Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ Was Right: The Experience Industry Has Arrived

Two years ago, the Swiss watch brand Omega hosted a holiday dinner for stylists and members of the press in Los Angeles and I’m still talking about it. (Can you blame me? Not only was the venue the famous glass-walled Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills, I was lucky enough to be sat across from Jon Hamm that night. Imagine an evening of dinner chat with Don Draper!)

So when Omega sent me its 2013 holiday dinner invitation, I knew to expect a good time—all the more so when I recognized the name of the venue: Trois Mec, the latest foodie hotspot in a city filled with them. The restaurant, whose name means “three guys” in French, has the requisite tattooed chef—Ludovic Lefebrve, a culinary wunderkind best known for his daring pop-up restaurants—and cult-like nondescript location, an old Raffallo’s Pizza joint in a schlubby strip mall in Hollywood.

 

Three dudes at Trois Mec

But the coolest, hippest thing about Trois Mec? That would be the admission charge. Diners hoping to snag one of the restaurant’s coveted 26 seats must pay in advance online; the five-course menu costs just under $100 per head. The tickets are only available at a couple select times each week and the line of willing takers is looooong. In other words, I didn’t stand a chance of scoring a reservation without Omega’s munificence.

“Luxury is about access—and we give you access,” said Omega marketing director Theresa Kuiken shortly after I arrived at Trois Mec on Nov. 19 (the brand had to buy out the restaurant’s two seatings for the Tuesday evening in order to host its event).

As we dined on Ludo’s famed “snacks”—raw beef in a sauce of grilled yogurt, fermented black walnut, and caramelized eggplant and potato pulp topped with black caviar, brown butter, and bonito flakes, for example—I reflected on a conversation I had recently had with Joe Pine, co-author of The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage.

I’d called Pine for a story I was writing for the International New York Times on the new breed of luxury experience. I wanted to find out what had changed since he and his co-author, James H. Gilmore, first tackled the subject in 1999, and also what distinguished regular experiences from those deemed to be “luxury.”

First, Pine explained that a restaurant that charges admission is an example of a dining “experience” (as opposed to a plain old meal). “You get a ticket for a particular date and particular time and that economically puts it in the experience category,” Pine told me. “Here’s the price of the experience and the food is included in it.”

He went on to clarify what luxury providers have to keep in mind as they market experiences to their customers. “The key thing with luxury experience is exclusivity,” Pine told me. “People don’t want to do the same thing everybody else is doing. They want to do things that are unique. The remembering and storytelling is as much a part of the offering as the time they spent there.”

I was intrigued by Pine’s suggestion that memories themselves are the products consumers most desire, so I did a little digging and found my way to Future Shock, Alvin Toffler’s eerily prescient 1970 polemic about the pace of change in our “super-industrial society.” I ordered a copy off Amazon and smiled when the package arrived; the paperback edition has that groovy rounded font that screams retro ’70s.

 

To my amazement, the ideas inside are anything but quaint. Toffler’s words speak so directly to modern-day marketers that it’s hard not to see him as a bonafide clairvoyant.

“As rising affluence and transience ruthlessly undercut the old urge to possess, consumers begin to collect experiences as consciously and passionately as they once collected things,” Toffler wrote. “As we advance into the future, however, more and more experiences will be sold strictly on their own merits, exactly as if they were things.”

In the jewelry sector, the most salient example of how marketers are now devising experiences for their clients, as opposed to mere products, comes by way of Neiman Marcus and Forevermark. The two brands teamed up on a fantasy gift for the retailer’s 2013 Christmas Book the likes of which has never been offered: a 25 ct. rough diamond and a trip to Africa to see where it was mined.

The remarkable thing about the trip is not its considerable cost ($1.85 million) nor its 11-day itinerary, which begins with a sumptuous dinner at the Tower of London—it’s that the buyer and one guest are invited to tour the very ship, the Debmar Atlantic, that mined the deposit off the coast of Namibia where the 25-carater was discovered.

No client of De Beers has ever been invited to peek behind its curtain—until now. What that suggests is that if Toffler’s prophetic ideas about the evolving stages of economic transactions have any corollary today, it may be that access—granting someone entrée to an experience they wouldn’t be able to procure for themselves—is, indeed, the ultimate luxury.