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Key Qualities of an Immersive Experience

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." This is the immersive experience ethos. Immersion is a state in which people feel swept up in the unfolding of something larger than themselves. Traversing the touristy surface of a destination is not enough for these travelers looking to go deeper.

What are the qualities of an immersive experience? To understand that we must look at the science. Immersion is a neurologic state in which one is attentive to an experience and it resonates emotionally. Neuroscientist, Paul Zak, found that immersion can be measured by a handful of different neurotransmitters, primarily oxytocin and dopamine.

Oxytocin: Known as the trust hormone, it is released when we feel safe, supported by, and connected to others. It’s also released when we hear a good, relatable story that we can empathize with. Experiments also show that having a sense of higher purpose stimulates oxytocin production.

Dopamine: Known as the reward chemical, it makes us seek and crave things outside of ourselves. It’s the universal currency for moving us towards our goals and it’s the way we track pleasure & success. It produces the joy of discovering things that meet our needs. It rewards us for sticking with the journey (even when faced with obstacles).

If an experience generates high immersion, people’s brains are full of tension, causing people to take action. And for those interested in transformational travel (or transformation in general), you can likely see why immersion is essential for this. Immersion is a state that predicts what people will do after an experience. If there was little immersion, then people will leave an experience and go about their normal behaviors.

Most tourism experiences and activities that fall short of being immersive have similar qualities. There’s often…
  • No effort to establish psychological safety (essential for oxytocin & nervous system regulation)

  • A lot of talking AT people and not fostering connection amongst the group (picture the typical teacher student dynamic)

  • A lack of emotion-evoking, multi-sensory stories (read Story: The Key to Successful Immersive Experiences)

  • Little in the way of inviting guests to use their imagination and play (resulting in predictable, scripted moments)

  • An avoidance of challenge/conflict (because heaven forbid people feel something on their vacation other than FUN!!)

Can you begin to see opportunities for designing moments where oxytocin and dopamine join forces to create meaning and transformation for your guests? When we look at an experience through the immersion lens, we begin to see where the experience fails to engage guests and promote positive interaction.

Take a moment to reflect on the journey your guests go on with you. Spending too much talking at your guests and treating them like students? Time to flip the script. Not building in moments for play? Give your guests an opportunity to do something with their curiosity. Not presenting any challenges? Give this article a read and then start dreaming up ways to challenge your guests.


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