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Beyond Touchpoints: Creating Interactive Stories in Hospitality

Let me tell you a story.

In the 1700s, Newark cider was a most celebrated elixir. It was the drink of choice for George Washington, and the early Americans would drink hard cider over water to protect themselves from deadly diseases that water carried.

Fast forward to 20th century Newark, it became a city dedicated to largest metalworking industry in the region. No apple trees to be seen. Today, it has evolved into one of country’s most impoverished & dangerous cities.

When one man saw that there was an opportunity for urban renewal in this region, he was inspired by the stories of how cider played a role on the heyday of Newark’s rich history.

But as he put boots to the ground to revive New Jersey’s cidery business, he faced obstacles in revitalizing the land of one of New Jersey’s oldest orchards. The ecosystem needed to be brought back into balance.

After one failed attempt to plant trees without restoring the soil, the founder realized they needed to have a regenerative approach if they were ever going to produce a quality product.

As he and his team were reviving the orchard, he saw the parallels between the apple trees and his (formerly incarcerated) employees: trees that were grown in poor conditions would struggle to thrive, just like the people of Newark. But being on the farm instead of the streets has saved the lives of many of his employees.

This is the (abbreviated) story behind the cidery I went to this weekend. While we were there, the owner was telling us bits & pieces of this story, but it wasn’t until I went online and watched his TedTalk and read a few articles that I truly grasped what was going on around this operation.

The cidery had an energetic food & beverage experience that you’re probably overly familiar with: live music, corn hole, fire pits… but with an incredible story like this, I couldn’t help but think of all the opportunities to bring this story to the forefront of the experience in more interactive & meaningful ways.

This is a story that can be told through sensory touchpoints and environmental activations, like most hospitality properties attempt to do. But more importantly, we must ask: what's the point of telling this story? What action do we want this story to spur?

To me, there are many layers to this story, but most importantly, it is conveying the importance of returning to our roots when times get tough. That growth can't be forced, but we can create the right conditions to make it possible – just like the apples, and the people of Newark who have been given second chances.

In most cases, for a story to be more than just an "oh, that's nice to know" sort of thing, the story needs to invite someone to become a part of it. It should be more than just a passive scene, or an anecdote told in passing.

After all, stories are powerful initiators, but there needs to be a high level of attention and emotional resonance. The more people are involved, the more attention and emotion (immersion) increase, therefore the more power a story has.

So, if you’re looking to create a more purpose and story-driven experience, absolutely bring the narrative to life through your environment. That will help set the stage and encourage people to view the experience as something special and significant. But don’t stop there. Ask yourself these questions to analyze your current experience and begin to uncover how you can immerse your guests into a story:

  • Are we telling a story that has a purpose, or is it purely just to entertain guests?

  • If we distill this story down to its core message, what is it and how can invite some sort of action around this in a way that keeps with our concept?

  • Is the story being expressed thoughtfully throughout the environment, reinforcing a narrative, and creating more of a journey atmosphere?

  • Are we limiting the ways we engage & interact with guests around this story because we’re stuck inside a traditional concept?

  • What are creative ways we can tell this story through playful, curiosity-provoking activities and meaningful exchanges amongst guests?

We often find that story doesn't make its way into an experience in an interactive way because people are viewing their experience in an overly traditional way, where the guest is expected to consume, not co-create or engage deeper. For example, a traditional sit-down restaurant can be very limiting in terms of creating interaction, but ‘eatertainment’ has disrupted this, allowing for endless possibilities.

Where are you holding your story back? It doesn’t matter if the story you want to tell is influenced by your origin story, it could be a totally made up story that you feel has an important message. Whatever it is, this is the future of storytelling in a dynamic, purpose-driven way. Whether you have a physical hospitality property or a tourism experience, there are endless ways to invite your guests to play a bigger role in the story you wish to tell!


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