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By Scott Swenson
On July 30, 2018, Gantom Lighting & Controls hosted its second annual Leadership Symposium for Seasonal Attractions aboard the historic and haunted Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Crafting memorable first impressions using the critical elements of elevation, insight, pride, and connection was the touchstone for presentations at this year’s event.
Scott Swenson’s presentation was titled, “The First Seven Seconds : You Have Less Time Than You Think to Make a Powerful First Impression,” and he began with a personal story of first impressions. “Yesterday I had the opportunity to check into this beautiful, floating environment here [at the Queen Mary]. I did an early check-in, dropped off my luggage, went over to a tradeshow that was happening at the convention center, and came back. As I walked into the hotel, one of the employees downstairs said, ‘Welcome back, sir.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ However, then I got to thinking as I stepped into the elevator, how did he know I was here this morning? Boy, did he make me feel special. Then I realized I was holding my room key in my hand. He recognized I had a room key and welcomed me back to the Queen Mary before I’d even officially checked in,” stated Scott.
“This is exactly what I’m going to talk about today—the power of the first impression. To make a good first impression, you don’t have to file a capital project. All you have to do is try to elevate the moment. First impressions happen a lot faster than you think,” he noted.
“In the first seven seconds, we trigger in each other a chain of emotional reactions ranging from reassurance to fear. I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.’ That’s not 100% true. You can overcome a bad first impression—whether it’s a business first impression, a guest’s first impression of an event, or even a personal first impression.”
Scott continued, “So, seven seconds isn’t a ton of time. Recent studies say this happens in three. If you’ve ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, he says three seconds is all you need.”
The Critical Components of Those First Seven Seconds
“What can we do in seven seconds to make somebody feel better about us? What can we do to make a good first impression?” Scott asked members of the audience.
“Smile!” someone offered.
“Perfect answer!” replied Scott. “And you’ve got it in the right order, too. Smiling is the first thing we should do, because what effect does it have?
“It makes you happy,” came the reply from another audience member.
“You’re absolutely right. It makes the individual happy. Moreover, what does it do for the interaction?”
Another reply: “It shows you’re not a threat.”
“I love that,” replied Scott. “It shows you’re not a threat, and it also shows you’re an approachable, likable individual. We don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to find the foulest, rotten, horrible person to hang out with all day, and I’m going to do nice things for them.’ Some of us may be forced to do that based on the nature of our current jobs, but that’s not what we aspire to. So, be that nice person. Be that person that smiles. This is so very, very simple,” he said. “What next?”
“So, now that we know how to do this as individuals let’s talk about how we can apply this to events and interactive experiences. I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell earlier. Gladwell says, ‘Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means we can change our first impressions by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.’ This means we can craft elevated moments, a term that you’ll hear numerous times throughout the course of the day. Elevated moments are moments that will become EPIC, and I’ll explain what that means in more detail in just a second. We can craft good first impressions for our business dealings, for our guests, for our events at our various parks and haunts, and wherever you happen to work,” Scott stated.
When Does the First ‘First Impression’ Occur?
Before we’re able to craft a first impression, we have to identify when first impressions begin. “What’s a true first impression of an event or an experience? Is it when the performance begins? Is it when guests arrive at the venue? Is it when guests purchase their ticket? Is it in the parking lot before they even get out of their cars? Is it their first exposure to the event itself? The answer to all of these questions is yes,” he said.
“When we’re dealing with an experience or an interactive festival or whatever you want to call it, each guest has a different first impression because they join the event at different times. Let me explain. You, as the guest, may not have been the one who purchased the tickets, so that process didn’t affect you. You may not be the one driving, so your experience of the parking lot doesn’t matter. However, we have to consider all of these milestones as potential first impressions for your guests,” he observed.
Ramping Up First Impressions to the EPIC Level
Next, Scott provided examples of several first-impression moments to give the audience some fodder for brainstorming topics or techniques to elevate these moments to an EPIC level. “First, I’m going to briefly touch on what EPIC means. EPIC is an acronym that stands for elevation, pride, insight, and connection. I’m going to give examples in which we look at each of these. Remembering these four terms is a simple litmus test to figure out if your events are working.”
Scott began with a personal story about first exposure. “First exposure happens with your marketing team when guests become aware of your event. After I left Busch Gardens, I was the creative director and writer for an event in Tampa called The Vault of Souls. This was an immersive theater piece that took place in a 15,000-square-foot basement underneath a bank built in 1923. Because this event was interactive, we wanted to make certain that our first contact with guests from a marketing standpoint was unusual. We wanted to find a way to flip the script, to elevate that experience, and to make it something different.”
Scott continued, “So, we did what we call targeted apparitions. Around the city of Tampa, we had these characters appear unannounced carrying nothing but a small postcard that had our logo [the letter ‘V’] on the front and, on the back, the words ‘Join us’ with our website. That was the first contact. This did a couple of things. It made guests realize this wasn’t an ordinary event, and it also scared the hell out of some people as they drove by—two excellent characteristics for any Halloween event. We were doing these targeted apparitions so often that they started to show up on social media. People were saying, ‘What the hell is this? There’s a V and then a website.’ The website was ElegantFear.com—not even the name of the event. So, we tagged onto this, capitalized on this social media trend, and put out a little video of our own,” he explained.
“You’d be surprised how impactful that little media whisper was. It made people realize that this was something new, something different, and something odd. It forced them to become interactive because they had to try to figure it out, and that’s exactly what the experience was about. Not only did we make a good first impression—or an unusual first impression—we elevated it, we flipped the script, we made it interactive, and we forced our guests to connect with us. Did it hit absolutely everybody in Tampa? No. Was the event for absolutely everybody in Tampa? No. However, it’s a great example of how that first contact or first exposure can be elevated to an EPIC level,” he explained.
Don’t Forget the Parking Lot
Scott next talked about parking-lot experiences. This might not seem to be worth much consideration, but, as Scott pointed out, “Any time you go to a major theme park, what’s the most tiresome and challenging moment you have? Getting into and navigating that parking lot for the very first time. It’s been proven over and over again that guests don’t rate an experience in their mind based on an average of how good each moment was. They remember the super highs and the super lows. So, with that in mind, get rid of the super lows and have one or two things that go to an 11 on the scale of 10,” he advised.
Guests’ parking lot experience is something not to be neglected, and it can set the tone for their entire journey through your attraction. Scott gave an example. “We did something with Howl-O-Scream in our parking lot that was much fun. We had a crashed automobile in our warehouse, and we put it out in the parking lot, filled it with zombies, and had them eating what appeared to be guests. So, as guests came into the park, their trams would drive by this destroyed vehicle with a zombie attack going on. This was before they walked through the gates. So, their first impression was, ‘This ain’t right.’ My favorite comment was from a guest who walked by me as I was standing in front of the park with my nametag on. He said, ‘Is that gonna happen to my car?’ I looked at him and I said, ‘Oh, I hope not.’”
The Elements of Making a Memorable First Impression
During the symposium, attendees participated in workshops in which they experimented with the four elements responsible for making a memorable first impression to understand how each one contributed to the overall effect. Scott described how he implements these four elements:
Elevate. “Take a moment and make it better, more unusual, and more than guests expect.”
Pride. “We remember the things that made us feel good about ourselves. I demonstrated this at the outset of my presentation when I asked you what was important to do in the first seven seconds. I let you discover that on your own. You should have felt a sense of pride when you said to yourself, ‘I knew that.’ As a result, you’ll remember it longer and share it with people,” stated Scott.
Insight. “This means allowing guests to make discoveries on their own as we did with our advertising for Vault of Souls. Guests were able to discover what the V stood for and what the website was, and that’s what the event was like, too. They had to uncover their own story,” he noted.
Connection. “Encourage your guests to participate versus watch, just like I did at the beginning of this talk. I asked you to become engaged by answering questions. I involved you.”
Sidebar: Working with the Four EPIC Elements—Definitions from the Symposium Worksheets
Elevation refers to experiences that rise above the routine to make you feel engaged, joyful, amazed, or motivated. To create them, we can (1) boost the sensory appeal, (2) raise the stakes, and (3) break the script.
Three strategies deliver pride: (1) Recognizing others. A small investment of effort yields a considerable reward for the recipient; (2) multiplying significant milestones—re-frame a long journey so it features multiple “finish lines;” and (3) practicing courage by “preloading” our responses in advance, so we’re ready when the right moment comes.
Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations. To produce moments of insight for audiences, we cause them to “trip over the truth” by revealing (1) a clear insight that’s (2) compressed in time and (3) discovered by the audience. To produce moments of self-insight, we must stretch ourselves, putting ourselves in situations that involve the risk of failure.
Moments of connection bond us together. Groups unite when they struggle together toward a meaningful goal. To spark moments of connection for groups, we must provide: (1) a synchronized moment, (2) a shared struggle, and (3) a connection to meaning.
- Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means we can change our first impressions by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.
- We can craft good first impressions for our business dealings, for our guests, for our events at our various parks and haunts, and wherever you happen to work.
- Before we’re able to craft a first impression, we have to identify when first impressions begin.
- EPIC is an acronym that stands for elevation, pride, insight, and connection. Remembering these four terms is a simple litmus test to figure out if your events are working.
- It’s been proven over and over again that guests don’t rate an experience in their mind based on an average of how good each moment was. They remember the super highs and the super lows. So, with that in mind, get rid of the super lows and have one or two things that go to an 11 on the scale of 10.
- The four key aspects of EPIC need to be applied to all first impressions—first contact, the parking lot, ticket sales, gate experience, the preliminaries of the experience or performance, and the event itself.
- Remember that the shortest path to mediocrity is practicality. Don’t seek to find what’s easiest to execute. Seek to find what’s best for your guests and your clients, and what will make each moment, especially those first impressions, an EPIC moment.
The Third Annual Leadership Symposium for Seasonal Attractions will be held on December 9, 2019 and hosted by “Christmas at Gaylord Palms” at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Florida. Register at: leadership-symposium.org.