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Managing a winter wonderland

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dog sledTourism is a prime example of a service that creates experiences and evokes customers' emotions. The nature of these experiences is critical for the tourist industry, because intangible experiences are the core of their product or service.

A recent study focused on what types of atmospheric experiences emotionally touched visitors at a winter park in Norway. The study investigated whether ambience, interaction, and design are causes of joy, and whether joy is an effect of ambience, interaction, and design. It also tested whether customer loyalty is an outcome of a joyful experience.

The park

The winter park the researchers chose is located in eastern Norway. There are various attractions inside the park, such as shows, restaurants, and shops, for both children and adults. In the middle of the park, there is an elegantly lit ice hotel where visitors can spend the night. Inside the hotel, there is also an ice cathedral and an ice restaurant. The hotel is located near a huge fairytale palace where visitors can see characters from Norwegian folktales. There are different coloured lights, bonfires burning birch-wood, flambeaux, and various pleasant odours (such as the smell of freshly baked Norwegian waffles and other food) emanate from the outdoor cafes found at various locations around the park. Every night, the park has a firework display, and a fantastic son-et-lumière creation of lighting set to music.

The research

The research took the form of a customer survey, conducted during the winter park opening season (January to March, i.e. the coldest period of winter in the Northern hemisphere). Responses were collected at the end of opening hours to ensure that respondents had been in the park for a sufficient amount of time and thus had sufficient experience of their visit to the winter park to participate. 162 customers were interviewed using a structured questionnaire.

The results

As expected, the customers' perceptions of the interactions with the service providers in the winter park were found to be positively related to the customers' feelings of joy. The customers' perceptions of the designs in the winter park were also discovered to be positively related to the customers' feelings of joy. A link between customers' perceptions of the ambience in the winter park and their feelings of joy was present, but not massively significant. Finally, it was found that the customers' feelings of joy were positively associated with customer loyalty.

The findings revealed that design was the most important construct linked to the outcome of customers' experiences. The construct of design referred to the physical (or tangible) and observable elements that customers experienced during a visit. Design directly affects customers' feeling of joy, and, therefore, by extension, design indirectly affected customer loyalty. Consequently, design is a crucial construct in relation to both customers' feelings of joy and customer loyalty.

Unsurprisingly, interaction was also linked to customers' feelings of joy. Interaction (in this case between customers and those employees the customers come into direct contact with) is a meaningful and creative process whereby the outcome of such interactions is positive when the interaction is appreciated. Customers who hold positive beliefs about the service providers (e.g. service providers' friendliness) will also feel positive about other related aspects of the encounter.

The findings related to ambience revealed that the link between these two constructs is positive, but it was not statistically significant. This result could lead to a mistaken interpretation that ambience does not matter for customers' feelings of joy. However, from studies of other service settings such as retailing, it is well known that ambience is linked to customers' emotions. It is therefore assumed that this should also be the case in a hedonic setting such as a winter park.

Customers' feelings of joy were strongly linked to customer loyalty. One reason for the role of customers' feelings of joy could be that they are goal-directed in nature, as they are those emotions that a person consciously seeks to experience. It is reasonable to assume that one important goal in visiting a winter park is to have an experience that evokes ones' feelings of joy. Consequently, the customers' feelings of joy play an important role for hedonic services, since experiential emotions of joy may constitute the main outcome of such services.

"Customers' experiences resulting in positive emotional reactions are increasingly being seen as a real and sustainable differentiator between competing firms, and atmospheric facets can be such differentiators that they contribute to customers' feelings of joy.”

Managerial implications

Authors have argued over whether creating memorable experiences is critical to retaining current customers and attracting new ones. We believe that it is. The findings of the study hold implications for mangers of hedonic services. It is also reasonable to assume that the findings may be generalized or adapted to other service settings or service sectors. For example, the findings may be generalized to the hospitality sector, where an important goal for the service provider it that the customer is having a joyful experience.

It is reasonable to assume that customer's perceptions of design in the hospitality sector (e.g. in the design of a hotel) and interaction (e.g. interaction with frontline or other personnel at the hotel) are both linked to customers' feelings (e.g. joy). Subsequently, there is reason to assume that the findings can be applicable or adapted to other service settings or service sectors.

One important managerial implication derived from the study is the importance of taking customers' emotions into consideration when measuring their experiences. The study found a strong relationship between customers' feelings of joy and customer loyalty. It seems that customers' feelings of joy act as a source of information that they may use in the formation of their attitudes. It is useful for managers to measure customers' feelings of joy, since it can help to predict whether customers are willing to recommend the service offered to other people.

Today's firms are competing with “experiences”. Organizations must strive to orchestrate or to stimulate positive emotional reactions to be successful. The study has indicated the need for managers to focus on design. Managers employing design in an effective manner may make their customers feel comfortable, which may result in customers' loyal behaviour. One way to “design for customers' emotions” is to use customers actively in the process of designing the service. For example, using “customer focus groups” may contribute to the service-development process, which may lead to bridging the gap between customers' expectations and their experiences. A service-development approach, whereby customers take an active part in the process of service design, may help to ensure that managers develop customer services that are more successful.

The findings from the study also indicated the importance of customers' interaction in atmospheric experiences of hedonic services. Specifically, the study revealed that managers must regard their employees as critical assets, owing to the interactive nature of service delivery. It is important that managers train, reward, and empower their employees in an appropriate manner. There is a need for managers to identify critical areas linked to employees' interactions with customers and review them continuously. Managers who are able to satisfy what employees need in order to be able to do their jobs properly may have customers who are more emotionally satisfied.

Customers' experiences resulting in positive emotional reactions are increasingly being seen as a real and sustainable differentiator between competing firms, and atmospheric facets can be such differentiators that they contribute to customers' feelings of joy. The study emphasizes how important it is that managers of hedonic services consider the significance of the atmospheric construct of design in such a way that it contributes positively to customers' experiences of the service setting. In particular, managers should focus on design in relation to customers' experiences in order to evoke feelings of joy.

December 2010
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This is a shortened version of “Atmospheric experiences that emotionally touch customers - A case study from a winter park”, which originally appeared in Managing Service Quality, Volume 19, Number 6, 2009.

The authors are Terje Slåtten, Mehmet Mehmetoglu, Göran Svensson, and Sander Sværi.