The Acupuncture of Design: When intentionally and purposefully manipulated, the collective (and often subconscious) impact of the smallest mundane details can have a more significant impact on one's experience than any other singular element regardless of it's size or perceived importance...i.e, the assemblage of: real estate, fine details or elements of architecture, accent lighting, air temperature and movement, background noise, the volume of music in the room, color palate, the finish on boardroom furniture or established flow patterns and travel paths within restaurants and hotels.
I coined this term in an effort to highlight and pay homage to the value in a multitude of ancillary elements that, when used individually, may not amount to much but when used in concert, have a visceral effect on customers. Artfully implementing small devices synergistically first requires seeing customers as an audience whose escape from their routine requires some suspension of disbelief. Providing a multi-leveled sensual escape makes it possible to achieve an overall appeal with your product or place which is often inexplicable to the untrained participant much like camera angles and soundtracks impart fear or excitement to those viewing a film.
These subtleties are rarely noted or quantified by many but always on the minds of those in the hospitality industry and nowhere have I witnessed this more than Walt Disney'sTheme Parks and Cruise Liners.
Some of the more conspicuous details are of great importance widely. From the temperature of the room to the pattern in the carpet. In fact, Las Vegas is famous for manipulating these so well they are often referred to as “tactics”. Oxygenated air and dizzying patterns on the casino floors virtually intoxicate patrons before their first complimentary Jack & Coke.
When working for high-concept restaurant companies on the East and West Coasts, I would instruct restaurant managers in younger sexier concepts that catered to twenty and thirty somethings to keep it loud, dark and cold. Those are the number one turn-offs for (and complaints from) older guests who will either get up and leave a restaurant or not return….due to their not being able to read a menu, not being able to have a quiet conversation or being far too cold. You don’t want to ask a party of senior citizens to leave the restaurant and yet you don’t want to discourage the young beautiful people from filling the place…and those young good-time seekers won't sit down for even one drink if they see a place filled with patrons that remind them of their parents. There is a huge and profitable market in satisfying everyone with one concept but unless your selling cheeseburgers and ice cream, taking on the job of satisfying everyone offers a bigger opportunity for failure...or worse, mediocrity.
Even Facebook’s popularity among Millennials has waned since more moms, dads and even grandparents are now posting. If you want to experience Snapchat kind of growth as the most popular place in town, you have to be fresh, cool, fun and exclusive. After all, if there isn't a significant population of older wealthy patrons in your demographic, you likely need to make your numbers by filling the place with younger people who are going to spend money more frequently and younger clientele are typically more comfortable with people their own age. The trick is attraction and retention...and there are a lot of small details that can be manipulated in order to accomplish both.
The reverse also holds true in venues where operators have a significant number of baby boomers in the market to capture. Larger menus with bolder font, softer music, warmer room temperatures and brighter lights are gateways to lingering mature guests and higher check averages. Higher price points are an absolute advantage when you have a specialized service or menu and are charging over $100 a plate or upwards of $350 for a chef’s tasting menu...which in itself is an effective barrier to younger more boisterous customers which makes the atmosphere unappealing for that particular demographic.
At Disney, every sight line, every sense and every moment of one’s experience seems to be expertly calculated from the perspectives of both young and old guests alike. Multi-generational concepts mutually coexist and oftentimes work symbiotically to keep all guests, young and old alike, entertained and entrenched within their own personal escapes.
From being "presented" (announced upon arrival) in an old world hospitable style on their cruise ships’ grand entrance to the authentic visual harmony created by rescue boats perched along side the ship that are painted the exact same shade of black as Mickey Mouse’s shoes.
And the parks are no different from the cruise line. Wonderful surprises await guests around every corner. Granted there are no spontaneous encounters with Goofy hopping into your stateroom elevator at the park, but the park staff (especially those in character suits) are equally friendly and uniquely engaging. Play areas are incorporated into the waiting lines for rides and “Splash-n-Soak” stations strategically placed to cool off the small (and big) kids in between attractions. Even the transportation throughout the Magic Kingdom is provided on a tram that has been transformed into an old steam locomotive for those who remember those times past and those whose only reference may have been a film or Lionel set beneath a few Christmas trees as children.
Just as hospitality goes far beyond comfortable accommodations, fantastic decor and high thread counts, restaurants are not just about cooking food and delivering it to customers. My tour with the Executive Sous Chef, through the main galley / kitchen on The Disney Dream cruise ship displayed Disney's same recognition. An equal level of importance was placed on consistency and quality from the kitchen as it was on entertaining the youngest guests in various themed dining rooms. The unobtrusive beverage service is on equal footing with the timing of food coming out of the kitchen proving that the creation of any enjoyable experience that defies conventional dining is where the magic resides.
Restaurants (and most physical retail experiences) exist to entertain us… like Disney. Extraordinary restaurants are not simply selling a food product as much as they are selling a feeling of importance, being appreciated and being entertained to their customers...or audience. This time honored concept has been illustrated everywhere from Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa FLA to The Inn At Little Washington in VA but equally mastered, if not more so, at Disney Theme Parks and within every restaurant aboard their cruise ships. In "The Animator's Palace" Crush (The surfer dude sea turtle star from Disney/Pixar's 2003 Finding Nemo) works the crowd, "tablevision-to-tablevision", with his interactive personalized swim-up comedy routine.
This sense of hospitality is even expressed lyrically in the classic Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks:
“…The future is ours
As the shine sells the boot
And the blossoms the fruit
All you need to succeed in your plan
Is the proper ally
Upon whom to rely
And I'm your man…
With my expert pantomiming
The proper taste and timing
I'll introduce you in the monogram
I'll wet their appetite for you
I'll set the scene so right for you
We'll have the beggars eating out of your hand
As the words sell the tune
And the moon beams the moon.”
When restaurants successfully create a special "sizzle" for their steak, an escape from the ordinary is created. A distraction from customers’ everyday responsibilities, stresses and obligations. If I had to reduce every retailer’s mission statement to just three words…they would be “Make People Happy”. Hospitality is about creating a time and place where people feel relaxed, welcomed and well-cared for.
To better emphasize this, one might consider Maslow’s Theory of Human Hierarchy of Needs and Human Motivation.
- Each need level is "evoked" to the degree that the organism is "threatened" or "unsatisfied" at that level.
- In general, lower levels supersede higher levels when the organism's "degree of satisfaction" at the lower level is "threatened".
- A need that has been satisfied for a long time may lose the ability to assert itself.
- An individual may become "fixated" at a given level.
- Needs tend to me more unconscious than not.
7. Aesthetic / I like this place
6. Know & Understand / I know where I am
5. Self Actualize / I am recognized here
4. Esteem or Ego / I am valued here
3. Love & Belonging / I fit in here
2. Safety & Security / I am safe here
1. The Psychological Self / I belong here - This is my place
Although many may disagree with me… I believe that, as far as the average customer is concerned, food quality is often the less-important offering in a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong…if the food is bad, they probably won’t be back, but restaurants exist to provide a far deeper form of sustenance and depending on how well that sustenance is delivered… it can actually make the food taste “better”. If you’ve ever been on a vacation in the islands and drinking a frozen rum runner or pina colada while sitting on the beach enjoying tropical breezes and the sounds of steel drum music playing in the background, and then consumed that same exact drink six months later in your tool shed or garage, I guarantee you that it wouldn't taste half as good. Much of that appreciation is sensual. It comes along with being in that tropical paradise and smelling the tropical air. Those small details and a million others are experienced simultaneously with the frozen cocktail... and the overall impact touches us far more deeply than a simple recipe.
Much like a science fiction novel or film that caters to our innate desire for escape and plays our body’s involuntary release of serotonin and tryptophan upon fantasizing about adventure or victory; a well-thought out restaurant experience can transport a customer into an alternate realm.
Studies have shown that measurable amounts of endorphins are released and overall optimism surges when test groups are asked to imagine ways of spending lottery winnings. Their bodies physically respond in similar ways to the way they would if they had actually won. It’s easy for most of us to surrender ourselves to that fantasy. Its easy to imagine winning if we've ever won anything...and having a lot of money to manage if we've ever had any. Just as a cinematographer or stage performer seeks to evoke excitement, comedy, drama and/or sheer wonder and joy, If a chef sends food out from the kitchen that doesn't meet or exceed expectations, it’s like the premise of a film being so far beyond the realm of possibility that it’s simply too fantastic to believe…but if the multitude of other stimuli is entertaining, comforting, engaging and/or pleasurable… it becomes possible to suspend disbelief for a moment (as is the case in most sci-fi films and music concerts) or in the case of a restaurant, not notice or care how over-cooked the burger might be.
Just as the many facets of a film or music production affect our emotional responses, every incalculable detail within a physical space affects our comfort (or discomfort) level as well...whether its immediately distinguishable or not. We are creatures who respond to stimulus whether it’s consciously or sub-consciously. Ask any seasoned poker player about “tells” and they will explain how our bodies, independent of our will, respond to stimuli whether we want them to or not.
If you can make someone feel welcomed and comfortable, you will be satiating them on a level that they may not even realize they are craving…and as Maslow concludes, may be mistaking for hunger:
“It should be pointed out again that any of the physiological needs and the consummatory behavior involved with them serve as channels for all sorts of other needs as well. That is to say, the person who thinks he is hungry may actually be seeking more for comfort, or dependence, than for vitamins or proteins. Conversely, it is possible to satisfy the hunger need in part by other activities such as drinking water or smoking cigarettes. In other words, relatively isolable as these physiological needs are, they are not completely so.
Undoubtedly these physiological needs are the most proponent of all needs. What this means specifically is that in the human being who is missing everything in life in an extreme fashion, it is most likely that the major motivation would be the physiological needs rather than any others. A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more strongly than for anything else.
If all the needs are unsatisfied, and the organism is then dominated by the physiological needs, all other needs may become simply nonexistent or be pushed into the background. It is then fair to characterize the whole organism by saying simply that it is hungry, for consciousness is almost completely preempted by hunger. All capacities are put into the service of hunger-satisfaction, and the organization of these capacities is almost entirely determined by the one purpose of satisfying hunger. The receptors and effectors, the intelligence, memory, habits, all may now be defined simply as hunger-gratifying tools”.
Quoted from Motivation and Personality, Chapter 4
© 1970 by Abraham H. Maslow
Even my veterinarian, Dr. Joseph Spoo, told me recently: "...the reason we have so many obese dogs is that, in our increasingly busy lives, there is such a lack of personal contact and connection with our pets that the most significant amount of interaction [and thus perceptible happiness or excitability] dogs often get is at mealtimes or when we give them treats...why we see so many dogs licking their bowls clean and being over-fed"
There is so much small stimuli that affects behavior, thought and emotion....including things like: body language, the color of our clothing, the color of a room, where we position ourselves in a room…even particular scents in the air. The many ways in which we subtly affect those around us, be it neighbors, children or customers, results in how they feel...and feelings often drive perception.
(See: The Road Less Traveled, How to Win Friends and Influence People & Adam Alter's Drunk Tank Pink).
Comedian Eddie Izzard is certainly not the first to say it... but I love his routine ("Dressed To Kill") and his delivery of historical evidence which proves the idea that: [It’s not what you say as much as how you say it. It’s 70% How You Look, 20% How You Sound and only 10% What You Say...] The point is, I see all of these variables as tiny pins or acupuncture needles that alone are so small and insignificant but when they are all applied at the right time and in the right place with a high level of awareness and elevated EQ, they can have an overwhelmingly significant impact...and Disney not only "gets" this, but displays their mastery of this, like sorcery, at every magical turn.