The Business of Weird: Why People Pay for Bizarre Experiences

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There’s a growing trend in the world of travel and leisure, and it’s, well, weird. Hotels where guests sleep on blocks of ice or inside prison cells are on the rise, and there’s no shortage of strange at today’s restaurants either (stir-fried crickets, anyone?). Interestingly enough, when two Columbia Business School researchers looked into this phenomenon, they found an equally odd reason for it all.

“Contrary to what people predict, it’s not young and impulsive people who want to pay so much for these crazy experiences. It’s actually people who plan and are obsessed with being productive,” says Anat Keinan, who now teaches marketing at Harvard Business School. “During their vacation and leisure time, they also want to feel that sense of progress.” (More on Ice-Cold Comfort)

Keinan and fellow researcher Ran Kivetz investigated the dynamics of marketing weird experiences for a study slated to appear in the April 2011 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. In the study’s first three experiments, the researchers established that consumers buy into these unusual experiences because they are considered “collectible,” not because they’re pleasurable. The following five experiments confirmed that it is those who are fixated on productivity that tend to desire these collectible experiences.

“Productivity-oriented people measure their self-worth in terms of accomplishments,” Keinan says. “They want to collect as many memorable experiences as possible to build their experiential resume. They’re in production mode even when they’re on vacation.” (More on Is Work Flexibility Good or Bad? It’s Complicated)

Keinan and Kivetz’s study reveals several insights about the business of weird. For instance, selling souvenirs is important, not just because of the revenues they bring, but also because productivity-conscious people feel the need to document their accomplishments. Targeting people at important milestones is just as critical, since these are times when they look at their proverbial bucket lists and ask, “What else haven’t I done in my life?”

The researchers also proved the power of suggestion in a two-part experiment involving chocolate truffles. They first measured the productivity orientation of 229 participants using questions like “Do you push the door-close button when using the elevator?” and “Do you find ways to be productive while commuting or waiting for appointments?” (More on Why We Strive for Money Over Time — and Why It’s a Mistake)

After this pre-test, the researchers divided the remaining 101 respondents into two groups and asked them to choose between a chocolate truffle with caramel versus one with flowers and spices. The only difference between the two groups was, in the first, the flowers-and-spices truffle was described as pleasurable (“tasty and delicious”) while, in the second, it was depicted as collectible (“unique and exotic”). As it would turn out, the respondents who scored high in the productivity-orientation scale were more likely to choose the out of the ordinary over the yummy.

“Marketers should remember that these people are not just buying products,” Keinan says about the results. “They’re buying experiences.” (More on Eating Bugs)

Perhaps they should also note that, though the study is thorough and informative, it’s not perfect. Michael Steger, a social psychologist at the Colorado State University, says one major limitation “is that ‘cost’ is not considered” in several of its experiments. (Keinan maintains that their findings are still valid since the collectible options tended to be more expensive and were therefore chosen in spite of their priciness.)

Still, regardless of what those in sales may pick up from her study, Keinan hopes that the loved ones of workaholics can at least pick up some tips on how to broach the subject of a vacation.

“Try positioning it as an investment in his future memories so he’ll feel less guilty for taking time off,” she says, adding, “or maybe instead of suggesting going to a regular spa, suggest a beer spa. Since it’s something crazy and unusual, he might be more willing to do it.” (More on Top 10 Odd Spa Treatments)

University of Maryland marketing professor Rebecca Ratner proposes something more direct: appealing to the workaholic’s obsession with the office. “Vacations do boost work productivity,” she says, “so maybe allowing ourselves that true leisure time at least sometimes is what we need to be more productive.”

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