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Memorable Experiences: How to Create Unforgettable Events

Editor’s Note: I had too many memorable experiences to count at Social Media Marketing World, an event directed by guest author Phil Mershon. But two stand out.

First, in order to encourage networking, each attendee received a bingo card where they had to find people with certain characteristics. One of the squares was a speaker at the event. I’ve never felt like such a celebrity as so many people were coming up to me asking me to sign their bingo card! 

Second, one year Phil noticed that a lot of the speakers were bald. With no warning, he told a crowd of several thousand social media people that he was starting a new hashtag called #BGS, or Bald Guy Selfie. He invited everyone in the audience to find a bald person and take a selfie with them. I was immediately bombarded!

I am honored that Phil has shared this exclusive excerpt from his terrific new book, Unforgettable: the Art and Science of Creating Memorable Experiences.

Phil Mershon and Dan Gingiss at Social Media Marketing World

Phil Mershon and Dan Gingiss shared many memorable experiences at Social Media Marketing World.

Do you like to bake? If not, do you like to eat?

Think about some of your favorite meals. As you remember these feasts, choose one to think about for a minute.

Who was with you? What were you wearing?

Where did the meal take place? Does anything stand out in your memory about the location, the table, or the experience? 

Take a deep breath through your nose. Can you remember how the food or the environment smelled?

Dwell on the food for a minute. What did you eat? How did it taste? Was it salty, savory, or sweet? Do any specific spices stand out in your memory?

Now if you’re like me, some of these questions are easier to answer than others. Unless the meal was recent, our brains only remember certain parts of these experiences. But I’m willing to bet you can answer the next question.

What did you talk about? What stories were told? What ideas were shared? What did you laugh or cry about?

The Power of Memory: What Makes Memorable Experiences

Powerful memories stir our senses. Our olfactory sense tends to hold the deepest and longest memories because smells get to our limbic system the fastest. 

Related: What’s That Smell? How Scent Impacts CX

For instance, whenever I smell rotten eggs or sulfur, I immediately remember when I lived in Kenya for seven months in 1986–87. For half of that time, I dwelled on a sugar plantation. When the winds blew from the refinery toward our hut, I got an overwhelming dose of the sulfur, and it made me sick.

I remember vividly the tiny bananas I tried to eat to ease my stomach. To this day, when I smell sulfur, I get sick to my stomach and remember lying on that cot in agony with no way to reach anyone other than my Kenyan friends who didn’t know what to do for me.

When people remember powerful experiences, it’s because those experiences tend to engage most of their senses. This is enhanced when an event has personal meaning.

Memorable Experiences: A Tribute To Tracey Brouillette

My friend, Tracey Brouillete, recently passed away from cancer. She was an assistant sales director at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, but she became a friend because she knew how to treat people like family. I didn’t think of her as a supplier or vendor but as a friend. In fact, I’ll be attending her memorial service because I cared for her and the community that loved her.

I have many memories with Tracey, but two experiences stand out that illustrate well the power of memorable experiences. 

A Padre Baseball Game 

Phil Mershon enjoys memorable experiences with friends Erik Fisher, Jeff Sieh, and Joanne Watt at a San Diego Padres game.

Phil Mershon (second from left) with friends Erik Fisher, Jeff Sieh, and Joanne Watt at a San Diego Padres game. Photo courtesy of Phil Mershon.

In 2015, Tracey took me and a few friends to a San Diego Padre baseball game. I had attended a game before with my kids, but they were too young to enjoy the game, and so we left before the seventh inning stretch.

The experience with Tracey was vastly different. I don’t even remember who the Padres played or who won, but I do remember the food and getting our pictures on the Megatron screen. You see, Tracey left every inning to grab enough food to feed an army and kept bringing it back. By the fifth inning, we were all stuffed, but when she invited us to go grab dinner after the game, we could hardly say no.

Notice what I remember: Tracey’s hospitality and being noticed. Even my boss saw the picture online from when we were on the big screen and commented. 

But Tracey’s hospitality stood out more than anything else. She didn’t want us to have a bad experience, so she kept bringing food and drinks and ensuring that we were taken care of. She didn’t even watch the game. One of her colleagues commented that Tracey sacrificed her personal well-being for the benefit of her clients, colleagues, and family. That’s what great hosts do.

In the best sense of the stereotype, she felt like the mother who keeps bringing great food out and saying, “Eat. Eat. There’s plenty more. You boys need to be strong.”

That was the day I cemented a friendship with Jason, Jeff, and Eric. To this day, we are in a weekly men’s group, and I doubt that group would have started if it weren’t for the experience Tracey created for us.

I remember the food from that game not because it was amazing, but because it was abundant and a bit unusual. We had barbeque ribs, spicy sunflower seeds, and craft beer. My salt and savory senses had a feast that day. Of course, I needed to go running for a week to feel like I had run it all off.

What did I learn?

  • Hospitality and service are key ingredients for great experiences. Good hosts are very attentive to the needs of their guests. They anticipate needs and satisfy them before they’re even requested. Tracey left every inning to get drinks and food so that we wouldn’t have to leave the game. She wanted us to enjoy the game. I know she was an avid baseball fan, but that night, she was a fan of my friends and me. It felt great.
  • Creating space for conversations leads to lasting memories. In this particular instance, I remember the conversations with my new friends more than the ones with Tracey. She was a facilitator of connections. I invited these guys because I knew we had a few things in common. I even worked with Jeff and Erik at the time, but I wanted to get to know them more, and a baseball game seemed like a good place for that.
  • If you show up, serendipity will happen. I don’t think Tracey arranged for our faces to get on the Megatron screen, but we were in good visible seats, and it would have never happened if we hadn’t attended. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Tracey had a connection with the A/V team and asked them to look for us at some point during the game. Regardless, we showed up, and Tracey kept us engaged with the game and each other. That’s when the serendipity of a special moment and lasting relationships developed.

Juniper and Ivy: Memory of A Lasting Conversation

A couple of years later, Tracey asked if she and her boss could take me to dinner while I was on a site visit. I said sure as long as my daughter could join us. Tracey gladly agreed and made reservations at Juniper and Ivy. I had never heard of it, but was I in for a treat!

Juniper and Ivy advertises itself as “refined American dining.” From the valet parking to the maître d’ to the extensive wine list, the restaurant spoke of sophistication and elegance. We enjoyed a memorable culinary experience, but that only set the table (puns intended always) for the conversation that followed.

I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy from Kansas. I don’t need a fancy restaurant to feel special, but Tracey made us feel very special that night. 

I know from Tracey’s perspective this was coincidental, but it’s fitting that it happened with her in this specific context. Earlier that year, I had a revelation about the power of stretching time or what I call “making time stand still.” I knew I had a book idea brewing, and I wanted to talk with Tracey and her boss, Andy, about this.

In the context of superb service, we discussed how hotels and restaurants create an environment where powerful memories are created. We discussed the importance of customer service, space design, and event flow. Talk about a metanarrative! 

I remember vividly remarking about how one of their competitor hotels impressed me deeply one year, but over time, the service levels had declined. It made me less inclined to hang out at that hotel, which would cause me to leave prematurely and perhaps miss an important meetup.

This conversation was where I first noticed the power of hyper-personalization and the merry-go-round principle. The merry-go-round principle says that events try to give you a memorable ride, but if things move too slowly, you’ll want to get off, and if it moves too quickly, you’ll be given a memorable ride, but it will make you sick. The perfect merry-go-round ride gives you a thrill without throwing you off or making you sick. It’s similar to an ideal event or restaurant experience.

We lingered over dinner for three to four hours. Again, Tracey kept ordering food and drinks for us to try. The waiter knew how to keep adding layers to our experience without inserting himself into our conversation (though his service was noticed). The bill was not small that night, but the value of the conversation far exceeded the price of the meal.

What did I learn?

  • Context matters. This powerful memory would not be nearly as rich if we had met at Denny’s or McDonald’s. From the menu to the wait staff to the interior design, everything invited us to have a deep conversation. We didn’t want to leave when our meal was over.
  • Service triumphs over glitz. While Ivy and Juniper is an upscale restaurant, the elegance is understated. It’s the people who shine. I recall from the valet to the maître d’ to the waiter, we received amazing service all evening long.
  • Stay curious. Andy and Tracey both asked lots of questions and shared examples from their experience of how the merry-go-round principle plays out in a hotel. Their curiosity sparked my own questions.

The Essential Ingredients For Memorable Experiences

When baking a cake, there are only a few essential ingredients. The rest are for flavoring and spice. Every cake has flour, leaveners (eggs, yeast, etc.), sweeteners, salt, dairy, and fats. Lots of these can be substituted, and those choices are what make each cake distinct.

When it comes to an event, the essential ingredients include content, conversations, connections, and context (where to host the event, how to use the space, etc.). Choices about décor, color, lighting, agenda, and more are like spices.

Thinking about these experiences with Tracey, I see all these key ingredients at play. The content was really the experience (a Padres game or a dinner). The conversations were rich; new connections were created and old connections were deepened through curiosity. And the contexts were selected for their ability to create the space for memorable experiences.

Phil Mershon and George B. Thomas warm up the crowd at Social Media Marketing World

Phil Mershon and George B. Thomas warm up the crowd at Social Media Marketing World.

Mixing the Ingredients

I’m not much of a baker, but I watched my mother and grandmother enough to know you have to mix things in the right order. You wouldn’t mix the frosting with the flour, for instance. 

When planning events, it’s easy to forget the essential ingredients and obsess over the spices and the frosting. Those make the cake unique, but unless you have a great cake, they kind of don’t matter. But if you do have a great cake, you often don’t need a lot of extras.

In today’s economy, events and businesses are having to reinvent themselves. Budgets have to stretch further, forcing organizers and planners to rethink what makes a great event. If we’re going back to the basics, make sure it looks something like this formula:

(Conversations + Connections) x Choices = Memorable Experiences

Conversations include expert content, organized discussions, and informal meetings. Great events create space for all of these and facilitate them naturally. Often the magic allows for the seamless continuation of dialogue between these different levels of conversation.

If you have to choose between people and technology or design elements, always go with people. Cool graphics and innovations will get people’s attention, but it’s how people feel that will stand the test of time. Only people can make the kinds of impact you want to create. That includes customer service and the power of community.

Yeast is a super agent. It only takes one or two parts per hundred to cause a bread to rise. At events, yeast represents the super connectors—the people who love meeting and introducing people. Empower your connectors to connect and spread throughout the event. If yeast clusters together, it won’t cause the whole community to rise.

Curiosity: The Unstoppable Superpower

Not many people are super connectors, but everyone can remain curious. Encourage your staff and attendees to stay present and remain interested. I firmly believe this: “Everyone has a story worth hearing.” My corollary is “And nothing tells a story like a song.”

What if most people attending your event had the mindset of an 1848 California gold digger? They come hungry to discover the gold. At events, we can discover that gold becomes more valuable when it’s shared.

Did you notice that both experiences I shared about Tracey highlighted the importance of customer service and the role of space? It’s just like the baker who has the right ingredients and the right experience. You give the same ingredients to an inexperienced baker, and the results could be terrible. Likewise, if you give mediocre ingredients to a master baker, you’ll still get a great cake. 

Great events need event staff who follow the mantra, “Listen carefully. Respond creatively.” This idea stems from Darren Ross, the CEO of Magic Castle Hotel. I learned about it from Jesse Cole, owner of the Savannah Bananas. 

Related: The Savannah Bananas Baseball Team Has Hit It Big With ‘Fans First’

“Listen carefully. Respond creatively.”—Darren Ross

Great service agents know how to listen carefully. They aren’t just listening to the words, but they are studying the body language and then they respond with creativity guided by the corollary principle, “Do for one what you wish you could do for many” (attributed to Andy Stanley).

Being Ready For Anything

David Wagner used to work for The DiJulius Group, which hosts the annual Customer Service Revolution event. One year, while speaking with an attendee he noticed she became pale. He stopped her and asked if she was feeling well. 

She said she felt faint and asked for some water and a place to rest. 

As he helped her, he realized she was in crisis, so he rushed her to a hospital. 

Up to this point, David listened carefully and responded creatively by getting her an ambulance and into a place where she could rest. This is more than probably 98% of event professionals would ever do.  (It’s not that others don’t care; we just might not have noticed she was in crisis.) 

But David kept serving. As she was admitted to the hospital, he decided to stay with her—for two days. 

Can you imagine your primary event director not being available during your big annual conference for two days? 

We could argue whether David was the right person to do this, but he demonstrated above-and-beyond customer service. That lady will never forget, and I’ll bet you won’t either.

(Editor’s Note: David, known to his friends as Daveeed, serves as a fractional CMO for The Experience Maker, LLC.)

How Do You Bake Memorable Experiences?

While this isn’t a comprehensive article on how to create a memorable experience, it does highlight some things I learned through my relationship with Tracey. She was a consummate host. Her peers, friends, and family knew her as both a fierce competitor and a loyal friend.

I produced a song with some slides from her life that you can enjoy here:

But even more, I’d love to hear what ingredients you find important when creating memorable experiences.


Phil Mershon is the director of experience for Social Media Examiner and the author of Unforgettable: the Art and Science of Creating Memorable Experiences. Learn more about Phil at

For more: Events Marketing and Attendee Experience

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