Consumer experiences may be distinguished from the intrinsic aspects of goods and services, as they involve a mental journey that leaves the customer with memories of having engaged in something special, having learned something, or just of having fun. An experience involves both a personal process and the psychological outcomes that result from involvement in that process. Experiences are an active area for research within the tourism literature. However, few studies have focused on how the attributes of an experience staged by managers of a tourist destination affect tourists’ perceptions.
This thesis explicitly examines two perspectives on an experience, building on prior studies that focused on either the manager’s or the customer’s perspective. From a managerial perspective, an experience is a combination of technical, functional, and experiential attributes staged in a rationalised or planned process involving supplier-created meanings, services and goods. From a customer perspective, an experience is inherently individual and spontaneous, and constructed through a series of encounters and interactions that engage customers at an emotional, physical, intellectual, or even spiritual level. In experiential consumption, what customers perceive may be different from what managers offer to them due to the subjectivity of experience. Customers do not buy goods or services, but rather the benefits and experience those goods and services provide for them. They identify and evaluate selected attributes, performances, and consequences from the whole experiential process to determine the benefits the experience provides for them, namely, customer value. An initial conceptual framework to guide this study was developed and evaluated based on these ideas.
This thesis therefore provides an exploratory study of how an experience designed by managers affects tourists’ perception of the value of their experience in a tourist destination. A case study, research strategy, and qualitative methodology based on the interpretive constructivist paradigm were adopted. The ancient Chinese water town of Zhouzhuang was selected as the case study, as it provides a rich historical and cultural experience for visitors. Purposive sampling was adopted and 83 semi-structured interviews conducted with customers (63 first-time Chinese overnight tourists who visited during the weekdays) and experience managers (20 destination managers). The interviews were transcribed and analysed using content analysis. NVivo 9.2 qualitative analysis software was used to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the data analysis process.
Findings from this study indicate that during the experience process, tourists were selective in the destination attributes they perceived. Tourists’ previous knowledge about the town or attributes found throughout the town led them to perceive the key theme and attributes that managers staged for them. However, there were also differences between these two perspectives; therefore, tourists were not merely passive receivers, but creative and interactive agents who actively co-created their own experience process. The attributes either designed and staged by managers or perceived by tourists could be clustered into five attribute-groups, namely, theme, atmosphere, interactions, memorabilia, and service. A theme was perceived in tourists’ mind that linked together attributes from the four other attribute-groups. Service attributes were found to be important as media for tourists to be involved in their experiences of Zhouzhuang. The perception of the combination of attributes in all groups formed a themed experience process. Findings also indicate that tourists’ perceptions of value were diverse and multi-dimensional, but able to be grouped into four types identified in prior literature: functional, experiential, symbolic, and cost value. Their value perceptions were based on both direct evaluations of Zhouzhuang’s attributes, and on comparisons, not only between benefits and sacrifices, but also between desired and undesired consequences. The four types of value were not found to be independent of each other in contrast to findings in the prior literature. The attributes and value were linked in a variety of ways: attributes in different groups led to the same type of value; a hierarchy of functional, experiential, and symbolic value was found; and links were found between the cost value (‘give value) and the three other types of value (‘get’ values). In addition, a linkage between value and tourists’ behavioural intentions was confirmed. These findings indicate that while managers may try to create customer value in advance, value is actually co-created by managers and tourists during the tourists’ experiences.
This research is the first to examine the experiential and functional attributes embodied in a designed destination experience. The findings of this study suggest that the concept of experience is different from but overlaps with that of service as discussed by some previous authors. This research has developed the first typology of destination experience attributes and has related these to four types of value in a process model. This model is considered to be a useful tool for experience managers to understand the influence of their designed experience on customer value and further identify opportunities to create new value for customers.