What a small bar in Venice can teach us about experience design

A young American named Harry was on vacation in Europe in the late 1920s and became quite fond of the bar at Hotel Europa.

After weeks and weeks of propping up the bar, all of a sudden, he just stopped drinking there, so one of the waiting staff hunted him down to find out why.

It turned out that his family had found out about his growing drinking habit and, to teach him a lesson, cut him off financially, leaving him stranded in Europe.

Upon hearing the story, the bartender – one Giuseppe Cipriani – lent him 10,000 Lira to return home (equivalent to $500 at the time – a fair chunk of change back in 1920-something).

Harry travelled home and – in Giuseppe’s mind – would likely never be seen again.

But two years later, Harry did return…

“Here’s the money. And to show you my appreciation, here is 40,000 Lira more. Enough to open your own bar. We could call it Harry’s Bar”.

Since its inception way back then, Harry’s Bar has had a serious list of superfans:

From Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles to Alfred Hitchcock, the Rothschild family, countless kings and queens, counts and countesses – Ernest Hemmingway even wrote one of his books in the bar.

But unlike most other places of a similar ilk, Harry’s is also a place where anyone can walk in off the canal-lining streets and feel completely and entirely at home.

Mr Cipriani – the waiter who helped Harry and became the owner and founder – was once asked of the secret of creating such a great experience for one and all, despite the eclectic mix of clientele.

His response was both wise and timeless:

“It’s simple, you just have to treat the kings like people, and the people like kings.”

Ernest Hemmingway stood at the bar at Harry’s Venice.

A lesson in experience design

Mr Cipriani clearly knew a thing or two about experience design.

The whole bar was in fact designed by the man: the wooden furnishings, the barware, the stools, tables, seating, the logo.

But the key point – which is both important and interesting in equal measures – is that when asked of the secret to a great experience, he made no reference to the bar itself.

In a retail and marketing world which is now so focused on brand ambassadors and influencers, there’s a thing or two we can learn from Mr Cipriani’s approach.

I’ve even read in some places that if someone turned up and asked for a table for one, Mr Cipriani would insist that they sit at a table that was meant for five if that’s all that was available, feeding them both food and drinks, just to ensure sure they didn’t feel alone.

As important as beautiful environment design and exciting new technology is, what Mr Cipriani can teach us is that by putting humans first and treating the people like kings, we ensure that the experience we give becomes the stuff of legend.

The interior of Mr Cipriani’s bar was important, but not as important as his philosophy.

By taking the Harry’s Bar approach of putting humans ahead of expensive new tech, the ripple effect of your brand experience will be felt for years and decades into the future, rather than just for a few months after opening.

In doing so, you create an army of Superfans who will promote you long after they leave the physical store.

Burberry have a wonderful approach to this, describing their biggest fans as VICs (very important customers), rather than just focusing on VIPs who spend the most.

We worked with the British Luxury brand on a store project in China based on this premise. You can read more about that here.

Human experience design is the cornerstone of our expertise. If you’re interested in working with an agency that can help you to build your brand’s legacy in human-centric experiences, please feel free to get in touch – we would love to hear from you.


5 min14 Oct 20