I took the road less travelled….and ended up in a traffic jam


There was a great Guardian article recently that highlighted the results of a recent survey showing consumer spending on goods and products was declining while spending on experiences was growing.

The article resonated loudly with me – and in truth reflected much of my own life as a consumer.

The term ‘Experience Economy’ was first coined in 1988 – about the time I got to college and started spending my own money and if I think back to that period many of my memories are of experiences rather than acquiring stuff.

I remember clambering up the Pyramids at Giza, hiring bikes to cycle out to the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, climbing to the top of Ayers Rock as it was then known and for some reason throwing myself off a viaduct attached to a bungee cord at one of the early such experiences in Normandy. On my honeymoon we trekked along the Inca trail to Macchu Pichu. We brought bows with the best crossbow scope, just in case we ran into any animals.

Rightly it is no longer possible to climb either the Pyramids or Uluru as the damage being done was even then all too apparent and numbers along the Inca Trail are strictly controlled. However for those inclined you can still launch yourself from an old railway viaduct 140 metres above the Souleuvre – but really why would you?

When I lived in Paris in the early 90s I sought out the less visited parts of the city, often by bike, and often alone as friends saw no delight in joining me on another tour of some abstract museum such as the Egouts (sewer), the Catacombs or the various waterways, green spaces and bookshops of the city.

Living near Highate in London I loved a mooch around the cemeteries nearby where the Victorian funeral architecture and greenery created a wonderful space unlike any other part of the Capital.

And when I moved to Chicago I revelled in trying out experiences that were as much about participation as anything else. I joined a few thousand other people in Grant Park one night at midnight for a cycle through the city arriving back on the lakeshore as the sun rose around 6am.

More recently I joined a Wacky Rally to Barcelona where the participants and vehicles were designed to various themes and the only rule is that the car was not allowed to cost more than £500. Around 50 such vehicles met in Lille before meandering through Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain completing various challenges on the way. The winner that year was a Mazda that had been re-designed to resemble a garden shed and whose heater broke after day 1 turning the shed into a 60mph sauna.

Growing up in Oxford I had always tried to avoid the crowds. I avoided walking down Cornmarket or the High Street preferring the narrow lanes and pedestrian alleyways filled with more unusual and traditional shops, back doorways into the green and honey coloured stone quads of the Colleges each framed by a collection of bicycles attached to every railing, lamppost or sign.

And now I have my own family, I have tried to take them on roads less travelled much of which has involved cycling through various bits of France. Initially this involved them sitting in a kind of wagon that I dragged behind my bike before graduating to a tandem which when my son stopped peddling had the effect of causing me to lunge forward and scrape my ankles. He would nod in agreement each time we discussed this and 5 minutes later would forget again. Eventually and gratefully they graduated to their own bikes.

Last year for a change and having spent what I thought was a wonderful time meandering through the lakes and mountains of the Julian Alps in Slovenia my younger son (aged 12) put his foot down and said he really had enough of cycling holidays and could we please go and stay in one place by a beach and not do anything. He had experience economy overload!

Consumers clearly have a choice what they spend their money on and increasingly it is clear that the choice that consumers are making is to have experiences, to create memories, to do something different. And the cost of this experience economy? Well my car is now 13 years old and I reckon can do at least another 5 years, I shop at Asda and my jeans come from M&S. Would I change that? No way!

Innovation in the field of participatory – or experiential events – is enormous. In Brighton alone I saw during my time as destination manager a Marathon, 10k and half-marathon, the London to Brighton Bike Ride, a paddle round the pier and a new Triathlon as well as a host of other events which create opportunities to have unique experiences in a beautiful setting. Of course Brighton is not alone in this regard and towns and cities throughout the country have seen events drive tourism.

The only trouble with the growing experience economy is that all those quiet little lanes, unusual shops, quirky tours and bespoke events that only I used to do are now mainstream and filled with people.

Hardly a month goes by and I’m not asked to sponsor someone climbing Kilimanjaro, cycling to Paris, trekking to Everest basecamp or rowing the Atlantic. Places that 25 years ago were well off the beaten track are now so mainstream that it is difficult to know where I can explore that is new.

Increasingly and as everyone else looks to more exotic destinations for their experiences I find myself looking to my own backyard. Luckily it’s Brighton Festival, Fringe and the Artists Open Houses right now and I can tour behind the scenes of the railway station, Shoreham Port, the art deco Embassy Court, a historic Synagogue and the Buddhist Centre…or at least I would if they weren’t all fully booked!