Commercial leisure is a booming industry, the market value of which continues to skyrocket year after year. Traditional leisure practices, most often constructed by participants themselves and seeded in a clan or community environment, are increasingly being supplanted by pre-packaged, commercial options. Indeed, while it is estimated that over 75% of the world's economy revolves around service industries, this figure in the leisure sector is held to be even greater still, with suggestions of 90% or more not uncommon. Regardless of the exact figures, the proliferation of commercial leisure is utterly astounding. With very few exceptions, most notably the information technology sector, it is difficult to find any area of industry that can compare to astronomical growth of commercial leisure in recent decades.
The increasing numbers of leisure consumers has also made the sector an attractive and highly competitive marketplace for providers of leisure, resulting in the widespread pursuit of competitive advantage. There are certainly many approaches towards getting ‘the edge' over competitors, but one of the most valuable, and most neglected, is developing a better understanding of the perspective of the leisure consumer. From these insights, the astute provider of commercial leisure can devise strategies to increase their market-share, service quality, profile and a variety of other advantageous outcomes.
This paper concerns the perspective of the leisure consumer, a complicated and dynamic concept. While far from a comprehensive analysis, the following outlines some of the universal themes that shape consumer perceptions of leisure service quality and their resulting levels of satisfaction as a customer. First and foremost however, it is important to bring into focus the concepts of ‘service' and ‘customer satisfaction'.
Understanding ‘Service' and ‘Customer Satisfaction'
Several things differentiate a good from a service; customers do not obtain ownership of a service, a service is an intangible product, the consumer is involved in construction of the product and finally, other people may be part of the product. For the purposes of this paper, service is defined as an intangible product, constructed through the interactions of the provider and the consumer and measured/monitored through qualitative means such as thought, emotion and instinct. Another crucial term in need of elaboration is the notion of ‘customer satisfaction'.
Whether or not we enjoy the leisure experiences we consume depends on they way our expectations as a consumer stack up to a number of complex and interrelated factors. Whilst these factors are often difficult to pin-down; duration, cost, the weather conditions, comfort levels, perceived/actual risk, noise, cleanliness, authenticity, excitement, challenge and aesthetics are all contributors. For the commercial operator, the key to successful leisure provision is manipulating these factors to ensure customer expectations are met or surpassed, an end result typically deemed ‘customer satisfaction'.
To reiterate, customer satisfaction, in regards to both services and goods alike, is the measure of whether or not a consumer's expectations have been met, and is based on the affective (emotional) evaluation of the individual consumer. As a rule, customers are likely to be satisfied if their expectations are met, and highly satisfied if you can exceed them. Dissatisfied consumers are an anathema to the commercial leisure provider as they tend to spread their disgruntlement through their social networks. Even a single unhappy customer can potentially influence dozens of others to boycott or disparage your service, and that each of them in turn, could then go on to influence dozens more. It is for this reason that ensuring customer satisfaction must always be a priority.
Some Universal Themes in the Consumer Perspective
Understanding the perspective of the consumer is not a simple task. The fact is, each consumer perceives their leisure experiences in a slightly different manner to the next, and each takes a different approach to the evaluation of how satisfied they are. We can never be entirely sure what factors contribute to a consumer's perceptions of quality, and likewise, it is impossible to know exactly how these factors interact in the mind of the individual consumer when they come to measure their satisfaction. There are however, some universal themes in the consumption of leisure that do seem to have influence over consumer perceptions of quality and customer satisfaction.
A major draw-card of leisure experiences is that they offer consumers the opportunity to breakaway from their everyday lives. Many forms of commercial leisure attract customers by offering the opportunity to enter new worlds of wonder and discovery. For the output of some discretionary income, the consumer can partake in novel, exciting and interesting activities wherein they simply turn up and enjoy the experience, instead of enduring the associated stresses and strains that come from constructing such experiences personally.
Consumers will always want leisure activities that provide enjoyable time-outs and diversion from their everyday lives, usually seeking either leisure centered on relaxation and reflection or excitement and adventure. In doing so, consumers wish to ‘escape' their lives for a while, to enjoy experiences that are not typically available to them. Leisure options that successfully cater to this desire for escapism, and still meet the other needs of their consumers, typically produce high levels of perceived quality and customer satisfaction.
Monetary cost is another salient factor in the perception of quality and resulting levels of customer satisfaction. Even if a leisure experience is recognized by a consumer as being enjoyable and of a high quality, the perception that the cost was excessive can detract from the overall measure of satisfaction. For some consumers, the pricing of leisure can make an outstanding experience mediocre, a mediocre experience disappointing and a disappointing experience an absolute disaster. It is important to note, although pricing can enhance the consumer evaluations of an experience, satisfactory pricing seldom salvages an unsatisfactory experience.
Another key issue in consumer evaluations of quality and satisfaction is the existence of, or the opportunity to create/acquire, vivid memories and tangible outcomes. This is because consumers seek not only to experience leisure themselves, but also to relay their experiences to others. Since the leisure experience itself is mostly intangible, that is to say that it has little in the way of physical products or take-home outcomes, storytelling becomes the key means of sharing experiences and the need for tangibles is most commonly satisfied through the taking of pictures and the purchasing or acquiring of souvenirs.
Through storytelling, the leisure experience can transcend the participants themselves and be enjoyed by others, most often family and friends. In the case of a positively evaluated experience, this is a fabulous form of endorsement. However, it should be noted that a consumer is even more likely to relate to the details of unsatisfactory leisure experiences, and often to a wider audience at that. Unfortunately, the experience from hell usually makes for a better story than the enjoyable day out.
Beyond verbal retellings, photos and film serve several purposes. Foremost, they provide a wonderful way to capture the moment, a lasting record of experiences that are often fairly brief in duration. Images excel at helping participants to remember and relive their leisure experiences, refreshing their minds as to the details and sometimes even revealing things that had previously gone unnoticed. When considering this point, it is little wonder that a camera or camcorder is seen in the hands of so many tourists.
With this in mind, leisure experiences where consumers are allowed to take along their photographic or filming equipment are typically rated in a more positive light than those that do not allow such privileges. Leisure that provides special considerations, such as the manufacture or facilitation of unique and/or special film and photography opportunities, rates even higher in consumer perceptions of quality and satisfaction. It is for these reasons that many leisure providers go out of their way to ensure consumers get frequent and interesting ‘photo ops'.
As for souvenirs, their potency lies in the fact that they embody the experience in a tangibly physical manner. Consumers who are highly satisfied by a leisure experience may go out their way to purchase or acquire souvenirs, which will often become fruitful talking points once they get home. Indeed, after partaking in a particularly special or memorable leisure experience, some consumers take souvenirs they will treasure for life.
Therefore, commercial leisure experiences that offer participants the chance to take home souvenir items are frequently rated higher in customer evaluations, although it must be noted that perceived overpricing of such items can negate this effect. If a consumer actively seeks a memento, it is likely they are a relatively satisfied customer. If a consumer is uninterested in a memento, especially if it is free of charge, they are probably not.
Summing up, commercial leisure is a booming industry in which providers are highly competitive in the wooing of consumers and their discretionary incomes. Getting the edge over competitors is thusly a key concern. This report has touched upon some of the universal themes that influence consumer perceptions regarding the quality of their leisure experiences and the level of satisfaction they feel as customers. Being able to step into the shoes of consumers, and gain an understanding of their perspective, is a powerful tool in building and maintaining competitive advantage in the commercial leisure sector.
Arron Stewart is 26 years old, lives in Hamilton, New Zealand, and attends the University of Waikato as a graduate student in Sport & Leisure with an additional focus on Sociology and Human Resource Management. A website has been established featuring more information and selected articles of his work: http://www.geocities.com/arron_stew_79