A Status Check of the 'Live Experience' Experience

A conversation with Hornblower Group's Kristina Heney

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This article originally appeared on Muse by Clio.  To read the article on Muse by Clioclick here.

The pandemic impacted many businesses, but I can say firsthand that it had a profound impact on any business that was centered around a “live experience.”

Simply put, quarantining and visiting live experiences are at two very opposite ends of the spectrum. But the conditions around the pandemic have significantly improved, as have attitudes and behaviors around visiting and engaging with live experiences.

To get more insight on the market, I turned to Kristina Heney, CMO and CRO of the Hornblower Group, a global leader in world-class experiences and transportation. If you’ve ever taken a cruise or walking tour in any major city, odds are you interacted with a Hornblower Group experience. Given their breadth of experiences around the world, it was great to hear Kristina’s perspective.

Kristina Heney

Damian Bazadona: Hornblower’s City Experiences offers an incredible premium slate of live experiences across the globe in a way that is unique. Given the wide range of interests, tastes, needs of consumers, how would you describe the process—or the secret sauce, if you’re able to tell us!—in the matchmaking process between someone looking to buy an incredible experience and the recommendations you ultimately give them.

Kristina Heney: City Experiences offers both locals and tourists alike with world-class water and land-based experience offerings across major travel destinations worldwide. To differentiate from our competitors, we have to develop strategic marketing messaging highlighting our unique assets that set us apart to guests engaging with our brand.

First, as direct tour operators, it allows us to create a personal and customized consumer journey. Through our diverse portfolio of global travel experiences, we are truly able to offer something for every type of guest. Whether you’re with your family looking to get up close to majestic whales with our Whale Watching Tours in Boston and San Diego, you and a group of friends are visiting the iconic cellhouses of Alcatraz with our Alcatraz City Cruises, or you’re on your honeymoon in Rome experiencing the Vatican’s Key Master VIP tour, City Experiences provides our guests with unique, one-of-a-kind offerings that you won’t find anywhere else.

Most of all, our amazing experiences are delivered by our own renowned Crew and expert Tour Guides. We think like operators, and our Crew are truly the heart of the organization, as they are the ones that make our guests experience that much more memorable—by providing that bespoke experience. Being able to both deliver and exceed those guest expectations is paramount for our brand.

Photo: City Experiences

It’s one thing to say, “I want to go have an experience.” It’s something entirely different to make that statement a reality. Money, time, babysitters, parking—there are a lot of good reasons to stay home. How do you move people to “action” against the relentless frictions of life?

We know that guests’ motivations and expectations have evolved over the past two years, and we have to adapt to those traits to ensure we continue to deliver first-class experiences. As a live-experience operator, we believe our guests’ time and experience begins the minute they step out the door. We know that people’s time and financial commitment are precious and want to ensure that end-to-end consumer journey is seamless. It is imperative that our guests know they are going to be delivered with a first-class experience, from start to finish, and make them feel that it was worth their while—encouraging them to return or explore another one of our offerings.

As a follow-up to that question, how has the pandemic changed the behavior of your customers? Obviously, all live experiences have been heavily impacted, but I’m curious now that people are more likely to return to engaging in experiences, what’s different in their behavior?

Even Covid has proved that personal connection can’t be replaced—it’s all about that feeling of connectivity, bringing people together and sharing that common ground of a live experience. And with that, we had to change our marketing approach, dialing up the emotional engagement with our brands, developing partnerships and a stronger social presence to increase our reach and lean heavily into digital technology to drive personalized communications, engagement and repeat visits.

Additionally, coming out of the pandemic, digital adoption has soared in the ways that consumers engage in experiences. We knew we needed to enhance our guest experience and have invested heavily in technology in order to deliver a new frictionless and personalized journey using innovative technology platforms.

Photo: City Experiences

Given the extensive offerings you have across many major markets, you are clearly the “go to” for many customers’ experience planning. What’s your strategic framework for moving a one-time buyer to a two-time buyer and beyond? Is it more weighted towards “Remember how amazing your last experience was,” or is it more weighted towards the future of “Your next amazing experience awaits you”?

Guests are now looking for that emotional connection and communal experiences. It’s not only about what you learn, but what is it that you take away with you. You have to leverage that within your marketing approach, dialing up the emotional engagement with your brand. Consumers are also looking for that deep level of experience, allowing our guests to see something different and truly be wowed. Taking those iconic institutions, which are awe-inspiring on their own, but going to that extra level of seeing something at sunrise or in your own private group. It’s taking that feeling of not just “I did that” but “I experienced that as no one else could.”

Aside from your current role at City Experiences, I know you have also worked on an incredible range of brands, from Cirque du Soleil to Madison Square Garden to the NBA and many others. When you look at the broader market of live events and experiences, what’s the biggest difference(s) you see in the live experiences that thrive and those that stumble?

My career trajectory has led me to work with world-renowned brands and institutions from a variety of industries, including sports, entertainment and now travel and hospitality. But the common denominator as a marketer is not only understanding your guest, but evolving with them. Guests’ motivations and expectations continue to grow, especially coming out of Covid, and you have to adapt to ensure that you are continuing to realize them. Being able to make that personal connection and deliver a first-class experience ensures that your guest continues to engage with your brand and develop brand loyalty.

Photo: Vatican Key Master's Tour

This might be the hardest question I ask you but I think it’s an important and appropriate one to end on. What is the one live experience you think everyone should do at least once in this lifetime?

One live experience I would say everyone must do in their lifetime is to get out and see the world. As travel is beginning to rebound, there is no time like the present to feed that wanderlust. One of the most memorable experiences I have done is recently I visited our WALKS Vatican’s Key Master VIP tour in Rome. In the tour, you and a small group are able to join the Vatican Key Master, prior to opening to the public, as they lead you from room to room, opening the doors of the renowned institution and culminating with the Sistine Chapel. Being able to have that experience as you are standing there watching the lights illuminate the artistry of Michelangelo is majestic and one of the most memorable experiences I will forever take with me.

Building Passionate Communities is a regular interview series where Damian Bazadona, president and founder of Situation Group, sits down with extraordinary leaders at organizations that have paved the way in both cultivating passionate communities and driving them to meaningful action. For more about Building Passionate Communities, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

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