Visitors to Philadelphia can help paint a mural. In Columbus, Ohio travelers can live through the eyes of a slave escaping on the underground railroad. 

Unforgettable experiences like these are what modern travelers crave, said Joe Veneto, founder and principal of Opportunities Unlimited, a management consulting and training company that works with destination marketing organizations like VisitNorman.

“You can’t help talking about it,” Veneto said. “When we think about this whole package about visitors and experiences and the economy ... we see a shift.”

Venteo was the keynote speaker at VisitNorman’s annual tourism luncheon Tuesday at Embassy Suites Norman.

Describing a dynamic personal experience of riding in a NASCAR pace car, Veneto talked about the heart-pounding memory created by that experience.

Such unforgettable experiences create a lasting impact in our emotional bank account, he said and that has a wonderful trickle-down effect for destinations.

The shift in tourism is away from sight seeing toward unique, hands-on experiences. When you sell experience along with goods and services you can also charge more, he said, citing Starbucks as an example. Now coffee houses everywhere follow the Starbucks example to create a coffee experience.

“People want experiences,” Veneto said. “Today’s visitors are experiece junkies. They want to connect to the heart and soul and the people of your destination.”

Today’s visitors have changed, he said. They are more sophisticated, more discerning and they research their destinations ahead of time on the internet. The feelings they leave with are tied to engagement. Veneto said someone can visit a place but when they engage with that place in a unique way, they’re also creating an experience.

“The force that is most important is the power to give your visitors bragging rights or Facebook envy,” Veneto said. “Visitors now become an extension of your sales force and help to amplify your message.”

Those guests create commercials on Facebook when they have a great experience visiting a city, he said.

“We want our customers to remember, recount, refer and return,” Veneto said. “We want to get people talking about this destination.”

Veneto said Norman probably already has tourism gold that is going unmined and he has uncovered such buried treasure in cities he’s helped throughout the country. 

Levels of experience start with show-and-tell, but that’s the most basic. When cities engage visitors, he said, they can charge more and start creating lasting memories. The highest level, he said, is immersion.

“If we can immerse the visitor in an experience that is exclusive and that they can only get when they are here, we’ve got experiences that are unique and we can charge for them,” he said.

Immersion happens when people are actively doing something, whether it’s kayaking or tasting beer.

Philadelphia is known for its history but the city also has numerous murals it developed to deal with graffiti by getting convicted artists to paint murals sponsored by businesses.

As part of its tourism, the city created a mural tour by trolley.

Veneto said that was good, but why not take it to the next level and meet an artist who takes you to his or her murals and to a mural in progress to see how it’s done? Going further, why not find a way to allow visitors to participate in painting a city mural?

The city found a way to incorporate that and at one point had the British royal family painting a mural alongside other guests.

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, there’s a lot of military and a lot of agricultural.

“They have this rich agricultural base and no experiences,” he said.

Following Veneto’s ideas, the city created a farmers market tour where guests can get a taste of the market by meeting merchants and tasting their wares. The next level is going to a farm, meeting a farmer and, depending on the season, picking some fresh produce which is then wrapped into a lunch or dinner served at the farm.

“Visitors can get into the experience and it’s driving additional tourism revenue,” Veneto said. “What type of experiences are you currenlty offering visitors? In each of these destinations that we’ve talked about so far, we’ve gone in and literally leveraged existing assets.”

The experience formula is simple enough: create a connection, nurture the narrative and find the feelings.

In Columbus, Ohio, a historic home, the Kelton House, was popular for its historic setting of tea with Sophia Kelton who would talk about what it was like to live in Columbus in 1865 without breaking character.

That’s a nice experience, but Veneto learned that the Kelton House was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“When do you do the underground railroad program?” he asked them and learned there was an occasional tour. They were skipping over the most powerful element of the story.

“We redesigned the experience of the Kelton House and now Sophia has a secret,” he said.

Sophia will tell guests her secret if she trusts them and then she will show them the hidden panel in the house and they meet a runaway slave.

“For 20 minutes you are on the run with a slave on the underground railroad, and I will tell you it is a transformational experience,” Veneto said.

How we tell our story is important because our destination’s brand is part of the experience, he said. 

Minneapolis, Minnesota creates an experience that tells the story through the archaeology that uncovered Ft. Snelling. Visitors learn how the fort was reconstructed and how archaeologists uncovered it. First you get some “CSI action in the laboratory,” he said, then you spend two hours in the world of an archaeologist.

To find the feelings you have to figure out what’s most important to visitors. At the Indianapolis Zoo, the city built a $21 million state-of-the-art orangutan pavilion where people can interact with and play games with the orangutans, but the kid working the parking lot at the zoo had not seen the orangutans so he wasn’t able to talk about it and pump it up to visitors.

“Have your people seen your orangutans, metaphorically?” Veneto said. “Can your people talk about your experience to your visitors? Can they engage your visitors?”

First impressions are points of entry to building lasting impressions he said, so local businesses can and should look at how they engage guests.

“How do you, in your business, create those connections and nurture the narrative?” he said. 

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My passions include yoga, running, swimming, cycling, hiking, nature photography and a love of animals and the natural environment.