into your own business:
- Understand that work is theater. Joe Pine, co-founder of Strategic Horizons and co-author of The Experience Economy, says entrepreneurs should view employees as actors capable of engaging a very specific audience: consumers. He says Robert Stephens understood this when he had employees at his computer repair company wear dweeby-looking white shirts and black ties when they made house calls. Best Buy acquired Stephens' Geek Squad in 2002, and Pine says the squad's success carries important lessons for entrepreneurs looking to sell their business one day.
"Stephens said he wanted to make the computer repair experience so engaging that customers couldn't wait until their computers broke," Pine says. According to Pine, entrepreneurs who achieve that standard will likely enjoy a strong following through word-of-mouth advertising. "Stephens once said that 'advertising is a tax you pay for being unremarkable,'" Pine says.
- Open your doors. When Celestial Seasonings built its new tea factory in Boulder, Colo., in 1990, guest relations ambassador Steve Spencer made sure he organized a tour that highlighted every aspect of the tea-making process, from the milling of the herbs to the cellophaning and heat-sealing of tea boxes. Two decades later, the all-natural tea manufacturer, known for cult-favorite herbal blends like Sleepytime and Red Zinger, now attracts more than 120,000 visitors per year with its free tours, making the tea factory the No. 2 stand-alone tourist attraction in Boulder. "People come here because they want to see that we are who they think we are," Spencer says. "And when they're able to do that, it enhances brand loyalty the way nothing else can."
- Tell a story. Most entrepreneurs have an interesting and highly personal story behind their decision to launch their business, but many forget to share that story with customers. On New Belgium Brewing Company's tours, visitors learn the tale of founder Jeff Lebesch, an electrical engineer with a home-brewing hobby. Lebesch traveled through Belgium on his mountain bike in 1989 and returned home with a plan to open his own brewery. The name of New Belgium's signature Fat Tire Amber Ale is a reference to his mountain bike. In the beginning, Lebesch's wife, Kim Jordan (now New Belgium CEO), handled marketing and finances, and his neighbor, a painter, designed the iconic label art.
"It's a romantic story of a young man riding his bike in a foreign country and a young couple who made a sort of scary entrepreneurial leap to make a dream into a reality," says New Belgium spokesman Bryan Simpson. "That story is key to who we are, so we think it's important to share it."
Similarly, Celestial Seasonings, which was acquired by the Hain Food Group in 2000, starts its tours by telling the story of how Mo Siegel founded the company in 1969 by harvesting fresh herbs from the Rocky Mountains by hand, packaging them in hand-sewn muslin bags and selling them at local health food stores. It reminds visitors that "Celestial Seasonings is a classic entrepreneurial success, not a corporate concept," Spencer says.
- Let consumers taste. And smell. And touch. Visitors spend most of their Celestial Seasonings tour time on the factory floor, where they can feel their eyes water and nostrils burn in the pungently scented mint room, watch the robotic palletizer lift and package stacks of tea boxes, and smell lemongrass, hibiscus, cloves and other ingredients during the milling process.
"It's all about that multisensory experience," Spencer says.
Pine says ambitious entrepreneurs can step it up a notch by taking cues from Cabela's, the outdoor superstore whose Nebraska headquarters offers a host of amenities above and beyond its retail offerings, like an indoor archery range and museum-quality animal displays.
- Make shopping fun. Small internet and packaging upgrades can make a big difference in creating a fun purchasing experience. "Is there a casual game you can add to your website to get people to spend more time there?" Pine asks. "Is there a way you can improve your box-opening experience? People wax poetic about Apple's box-opening experience when they buy their MacBooks and iPhones."
Spencer says Celestial Seasonings pays close attention to its packaging, inscribing inspirational quotes and commissioning independent illustrators to design whimsical drawings for each box. "The final product is more than the sum of its parts," Spencer says. "People are enamored with our brand because of the flavor, but also because of the whimsy and inspiration."
- Throw a party. New Belgium has strengthened brand loyalty by hosting events across the country, such as the Tour de Fat, a traveling bike festival and parade now held in eleven cities. "In the industry we're in, people tend to choose two or three brands that they're very loyal to, and then do some sampling of other brands," Simpson says. "To be one of those two or three brands, you really have to stand out. And the experiential stuff is where our brand--our culture--really comes to life for people."