I had an amazing experience last weekend.
We hosted an event that we called the Home Homecoming, where nearly all of our home’s former occupants came back, from the 1930s to the present. Our home came alive with everyone’s fascinating stories. My family and I learned more about the history of our home. And, we built relationships we’ll cherish for years to come.
I also learned a lot about designing experiences from my new friend, Denie.
Denie was one of the first people to live and play among the towering pines that dot the home’s eleven acres of pastures and woodlands along Nancy Creek. Her parents built the home in 1938, when Buckhead was crisscrossed with dirt roads and Denie was a rambunctious 8-year old. She remembers frying bacon in a Crisco can in the woods and riding horses with her Dad across the Chattahoochee River into Vinings. She remembers the shock on her mother’s face when she saw the black crayon train her brother had drawn around the chair rail in the formal dining room. Her stories have given us a wonderful glimpse into our home’s past.
We first heard these stories in person when we met Denie and her husband in May this year, when they were in town for a wedding, and we invited them to swing by our home. We had such fun running around the house that Friday afternoon that none of us wanted our visit to end. It was then we hatched our idea: let’s invite everyone back. The math was simple. If it was this fun for two families to meet, it should be even better if everyone got together! We decided to bring together as many of the former occupants of the home as we could. Denie helped me design the event, and I learned a tremendous amount from her.
Here are the four secrets I learned to design an amazing and memorable experience.
- Make it unique
I don’t know if anyone else has ever had the crazy idea of having a homecoming for a home, so our theme was already unique. But, we wanted it to be over-the-top unique, so we added to it. The architect renovating our basement into a 1930s tavern brewed and brought a custom beer he dubbed “Bunnell Blonde.” Denie’s daughter owns Piece Of Cake, a wonderful bakery in Atlanta, and she brought a delicious red velvet cake no one could pass up. From the Welcome Home balloons on the mailbox to the group photos sent out after the event, we tried to think through every aspect of the day’s experience.
Back to you. What can you do to make your next event more unique and memorable? Maybe the theme could be sports, holidays, music, a movie, a tv show, or even some exotic location. If you’re planning a work event, maybe the theme could be an emerging business trend or new skill you want to emphasize. I learned this from Denie: delight is in the details. Whatever the theme, it’s the execution of that theme that will make the magic.
People want to be wowed. How can you give them an experience they can’t get anywhere else?
- Create a learning opportunity
When Denie and I started inviting people to our Home Homecoming, we let them know we would have two surprise guests, but we didn’t disclose who. Betty Dowling is an architect and the world’s preeminent expert on Philip Shutze, the architect who designed our home. Betty’s book, American Classicist, The Architecture of Philip Trammel Shutze, is a beautiful tribute to Shutze’s most important works, including The Swan House in Atlanta. (If you watched The Hunger Games movies, The Swan House is where the Presidential Palace was filmed). Author and historian Bob Jenkins has written extensively about the Civil War battles that led to the fall of Atlanta. His book, To The Gates Of Atlanta, shows specifically how the Civil War marched through the very ground where our home sits.
Our surprise guests both entertained and educated everyone. Before lunch, Betty captivated us with her insights into what Shutze might have been thinking when he designed our home. She took people on a room-by-room tour, telling us what he might have said were he still alive and with us that day. She took us into the mind of the famous architect designing a New England style farmhouse, deep in the South, in the middle of the Great Depression.
After lunch, beside a roaring outdoor fire, Bob regaled us with rousing stories of the political and military campaigns of the Civil War. We were mesmerized by his recounting of the five thousand Federal troops who maneuvered through our property, passing within eyesight of our fire pit. We could almost feel the heat of those sweltering summer days of July 1864, when Union soldiers pushed the rebel cavalry back across Nancy Creek towards Atlanta, trudging through those same pastures and woodlands where Denie played as a child. Bob’s knowledge of the Civil War, and in particular the area where we were gathered, created an unexpected and delightful learning opportunity for everyone who had lived in the home. We found the learning experience had an amplifying effect too – it gave everyone a common experience to discuss in detail.
What learning opportunity can you add to your events? For family events, perhaps you could have someone tell unknown stories about your family’s history or genealogy. For business, maybe you could invite an expert to provide insights that people can’t get anywhere else.
People remember events where they’ve learned something new or unique. How can you incorporate learning into your events?
- Create the connections
Feeling connected with someone you’re meeting for the first time can be difficult, but Denie had a brilliant idea to overcome this challenge. A few weeks before the event, we asked each person to write a brief overview of their life, along with their favorite memories of living on the property. The stories and memories were priceless! It was easy for everyone to find commonalities and feel connected with everyone else, before the party even began. I overheard one conversation that started out, “Oh, you’re the one whose rabbits had puppies!” Those stories and memories created instant connections between all of our guests and made for a lively start to our Home Homecoming. I’ve never seen a group of people that hadn’t met so engaged. The party was electric from the first ring of the doorbell.
For your events, what can you do to create the connections ahead of time? If the group already knows each other, what can you do to expose everyone to new and deeper connections? If they don’t know each other, perhaps you could ask people to summarize their expertise, their interests, and where they might be looking for help, and then share that ahead of time.
People want connections, but sometimes find it hard to find them, especially when meeting others for the first time. How can you make finding them easier and faster?
- Create some curiosity
I felt so lucky to have Denie involved with the planning. Everyone wanted to meet her, the oldest living former resident of the home. They were curious to learn about the home and the property during the time it was being built by her parents. They wanted to meet each other, too, to trace the history of the home from its early days to the present. Their curiosity worked in our favor to create an amazing event, but we built on it even more.
Once we picked a date for the Home Homecoming, we got on the phone and personally called every one of the guests to get them excited – and even more curious – about the event. It took more time to make phone calls than send out a blast email, and it was worth it. We didn’t disclose all the details, just our initial ideas and the date. Every person was willing to adjust their schedule to attend the Homecoming and meet the first resident and the current resident of this remarkable home.
After getting buy-in on the date, we unveiled small bits of information at a time. First, a rough agenda with details on who else was coming. After that, we dropped hints about our top-secret guests, and a few weeks later, we sent out the stories and favorite memories of each person. By the time we had revealed all of our plans, people were so excited and so curious, we knew we were going to have an amazing event!
For your events, what are some ways you can create curiosity and build excitement and momentum leading up to the event? Is there a key person coming who will pull in others, like Denie did for our event? Maybe a marquee expert if business, or a special guest if family? When people are invited to an event, it’s natural for them to want to know who else is coming. When you get a commitment from a key person, involve them in the planning and coordination to keep them engaged. And think about how you can create curiosity by not revealing all of the details up front. It takes a bit more planning this way, and it’s worth it.
Our Home Homecoming was amazing. It was a unique, memorable event that both looked back, bringing childhood memories to today, and looked forward, creating bonds we’ll all cherish for years to come.
Hosting it taught me the key elements to design an amazing experience. We’re all designing experiences every day, from large events with 100s of attendees to fun, family Friday nights. And how we design them – no matter how big or important – can make them an amazing experience for the people who attend.
It’s worth the time to make your experiences amazing. Physical things come and go, but memories of our experiences last a lifetime.