The world is full of places of wonder. Some of them are physical places; others are places of the imagination. The College Of Extraordinary Experiences is both. Once a year, the Czocha Castle in Poland (a real 13th century castle), becomes a most unusual and peculiar college, much like Harry Potter's Hogwarts. Only this one is real — and it's not for kids. In order to try to convey the nature and the spirit of such a one-of-a-kind place, allow me to provide a bit of framing and context.
Welcome to the Experience Economy
In 1998, consultants and authors B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore published an article in the Harvard Business Review, introducing the term "Experience Economy" for the first time. The following year, the authors expanded their ideas into a successful and widely influential book of the same title. Thus the Experience Economy was officially born, and the word "experience" gained new meaning in the business world.
Broadly retracing the history of economy, Pine and Gilmore identified four main developmental stages of "economic offering." This progression goes from early human societies, mainly concerned with "Commodities," to the Industrial Revolution and large-scale production of consumer "Goods," followed by a steadily increasing demand for "Services," and finally, in the present day, the latest form of economic offering: "Experiences." Amply corroborated in the past two decades, the book's thesis is that in a world saturated with largely undifferentiated goods and services, the greatest opportunity for value creation (and revenue growth) lies in staging experiences. Companies stage an experience whenever they engage customers in a personal way, hopefully creating long-lasting memories, with the promise and ambition to make lives more fun and exciting, or simply better.
Offspring of the Experience Economy is the broad field called "Customer Experience Management," with its many virtuous examples and smart practices, as well as a wide range of goofy and vapid interpretations of the concept. Sorting the signal from the crap, the word "experience" is now an integral part of the corporate lexicon, and all things "experiential" are big business.
Into this milieu enters Nathan Shedroff and his breakthrough work Experience Design. Published in 2009, the book addresses the idea that experiences can be intentionally designed to achieve specific effects and desired outcomes. Introducing this new discipline, Shedroff's pioneering goal was to identify criteria and strategies to effectively design experiences for customers, consumers, users and viewers. As Shedroff himself wrote:
The design of experiences isn't any newer than the recognition of experiences. As a discipline, though, Experience Design is still somewhat in its infancy. Simultaneously having no history (since it is a discipline only recently defined), and the longest history (since it is the culmination of many, ancient disciplines), Experience Design has become newly recognized and named. However, it is really the combination of many previous disciplines; but never before have these disciplines been so interrelated, nor have the possibilities for integrating them into whole solutions been so great. Experience Design as a discipline is also so new that its very definition is in flux. Many see it only as a field for digital media, while others view it in broad-brush terms that encompass traditional, established, and other such diverse disciplines as theater, graphic design, storytelling, exhibit design, theme-park design, online design, game design, interior design, architecture, and so forth. The list is long enough that the space it describes has not been formally defined.
Now, almost a decade later, "Experience Design" is undeniably a thing, woven into our everyday life. The rules of the game may still be in flux, but it has grown into a multifaceted and hyper-dimensional field of inquiry, recognized and established within academia, with dedicated research departments, professors, and PhD candidates.
The College of Extraordinary Experiences (COEE)
Among the wide range of human experiences, "the experience of the extraordinary" is certainly a most fascinating one, with deep, archetypal roots in the domains of religion, mythology and the numinous. Its timeless allure and intrigue has implications for any modern experience designer, whose ambitious goal is to tap into the well of the extraordinary to retrieve fragments of beauty and enchantment. Being myself professionally dedicated to designing "magical experiences," my time at the College was truly mind-blowing. I've never seen anything like it; discovering a place devoted entirely to Extraordinary Experiences was a pure delight.
COEE is at minimum three things: a College, an Extraordinary Experience, and a Community.
First, it's a full-fledged College: a place for higher education and intellectual discourse, offering hands-on, real-world crash courses on Experience Design. Following three guiding principles — Rapid Prototyping, Co-Creation, and Flexible Focus — this intense five-day event has the flavor of an "unconference." There are a few loosely structured activities, as the core of the program is a co-created and co-designed immersive learning space. Information, ideas and practices flow among participants through facilitated group discussions, thought-provoking workshops (where PowerPoint presentations are adamantly banned), and impromptu conversations. One wishes all learning was as enjoyable, and all enjoyment as profound.
Second, like a nested Russian matryoshka doll, COEE is itself an Extraordinay Experience, self-reflectively focusing on Extraordinary Experiences. It's like Hogwarts meets Disneyland, thoroughly spiced with Burning Man ethos and costuming. For five intense days and nights, you live in a real medieval castle, nestled in gorgeous natural surroundings of breathtaking beauty. Spectacular things happen in this unusual, immersive environment, stimulated by a parade of colorful and wild activities, and playful mind-bending events. You are quickly advised to come to terms with the FOMO syndrome: there is so much going on, you can't get to, or even see, all of it. You'll never know when and where the next thing will happen. Whatever is in store for you, however, will certainly deserve the term "extraordinary."
Third, it's a global community of practice. The temporary inhabitants of the Czocha Castle are a heterogeneous mix of practitioners, researchers and scholars, from different industries and backgrounds. Participants include fine artists, escape room designers, musicians, college professors, event planners, immersive theater actors, professional pranksters, movie producers, theme-park specialists, professional facilitators, C-level executives, and entrepreneurs. The proportion of super-smart, creative, successful people is embarrassingly high. The connections forged at COEE become a community, one that offers its wide-ranging creative prowess to projects and ideas beyond the event itself. Since its inception, COEE has assembled a solid following with a sparkling network of alumni, including all the graduates from the previous gatherings.
And then there's "the secret sauce" that holds everything together, making COEE the unique and exquisite experience it is. To avoid pointless spoilers — and being sworn to secrecy — all that can be said is, "What happens at the College stays at the College." And that's that.
COEE is a large-scale immersive game, a complex mystery box, an ongoing treasure hunt where the prizes are sustained and massive doses of wonder, knowledge and meaning. Learning how to navigate this Escher-like environment, finding your way through hidden passages to secret rooms, discovering what it's all about, is part of the deal. The College is a place of intellectual sophistication, emotional thrills, and just damn fun. The end result is without a doubt a category-defying transformative experience — on a professional as well as a personal level.
COEE is the crown-jewel production and brainchild of Claus Raasted, Paul Bulencea, and Philipp Jacobius — the pulsating powerhouse behind Dziobak Larp Studios. Based in Copenhagen and operating worldwide, DLS is a design collective devoted to all sorts of immersive events: from live action role-playing to alternate reality games. Claus, Paul and Philipp, with their uncanny skills as gentle Dungeon Masters and inspiring community leaders, have shaped COEE into what it is today: an astonishing, living, breathing "social sculpture."
Sounds like an extraordinary place to experience, doesn't it? Well, it is. Do you feel you belong there? Would you like to play? If you say the magic words, the castle gates may open for you.
Knock here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Just so you know, the waiting list for 2019 is currently open. Spots are limited. Personally, I am SO returning next year. Fuck yeah!
Images: John-Paul Bichard