The Experience Framework

Our first tours at Nordegg Adventures were built intuitively, based on what felt natural to us. We did things like adding hot chocolate with whipped cream to our ski bus because we’d always enjoyed the treat after a day of skiing, not because we understood how it helped reinforce the memories.

Over the years, as our company grew, we started to look deeper into why some of these details had big payoffs while other tours we offered didn’t succeed in the same way.

Most of the experience development frameworks we came across at the time were designed for historic sites, special events and organizations with a broad mandate like parks or large attractions.

The framework we use now looks quite different than it did a decade ago. It is still based on the same principles of creating memorable experiences with the guests as the heroes of their adventures but how we do it has seen a lot of refinements over the years.

Table of Content

What is the framework?

How to use the framework?

The moments

Authentic experiences

The constraints

The technical and service skills

Reinforcing memories

The experience framework brings together the elements we need to consider to craft and facilitate experiences that our guests will remember for a long time.

It’s not a list of things to do or a simple recipe but a collection of questions and tools we use to make the work easier.

While we originally designed it for adventure tourism, we’ve found that it works just as well at the Nordegg Canteen and that it can easily be applied to almost any tourism context.

We’re sharing it with you to make collaboration easier. It gives us a common language as we work on projects and we hope that you’ll share your experience to help improve it so that we can continue to make our destination even better.


What is the Framework?

It’s a collection of questions and tools we use to make sure that every product we create offers a memorable experience for our guests.

These are organized into five groups that each impact the final product:

  • The need for what we believe in, our ideal guests and the sense of place to be aligned to create authentic experiences;
  • The constraints that need to be addressed so that the experiences we create can be viable, desirable and feasible;
  • The skills that the staff must have to facilitate the product;
  • The types of moments offered; and
  • The ways we can reinforce the memories so that all of the elements come together into an unforgettable experience for the guests.

We’ll cover each of these in more detail below.


How To Use the Framework

First, it’s not a linear process. The moments are where we typically start since they provide us with the theme for the experiences offered but we find that constant improvements across all blocks provide the best results.

Second, we don’t need perfect execution of every block to create a memorable experience. Guests don’t average their experience, they remember the best – or worst if it’s stronger than the best – and the end of the experience. 

This means that most of what we do should go unnoticed by the guests so that they can be free to enjoy the moments. This gives us the freedom to choose which small details we want to amplify rather than trying to be perfect in every part of the experience.

Who Does What?

Every experience is centered around the ideal guest it’s built for and then personalized for the actual guests. They are an active participant in the creation of the moments and the perspectives they bring influence how the experience will be remembered.

The staff, whether they’re a guide, a cook or a front desk attendant, are the ones interacting directly with the guests. Their facilitation skills, both in the technical and service skills, play a critical role in how the guests will remember the experience.

The organization defines the types of moments offered, what makes an experience authentically theirs and how the constraints are addressed. It also provides the training and operating procedures that determine how the technical and service skills are implemented by the staff.


It (usually) Starts with the Moments

As we said above, using the framework is not a linear process. That being said, since the moments are what our guests remember long after the experience and the theme for our products, we find that it is usually a great place to start.

So, what do we mean by moments? They are our promise to the guests, going beyond the activities or places we visit. They are the reasons why the experience exists and the difference between:

Seeing the ice bubbles.

and

The awe of walking on ice in the grandeur of Abraham Lake on a search with a local guide for the magic of the ice bubbles and features.

While both can be great products to offer, seeing the ice bubbles is quite limited and relies on the weather conditions aligning in our favour. On the other hand, the awe of walking on ice with a local guide in search of ice bubbles provides a richer experience that can easily be personalized for each guest and adapted based on the conditions.

Finally, defining the moments we offer allows us to align our products with our motivations as experience providers, why our guests are choosing to book them and with the destination’s sense of place.

Defining The Moments

We find that the magic happens when the guests can reach a state where they forget about everything else that’s going on in their lives to just enjoy the experience. It’s similar to being in the zone, the concept of flow and mindfulness. We call it being lost in the moment.

Over the years we’ve found that there are four types of moments that our guests seek when planning a visit to Nordegg & Abraham Lake: goosebump, accomplishment, learning and connection moments.

Goosebump Moments are awe-inspiring experiences that rise above our ordinary world. It’s the feeling of being small in the grandeur of our landscape and the peaceful happiness that stops us in our tracks, without the need to understand why, as we enjoy the natural beauty of our region.

These are the moments we experience floating on a lake at sunrise, standing in a frozen canyon surrounded by walls of ice or sitting in the yard at the Canteen listening to live music as the sun sets over the mountains.

We can help guests reach those moments by choosing locations, times or activities that naturally boost the senses. We can augment these moments by raising the stakes, for example by adding a small element of challenge or enjoying a time-limited event like a sunrise, and/or by breaking the script to enjoy an unexpected surprise. Care must be taken however so that these elements complement the moment rather than overwhelm it.

Accomplishment Moments are experiences that challenge us to go outside of our comfort zone, making us proud of our achievements along with a sense of recognition for what we’ve accomplished. 

These are the moments we experience when we successfully paddle a more challenging river than we’re used to, when we’re taking in the views as we celebrate reaching the summit or while sharing photos of our adventures with friends afterward.

We can help guests reach those moments by using well-known objectives like reaching a summit, creating challenges like Canmore’s triple crown or identifying their personal goals, and then providing the coaching needed to support them, creating meaningful milestones along the way and celebrating the results afterward.

Learning Moments are insightful experiences that rewire our understanding of the world and how we think, leaving us with the feeling that everything now makes sense. 

These are the moments we experience when ice climbing suddenly becomes effortless or when the link between the migration of golden eagles and mountain formation becomes obvious, leaving us to see the region from a new perspective.

We can help guests reach those moments by sharing a clear insight and then allowing them to discover the answer while helping them link the facts together along the way.

Connection Moments are bonding experiences that make us feel welcomed as part of a group or in a place, giving us the sense that we belong here and shared meaning. It’s the warmth we feel as relationships grow, whether it’s within ourselves or amongst friends and family. 

These are the moments we experience when we share a special goosebump, learning or accomplishment moment with friends or family. We can help guests reach those moments by creating situations where they work together as a group toward a meaningful shared goal. 

These are also the moments we experience when we get the feeling of “having arrived” when returning to a place that means a lot to us. We can help guests reach those moments by providing opportunities for them to get to know locals on a personal level, sharing stories that create personal connections and giving them the time to immerse themselves. 

These moments are similar to the other three with the difference being that the feeling of connection with others or the place is the most memorable part of the experience.

Great Experiences Are Multidimensional

We refer to experiences based on their peak moment but great experiences are the result of a combination of moments. 

The moments’ compass helps us visualize our products to create a well-balanced experience for our guests.

  • Experiences that only include one type of moment tend to fall flat. For example, learning about limber pines while floating down the North Saskatchewan River with a local guide is a much stronger learning moment than simply reading about limber pines while at home.
  • Experiences that have two or more moments in the outside band tend to lack focus, leading to a distracting guest experience and a confusing marketing message. For example, attempting to teach guests about limber pine as they push their limits paddling down the North Saskatchewan River while trying to enjoy the sun setting on the Wilson Icefield is unlikely to be successful. 
  • The best adventures have one peak moment with the other three types of moments in a supporting role. For example, the goosebump moment of catching the sun setting on the Wilson Icefields is augmented by a local guide sharing a few stories of the limber pine that provide context, the company of a few good friends and trying something new by floating down the North Saskatchewan River on a raft. 

Authentic Experiences

Next up is authenticity, the foundation of memorable experiences. Being authentic was trendy in recent years but what we mean here is simpler. It’s about understanding our motivations and the region’s sense of place so that we can attract guests who will appreciate the experiences offered.

When we do this well, it feels natural and goes mostly unnoticed by the guests. When there’s a disconnect between the three the result is something that feels out of place or forced.

Who We Are – The Team

This starts with knowing our purpose and what we believe in as an organization. Once we are clear on this it becomes easier to find staff and experience delivery partners whose motivations align with ours so that the products offered feel cohesive.

Even when we offer a product on our own there are many other people indirectly involved. These can include land managers, planners, regulators, travel trade, destination organizations and many others. Taking the time to understand their motivations and the legislations to plans that influence the decisions they make is often key to creating a successful experience.

The Guests

The best experiences are built for a specific market segment: the people who will most enjoy it and are willing to pay for it. This allows us to create something focused and meaningful that can then be personalized for a wider audience. In most cases, the product will also appeal to several secondary markets with minor adjustments.

Each experience is built with the guests as the heroes of their adventures. To do this, we need to understand their needs, motivations and interests so that we can not only build a product that will appeal to them but so that we can more effectively market these experiences.

Our personas, Travel Alberta’s Ultimate Travellers and Destination Canada’s Explorer Quotient are great starting points to define the ideal guests for the experiences we offer.

The experiences we offer start long before the guests join us in person. That’s why we look at the entire journey for each product offered. The stages we use are:

  • Dreaming: The stories they come across inspire them to break from their ordinary world, planting the seed for adventure. This stage usually takes weeks or months and can even take years.
  • Planning: They want to travel but there are a lot of reasons why now is not the right time. At the same time, they are starting to build an itinerary in their mind and they are looking for people who can help them make the adventure happen.
  • Booking: There’s no turning back, the adventure is happening. The main reasons for backing out at this point are the lack of availability or a poor booking experience.
  • Anticipating: The adventure is almost here. They’re excited about what’s to come but also a little nervous. They want to know what to bring, what to expect weather-wise and any last-minute events or adventure ideas that they should add to their itinerary.
  • Experiencing: They here enjoying their visit and looking to immerse themselves in the moment.
  • Sharing: They enjoy some time to reflect and take in the moment before returning to reality.

Defining the journey requires empathy as we consider how the guests feel as well as what they think, say and do at each step. This provides us with an opportunity to solve the problems they face along the way and to define the value that our services provide.

The Region

The destination is not only our stage but also a key character in the experiences we create.

The first part is taking stock of the characteristics of the region, including the natural landscape, culture and people. The physical attributes will be the same for all of us but the meanings we assign to these will vary from one operator to another and from guest to guest. This provides us with another opportunity to differentiate what we offer from other operators.

The second aspect to consider is choosing the setting for the experience. That includes taking into account the location within the destination, the season and even the time of day that will elevate the moments we aim to create. For example, a waterfall that requires a short hike is often more rewarding than one you can drive to and seeing it during golden hour as the sun shines through the mist can take the experience from great to magical.

We then need to consider how the experience fits into the overall destination experience and seasonal themes. This includes how it aligns with our brand, David Thompson Country and Travel Alberta.

  • Our focus is on goosebump moments and connection moments between people and place.
  • David Thompson’s Country is focused on accomplishment and learning moments with the strongest brand recognition in the Edmonton and Central Alberta markets.
  • Travel Alberta’s brand is focused on goosebump moments and our connection to the province as Albertans.

Finally, alignment with the destination also requires us to consider how our experience will best fit within the existing destination experience. The destination experience pyramid we use is adapted from Travel Alberta:

Icons are the main reasons why visitors choose to come here. In a region like ours, where nature-based tourism is the main draw, the icons are typically related to the natural beauty of the landscape rather than a human-made product.

Signature experiences are the “must-do” products drawing out-of-province visitors to the region. They have a high level of refinement in their execution and allow guests to engage with the icons that drew them here.

Core experiences are the reasons visitors extend their stays and keep coming back. They are key to offering a well-rounded destination experience.

Supporting experiences may not be why visitors chose to come here but they’re what makes the difference between a good and a great destination experience.

Finally, creating experiences requires that the amenities, services and infrastructure needed are in place, or in some cases, that workarounds have been found for what’s missing.

Keep in mind that where a product falls on the pyramid is dependent on the target market. For example, photographers typically spend limited time at their hotel and, as a result, lodging is a supporting experience for them. A couple looking for a mountain getaway on the other hand is likely to consider a cabin stay a core, or even a signature, experience.


The Constraints

Experiences must be viable, desirable and feasible to be successful in the long term. We refer to these as the constraints: the elements that must be true for the experience to exist. Addressing these early on in the planning process helps ensure that the products we build are sustainable. 

We’re firm believers that constraints are things that make us more creative. Taking them into account early on in the process allows us to create better experiences and helps us avoid the costly realization later on that the tour we’ve built can’t be offered.

Viable 

Can this experience be commercially viable? We need to look at whether this experience can generate a profit and if the investment required can be recouped. This includes looking at the market conditions to make sure that there is sufficient demand. If we are planning to work with the travel trade we need to take into consideration existing itineraries and whether this experience would be a match with their existing products.

In our experience, it takes three seasons for a new product to reach viability. The first season sees mostly returning guests and visitors who are already familiar with what we offer. The second season builds on these early adopters attracting their friends and family through word of mouth. The third season starts to see enough momentum to attract guests who are new to us or the destination.

A few questions to consider:

  • Does it solve a problem for our guests?
  • Is there a market for it?
  • Can it be priced to generate a profit or can it produce the outcomes required to sustain funding?
  • Do we have the resources to support the product through the first 3 seasons?

Example: Visitors are worried about safety, having the right equipment and making sure that they find the best spots for ice bubbles when visiting Abraham Lake in the winter. The ice walks we offer solve those three problems for our guests.

Desirable

A desirable adventure is one that meets the needs of the guests while having a positive impact, or at least minimizing negative consequences, on the local community and environment.

What does it mean in practice? We follow our guiding principle that caring for the environment and each other is not a trend, it’s part of living. We use an approach of normalizing actions like reducing idle time on vehicles, using reusable or compostable containers, and following Leave no Trace principles. Our guests notice those things without us having to tell them.

We also embrace the fact that anything we do in this regard will be imperfect. The goal is to do the best we can, given our resources and the reality we live in.

Example: Expanse Cottages has fostered a quiet and relaxing environment without overcrowding, ensuring that their neighbours are not negatively affected by increased traffic and noise. 

Feasible

Not every experience we dream up is feasible, at least in the short term. A few things to consider:

  • Do we have the certifications, permits and insurance needed to deliver the experience? If not, how long will the process be or can we partner with another established experience provider?
  • Is it feasible within our current operations or will it require major changes? Is this something we can offer on a regular basis or is it better as a special event?

Example: We do not offer alcoholic beverages on our tours, other than special events or while at the Canteen, since it is not currently covered under our insurance nor allowed under our AGLC liquor license. 

Another element to consider is whether the region is ready for the proposed experience. You can see below how using our experience framework helps you to address the key blocks of destination development identified by Travel Alberta.


The Technical and Service Skills

Once we have these in place it’s time to tackle the building blocks of the adventure. That’s where the smaller details come together to create the moments.

These are the elements that frontline staff facilitate on a daily basis to deliver a positive experience for the guests. Unlike the authentic experiences and constraints blocks that happen mostly behind the scenes, these blocks happen in front of the guests.

The technical skills refer to the actions performed by the staff and guests as part of the activities and to ensure a safe experience. How these are performed is often prescribed through certifications, legislations and industry standards.

The service skills refers to the actions performed by the staff to create a warm, welcoming and engaging environment for the guests. Each company tends to have a unique approach to hospitality and storytelling that helps differentiate the experiences offered.

After all, the guests expect certain things like that the chef knows how to prepare the dish and that the guide has a safety plan for their adventure but how we make people feel is what leaves a lasting impression.

The Activities

There are two parts to the activities: the skills needed by the staff and those needed by the guests.

On the staff side, this means providing the training required for each activity, whether it’s cooking, housekeeping, hiking or snowshoeing.

Example: Expanse Cottages trains their cleaning staff to their specific standard and has developed cleaning procedures to ensure the accommodations are to the standard advertised to their guests.

On the guest side, it means ensuring that the guests have the minimum skills required prior to the activity, providing instruction as required and choosing activities that offer an appropriate level of challenge for the skills required.

Example: We provide winter hikes to frozen waterfalls on easy to moderate trails so that they can be enjoyed by guests with minimal winter hiking experience.

Safety

Great experiences require a safe environment, physically and emotionally. Going outside of our daily lives is mentally demanding and requires a level of trust between the guest and the experience provider. Creating a safe environment allows the guests to focus on the task at hand and to enter a state of flow that is conducive to enjoying the moments.

Creating a safe environment means a number of things, from showing inclusivity and diversity early on in the journey to ensuring that the guests have the information needed to be comfortable with their decisions.

This is achieved through a combination of staff training and the implementation of risk management programs. In most cases this process is prescribed by OH&S legislation and industry standards, and requires us to think about the staff, our guests and the public that may be impacted by our operations.

Example: Our guides are trained on and follow a risk management plan and emergency action plan for each tour offered.

In many cases, safety is the perfect example of something that goes unnoticed when done well but where a failure can quickly overshadow the best parts of the experience.

Example: Food safety protocols are provincially enforced for all restaurants so that guests can focus on their meals rather than checking kitchen procedures.

It does not necessarily mean removing all risks but rather managing them to an acceptable level. This will vary with the experience offered but in most adventure a certain level of perceived risk is key to creating memorable experiences.

Example: The perceived risk associated with ice climbing is desirable and enhances the feeling of accomplishment.

Hospitality

While how we approach hospitality varies between experience providers, great hospitality always make the guests feel welcomed with warmth, cared for and that the experience was created just for them. 

Creating a sense of arrival, making charitable assumptions in difficult situations, focusing on the positive and paying attention to the small details, especially at the peak and end of the experience, are all ways that we can create the feeling of being welcomed and cared about.

Crafting guest-centered experiences starts with knowing our guests and reading their minds (i.e. observing and listening) so that we can anticipate their needs. 

Example: A warm smile and friendly welcome always await you upon entering the Beehive Artisans Market. The market offers meaningful gifts and locally crafted items that appeal to their guests while the thoughtful layout shows care in both the small details and the guest experience.

Stories

Stories allow us to go beyond simply sharing facts to create something that resonates with our guests. As with hospitality, this is an opportunity for each experience provider to differentiate themselves. 

Using the story spine framework or the 5-star framework helps create a storyline that flows throughout the entire experience with shorter stories building on each other as the experience unfolds. While we often tell stories intuitively on products we create, spending the time to define these stories creates consistency when multiple staff facilitate the same product.

There are some differences in the types of stories and how we share them depending on the type of moment we aim to create. For example:

  • Learning moments rely on information to help our guests understand the region’s natural and human history. 
  • Accomplishment moments rely on motivational stories.
  • Connection moments rely on the personal stories of the guests, local characters and the experience provider.
  • Goosebumps moments rely on stories that elevate the significance of the moment.

Sharing stories starts long before the guests arrive with marketing setting the stage early on in the journey for the in-person experience.

Example: The website of Rockies Heli Canada is crafted to share the story of breathtaking aerial views, adventures and intimacy from a unique perspective. These storylines continue as the guests head out on a flight with the pilot sharing stories of the local characters that have shaped the region before taking them to those breathtaking views of peaks and glaciers.

Another aspect to consider is the storytelling techniques and the staging required. This includes the props used, where staff stand when engaging the guests, the hand gestures used, the uniforms worn and much more.


Reinforcing Memories

The experience is what the guests remember long afterward.

How we end the experience is an opportunity to solidify the key moments, making it easier for the guests to carry those memories home and share them with others.

This can be done through a number of ways including offering a meaningful memento for the guests to take home, a ceremony that celebrates the time spent together, creating photo opportunities or a follow up message. 

Example: Rockies Heli Canada provides a tangible memento by printing a photo of the guests and the helicopter for them to take home.

Example: We include time at the end of our winter tours for the guides and guests to share highlights of their experience while enjoying a hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows.