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Iced Coffee and Mini Horses: Turning Events into Experiences

It’s no secret that I love Starbucks. L-O-V-E. My family and anyone who works or travels with me can attest to this. I’ve often been caught running “latte” to an appointment so that I could squeeze in a stop. It’s not just about fueling my caffeine addiction — Starbucks is an experience. I know I’m paying more for my iced coffee with a light splash of coconut milk (“light splash” is a technical term, BTW; I’m not that high maintenance). And to me, it’s worth the extra cost to have this experience — from ordering to tasting to just being in the store, there’s an intentionality to how I’m engaged in the process.

There’s a technical term for this, too: it’s called Experience Design. Experience Design has been around for decades and has been a huge factor in driving economic performance for whole sectors of the hospitality industry, from hotels to theme parks to — that’s right — coffee shops. Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore expertly captured the theory behind much of this success in their 1999 book, The Experience Economy. I first picked it up about 12 years ago and just devoured the principles they outlined. As someone working day and night to think of new and creative ways to engage donors through events, applying Experience Design to my work just made sense.

Of course, I work in higher education, where creative ideas must first slay the We’ve Always Done It This Way dragon before ever hoping to see the light of day. This is why I drink so much coffee (and wine, but that’s a different blog). It’s also why I arm myself with information to help sell ideas. For example, we know from the feedback they give us that donors want hands-on, immersive experiences that connect them to the impact of their philanthropy. They don’t want another rubber chicken dinner in a ballroom.

Personal tastes and politics aside, it’s also hard to argue with the market differentiation of some of the world’s leading experience designers — from Starbucks to Disney. They must be doing something right. And in the world of engagement, how do we not take cues from Disney?!

But, short of bringing Walt himself back from the great beyond, even the most compelling background information doesn’t always provide an immediate green light on new ideas. That’s when I reach into my bag of tricks for another well-sharpened tool for effecting change: go slow.

One of the simplest rules in experience design is to Engage All Five Senses (See-Hear-Smell-Touch-Taste). Seems easy enough for a live event — we’re already doing these things, right? Sure, we might check the boxes, but the next step is to think creatively about how to make each sensory engagement an experience. And one step further is to consider how they all tie together — creating harmony around a common theme. Once we do, it’s easy to identify a number of opportunities for enhancements at nearly every event.

We’re serving food and beverages at the reception, right? How about bringing in the fermentation science students to create a fermented food and beer pairing and explain the process to donors while they indulge? They see, they smell, they taste, they touch, they hear. And they learn about the impact their gifts are making in a new academic program.

Success with small enhancements then opens the door to long-needed overhauls in programming efforts. Instead of trotting our star veterinary ophthalmologist on stage to tell everyone about saving the eyesight of a therapy miniature horse named Snuggles, let’s show a video chronicling the journey, and then bring out the doctor and Snuggles (wearing tennis shoes!) for a reunion in front of everyone. Instead of inviting the VP of Research to the stage to talk AT everyone about the cool enhancements virtual reality is bringing to labs, how about we bring the VR lab to the event and let students show our donors what they’re working on.

“If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story.” – Barbara Greene

Success in bringing experiential programming to life at events then opens the door to donors wanting more. That’s when the real fun begins. And bonus — we make terrific new partnerships along the way with colleagues who enjoy being part of generating ideas for the next event.

With gratitude,


DRG Group member Matthew Helmer serves as Executive Director of CSU Events & Community Engagement at Colorado State University. He thinks the Starbucks mobile app is life-changing and will never apologize for ordering a light splash of coconut milk. Follow him on Twitter @ExperienceGuru or LinkedIn for more musings.


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