Experiential Design Inspiration: What Event Marketers Can Learn from Drive-Thrus

experiential design inspiration from drive-thrus

As the Saturday Evening Post recently declared, Americans have a deep love for a drive-in or a drive-through (or “drive-thru” if you prefer the typical neon sign spelling). Burgers and coffee might jump to mind as the premier commodities of the drive-thru landscape, but groceries, cannabis, liquor, and legal advice are also to be had from the comfort of your car. You can now even pull your car up to a drive-thru funeral where you pay your respects for the allotted three minutes, sign the guestbook, and drive away.

Americans’ love for drive-throughs makes an effective lesson for experiential marketers. Sure, a drive-thru funeral might be a larger-than-life example, but there are several key elements that can serve as experiential design inspiration for a future show.


Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool, and you don’t have to be eating warm apple pie while surrounded by Norman Rockwell to agree.

“Inducing warm feelings about a cherished past could bring big benefits for those seeking to part consumers from their money,” reports the Harvard Business Review.

From Adobe creating an homage to Bob Ross or Target featuring Star Wars home movies, tuning in to people’s happy memories transfers into brand awareness equals return on investment.

So instead of serving coffee at trade shows, think about frosty root beer floats at an ice cream counter. Era-appropriate media, items, and costumes can help celebrate a company milestone. Think about what may evoke fond memories for your customers and put it into play.


Who doesn’t love getting exactly what you want exactly when you need it? From piloting your 1966 Mustang up to a burger joint to opening your door to a drone delivery, we all love convenience. Delays and unnecessary hoop-jumping? Not so much. Think about how you can design an experience that makes your customer’s day easier — meets them where they are with just what they’re looking for, and you might just find a receptive audience.


What’s convenient for one person might be unpleasant for another. Drive-ins and drive-thrus give customers a clear choice: the speedy option (follow the arrows) or the full-service option (come inside). Event attendees also appreciate the ability to choose their own level of engagement — don’t drive away potential clients by forcing them into a big time commitment, and, likewise, don’t only offer a quick, superficial experience to people that want a deep-dive.


While children respond to silly, fun, and messy activities, we grownups do as well (even if we don’t always admit it). Drive-ins from their earliest incarnations were highly interactive: flash your lights for service, press the button to talk to the disembodied voice who asks if you want fries with that. The fun of an experience comes from interaction. You could embrace the retro with a roller-skating car hop handing you a delicious milk shake, or a game of Skee-Ball on the trade show floor, or you could bring the same spirit into the here and now and let people soar like a bird over a virtual landscape.


Drive-ins were known for a design that was eye-catching, as well as functional and efficient. “The drive-in represented America’s ideals in the [1940s] war era: resourcefulness, speed, and efficiency,” says the Saturday Evening Post. And with the glowing neon and the audacious modern Googie architecture poking out at unlikely angles, even the smallest roadside drive-in was bound to catch your attention. Combining memorable visuals (acrobats, anyone?) with scalable efficiency brings the best of both worlds to your customers.


Remember the drive-thru funeral from the intro? Us too — and we’ll likely never forget it. Quite simply, creating a memorable experience for your customers is going to make an impression on them. You don’t need Star Wars or slime or the dearly departed to make a lasting impression — you just need a thoughtful plan, a standout design, and an unforgettable experience. And maybe a milkshake or two couldn’t hurt.

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