Consumers Are Buying Less Things (And More Experiences)
In our modern world, developed countries are consuming more than ever before. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 25 percent of the world’s population―1.7 billion―make up the “global consumer class.” A sector characterized by higher levels of debt, the desire for a bigger house, fancier cars, designer threads, and a lifestyle centered around the insatiable hunger to amass non-essential material items.
Rising consumption undoubtedly creates jobs and stimulates economies, but at what cost to the environment? Consumption is taking a devastating toll on our oceans and the Earth’s natural resources, but that’s not all. Consumers are accumulating more debt and working longer hours to “keep up with the Joneses.” “Excess consumption can be counterproductive,” Gary Gardner, the director of research at Worldwatch told National Geographic. “The irony is that lower levels of consumption can actually cure some of these problems.”
But there has been a shift, especially among millennials. According to “Generations on the Move,” for decades, the American economy was all about materialism, with marketing and advertising efforts focused on selling material products. But we’re seeing a shift. 74 percent of Americans now prioritize experiences over things.
Baby boomers and millennials alike are embracing the “less is more” ideology, though millennials are doing so for different reasons. Millennials want to share their lives, not things, on social media and if they have nothing to broadcast, they feel like they’re missing out. After all, a post with tandem skydiving over the Wasatch Front is far more exciting than a pic of a new designer handbag or suit.
As Americans, we’re born into a culture of buying. But collecting all these things we don’t need doesn’t buy happiness. A series of three studies conducted by Paulina Pchelin and Ryan T. Howell at San Francisco State University revealed that “people enjoy greater well-being from life experiences and consider them to be a better use of money.” I have to agree. I would much rather talk about the family backpacking trip I went on as a teen to Sequoia National Park where we saw a bear and bathed in a chilly river than revel in the latest pair of jeans that I bought, and really didn’t need.
According to Jennifer Leaver, senior tourism analyst with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, experiences keep more of the money in the local community than material good spending. “If a visitor paid a local Daggett County resident $2,000 for a personal week-long fly fishing trip on the Green River, I would argue that most of that $2,000 would stay in Daggett County,” she says. “If the same $2,000 was spent at a retail shop in Daggett County where the retail margin (the gross margin a retail business receives when selling goods) is 5 percent, then the retail business owner would keep $100 with the rest likely going out of the county—or state—to pay non-local suppliers.
Leaver’s top “experiences” in Utah include rafting the upper and lower San Juan River, with stops at Butler Wash Ruins, Slickhorn Canyon, Grand Gulch, and Oljeto Wash―a top-notch Utah adventure, she said. “Recently, I’ve enjoyed spending time in Emery County exploring the San Rafael Swell and bouldering at Joe’s Valley (Orangeville, UT). In the north, Logan Canyon Scenic Drive is a must-do, especially [in the fall] with the changing colors. In the winter, I highly recommend skiing/snowboarding at Powder Mountain, which is about 35 miles northeast of Ogden—you will not be disappointed!”
Brett Prettyman served as the outdoor writer for the Salt Lake Tribune for 25 years before venturing into his new role as the director of communications at Trout Unlimited. Prettyman worked with the Utah Office of Tourism to create his Utah Bucket List, so I was excited to speak with him.
When I told him about the premise of this article, it struck a nerve. He immediately brought up a bi-annual outdoor retailer show in Salt Lake City that he’s attended about 30 times. What he noticed about the attendees―who were all industry professionals―was this lifestyle, this tribalism of the outdoor world.
“There was some talk about gear but it was more about, ‘Tell me about a place I really need to see. Tell me a climbing route I need to go do.’ People want new places to explore and go visit. That’s what I heard the most at those shows. It was really pretty impressive to hear people talking so much about that when they’re surrounded so much by outdoor gear. The experiences are worth more than any money or accumulated items,” says Prettyman.
Andrew Dash Gillman is the creative and content manager at the Utah Office of Tourism. He says they agree with promoting experiences, especially as it pertains to deepening a visitor’s engagement with a place. “Think of it as the difference between driving through a national park just for the Instagram at the overlook and hiring a guide for a local’s narrative and intimate understanding of the place,” he says.
“The best memories are those that come from more intimate experiences. Words like transformation or reawakening come from unplugging, getting out of your car, exerting yourself―getting that appreciation because you put something into it,” he says. “One really powerful experience that has stuck with me and helped to re-ignite my interest in the outdoors was camping on public lands on the Burr Trail east of Boulder, Utah. This was around 12 years ago, and I had not been doing much camping as an adult, even though I grew up doing it. I picked up my first piece of new gear, a tent, and a couple of other items, and followed the lead of a colleague I was traveling with.
“Over a fire, we talked until pretty late, I learned or re-learned about cryptobiotic soil, fell asleep under dark skies and awoke with the light and the rising desert heat. That day we went back into Boulder for an incredible meal at Hell’s Backbone Grill. It was so much easier to get back into it than I thought, and over the years have built out resources and comfort level, including multi-night backpacking excursions. These are memories that stick with me because I push my limits and because of the extra effort that goes into preparing for visiting these special places,” says Mr. Gillman.
Vicki Varela, the managing director at the Utah Office of Tourism recently returned from Southern France when I spoke to her. She says travel allows us to see things from a different perspective. Travel helps us understand ourselves better. We come across different cultures, learn history, and find our way in a completely unfamiliar environment. “It’s almost like rewiring our brain. It also gives us a fresh way of savoring what we go home to because we’re able to see it with fresh eyes,” she says.
Selling an experience
Here in Utah, spending on experiences translates to tax relief for Utah households that comes directly from tourism. “Every household in the state would pay $1,300 more in taxes if we didn’t have tourists,” she says. Those revenues go to our schools, our police forces, really important state and local needs.”
Varela’s all-time favorite thing to do is bike the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. She also loves river rafting. “We have some of the best river rafting in the country. You’re in remote locations with interesting people, having meals around campfires every night. You’re transporting yourself on a river that is sometimes just beautifully calm and gorgeous, and other times a wild adventure.” Two companies she personally recommends are Western River Expeditions and Wild Rivers Expeditions.
Utah brands can capitalize on the experience trend, even if they focus on selling products vs. offering “experiences.” I caught up with Melissa Kinney, the social media manager at the Utah Office of Tourism to learn how. “Social media was designed as a sharable space, so my advice to other brands would be to embrace the growing collaborative spirit emerging in this medium by focusing on how you can highlight your community’s personalized experiences, curating user-generated content or establishing a brand ambassador program are great examples of this. There are many possibilities available in the social space, but it’s important to remember why we are all on social media in the first place, and that is to connect with each other,” she says.
Social media is one of the most effective storytelling platforms today and people crave to hear other peoples’ stories that they can relate to. In order for brands to create more thumb-stopping content on social media, they should focus on telling real stories from their communities as opposed to heavily investing in staged or stock imagery. While that material may thrive on other channels, it’s completely acceptable and expected to feature content on your social media that is more raw than polished, she says.
Matt Peters is the founder and creative director at Pandemic Labs. He said that if you want to increase the allure of your physical goods and products through social media, there are a few key things you want to hit. “First, you want to put out content that makes people feel that people like them are already enjoying and benefiting from your product. This is where great paid social media targeting and influencer campaigns can do a lot of work for you.
“Next, you want to stay top of mind. We may not like it, but repetition is still an effective part of marketing, so making sure you are putting fresh, exciting content in front of your target customers on a regular basis is critical. Every time you aren’t talking about your product to someone, your competitor probably is. Lastly, listen to your customers. The marketplace will tell you what it wants and how they want to be marketed to. Winning brands today use data-driven strategies to increase the allure of their offerings,” says Peters.
When I asked Peters about brands posting about events, he said events can be tricky on social media. If a brand hosts a super-exclusive event and then posts about it a lot on social, they run the risk of alienating some of their followers who might be a bit upset that they didn’t get to be there. But if you run an event that’s open to everyone, then you run the risk that people will think there’s nothing special about it, he says.
“The most important consideration for amplifying your events on social is to empower your event attendees to do the sharing for you. Create as many reasons and opportunities as possible at the event for the guests to share, tweet, snap, video, etc. It is vastly more powerful to get people to talk about you than it is to talk about yourself. Whether your event is an exclusive cocktail party for 10 guests or a 10,000 person concert in Miami, let the crowd do the talking and empower them to do so with hashtags, reminders, exclusive content, ‘Instagrammable moments,’ and anything else that will make them get out their phone.”