Balloons-aj Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore in their book, The Experience Economy, describe the economic progression from commodities to goods to services to experiences using the example of a birthday.  They begin by reminding us that at one time birthday celebrations centered on the cake that was lovingly baked by Mom from commodities such as eggs, butter, sugar and flour.  As more women took jobs outside the home and had less time for cooking, more and more birthday cakes were baked using a manufactured “good” in the form of a cake mix.   As women became even more time starved, the baking of the cake was relegated to a cake-baking service (the bakery) and we were celebrating birthdays in the service economy with “store bought” cakes.  Today, the cake has almost been abandoned in the staging of elaborate birthday experiences … welcome to the Experience Economy!

What Pine and Gilmore did not explain was what can happen when the birthday experience bumps into the digital age.

Earlier this week, I was part of an initiative hosted at a luxury resort.   On the second day, I returned to my room and discovered a cheery bunch of balloons complete with brightly colored ribbons.  I was at the resort for the pilot of a leadership celebration of sorts, so I gave this little thought thinking this was part of the process … on day two everyone got balloons!  Later that evening, I opened the card with my name nicely printed on the outside.  There was my name again (first and last) … and the message, “Happy Birthday!”

My birthday is in June.  Was this a digital error and the wrong message had been printed?  Or were the balloons a mistake?  A call to the front desk of the resort confirmed in no uncertain terms that balloons were for me.  No mistake had been made.  I was to keep the balloons and enjoy my birthday.

The balloons were forgotten until the next day when during the mid-morning break, a huge cake was wheeled in with candles burning.  Everyone was urged to join in singing Happy Birthday to Kathy!  My heart stopped … it’s not my birthday!

To my relief, the cake continued to the next table where the Kathy with the real birthday sat.  At the first opportunity I came clean on likely having her birthday balloons.  Aside from the embarrassment, I was left wondering how many other birthday gift experiences go missing or are delivered to the wrong person?  I suspect I will never find out how my name and room number showed up on the balloons.   In a final bit of irony, the hotel’s front desk wished me Happy Birthday as I checked out.

  • Could your organization be doing nice things for the wrong people?  
  • How would you know?