Table Stakes – Stick to the Basics


“This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. Got it!”

Skip – Bull Durham

We were recently in a Dazzling Blue meeting with a client, a meeting where the focus is on the remarkable small space between ordinary and extraordinary when designing and delivering a “Dazzling” client experience.

The conversation centered around a batch of new client experience ideas. One element of the meeting that was quickly glossed over was the standard deliverables, what the meeting leader referred to as “table stakes”. In my sketchnotes, I rapidly drew a stop sign, followed by an exclamation point. “Can we go over the current delivery of your basics, those parts of the product/service expected by the client?” You can’t brush the basics under the rug when talking client experience if you want to be DAZZLING. You have to be a master of the basics. You have to look at the basics as the heartbeat of what you do.

At Disney, they are always looking at the next big thing, the next must-see attraction. In fact, since the 1971 opening of Disney World, new attractions multiply like rabbits. EPCOT, Disney Hollywood Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Animal Kingdom and the 2017 opening of Pandora- The World of Avatar. Despite the entertainment push, Disney focuses like an electron microscope on their table stakes, their basics. Let’s just look at one, CROWD CONTROL.

I grew up in Southern California and a trip to Disneyland was an annual staple. I can remember my mom telling all us over-excited kids to remember, we parked in BAMBI. The control of the massive number of guests that visit the parks (+/- 150,000,000) is a power basic for the Disney guest experience.



What does a real focus on “table stakes” look like?

  • An underground command center that monitors all things related to the guests and can give real-time responses. A yellow warning light at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride generates a call to launch more boats. The length of the line at certain food concessions generates a call to open more registers. Fantasyland a little crowded, send a mini parade to will shift the guests to Tomorrowland.
  • Anticipate the impact on your basics. Disney tracks weather on satellites. It looks at hotel reservations, airline bookings, and park history to anticipate needs.
  • Long line at an attraction will generate a character interaction. Hey, there’s Mickey!

Every “basic” impacts the product and when the product is “happiness” you better strategically pay attention. At Disney, table stakes are a science.

So, take a long hard look at those things that make up the primary stuff. At McDonald’s, it’s consistency. Is every Big Mac the same? Better be sure before you introduce a new sandwich.

Your table stakes are the heart and soul of your current reality. Before you add a bow, make sure the package is well wrapped. Remember you are judged on a daily basis on how well you stick the basics!

Give Them What They Want.

On April 4th, the first movie blockbuster of 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, hit the big screen. In fact, it opened in over 3,900 movie theaters and brought in a tidy $95 million, making it the biggest April movie release in history! Most movie-goers had what I would call, “The usual movie experience.”

  • You stood in line for a while.
  • You entered the lobby only to see the traditional concession stand.
  • You bought a Dr. Pepper and some popcorn.
  • You chose a seat and mindlessly viewed the endless series of commercials before the previews.

All in all, the same movie experience that has been around since 1894, UNLESS you went to one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters. This Texas based movie house chain has taken the client experience and positioned it as their strategic cornerstone.




Can you focus on the client experience to the point of creating enough market separation and differentiation so as to stand out? Can your experience be deemed unique in a vanilla market? You already know the answer, it’s a resounding YES. Let me remind you, the client experience is YOURS to control, YOURS to design, YOURS to deliver and nothing that happens in your market can impact a strategic focus on how you treat your clients. Here is what they are saying about The Alamo Drafthouse and what a laser like focus on the experience can mean to a business:

  • Best Theater in America – Entertainment Weekly
  • Coolest Movie Theater in the World – Wired Magazine
  • Best Theater Ever – Time Magazine

Founder and head honcho Tim League decided the market would support a theater chain designed for movie lovers. Movie-goers would love to combine going out to dinner and then a movie at the SAME PLACE! The Alamo Drafthouse is a movie theater, eatery, and bar all in one. How do you confront a business that has fallen into an expected model? Here is how Tim and his team attacked the stodgy old movie theater market in a very focused and strategic manner.



Design creativity as a core element of the movie experience. They do everything from sing-along musicals to classic movie nights. They decorate the lobby with big movie themes. During Captain America they had a photographer who would shoot you holding Captain America’s shield. Then there is The Lord of the Rings feast, where all three movies are shown and seven meals of JRR Tolkien themed food is served (Sold out every time by the way) Their Rolling Road Show (using a portable projector and screen) has shown area themed movies worldwide. Their famous Butt-Numb-A-Thon is a 24 hour movie marathon.

Alamo Creativity


No Advertising!

You will not sit through a series of car commercials at the Alamo Drafthouse. Instead, keeping with their creative wit, you are treated to everything from Three Stooges shorts to theme related cartoons and old movie clips. One of my favorite things about going to the Alamo Drafthouse is the pre-movie show montage. I am NEVER disappointed.



No Talking. No Texting. PERIOD!

Lots of theaters say this but they MEAN IT! One warning and out you go. No refund. They go to great lengthys to introduce these two simple rules with hilarious short films or the manager comes in and addresses the audience. One of their recent kicked out customers called and left a profanity laced complaint that the good folks at the Alamo Drafthouse used as an advertisement on why you should see your movies there. (Check out the censored version here This went viral and Anderson Cooper called the Alamo Drafthouse ‘heroes in returning civility to the movies.’

dont talk


You are always challenged by the market, the competition, and the fight for business and sometimes the importance of the client experience is passed over. Our journey has been to keep a firm and critical focus on your client experience, looking for new ideas and opportunities to create business leverage in the things you control. Our job at Creative Ventures is to continue to open your mindes to the