Experiential Learning – How to Learn through Experience 

Everyone’s heard of ‘Team Building’.  But few have heard of Experiential Leaning.  Fewer still really understand what a massive impact it can have on business success. Simon Percival, Vice President European Business Development for Eagles Flight, a company that changes behaviour using Experiential Learning, shares in this exclusive meetingsclub blog how your organisation can get on-board, what to look out for when choosing a training partner and how to ensure you get a real return on investment.  Plus read why the right venue environment makes all the difference to the end result. 

Simon struggled at school with Dyslexia. Traditional linear learning and “chalk and talk” didn’t cut it for Simon, but he did excel in classes where experience was the teacher. His own personal experience has enabled him to understand more than most, what huge long-lasting impact can be made by using different types of learning methods. 


“Can you book a team building day?” A not an uncommon request for many EAs, PAs and Event ManagersImmediate images of the great outdoors probably spring to mind with perhaps people swinging through the trees on a high ropes course.  Or maybe your thoughts turn to pictures of wine tasting and cocktail making? 

But before rushing to Google ask yourself if team building is really what you’re after. 

Why does your boss want to get the team together? What’s the real purpose and critically what does everyone want to achieve at the end of the day?  

Without doubt there is a time and a place for creating the best tasting cocktail.  But surely the focus of any activity or training should be on team effectiveness, ensuring a financial return and changing behaviour to have a lasting impact? 

Step forward Experiential Learning (EL).  Where the experience colleagues go through is so real that it’s like being there in person – not just in mind. 

Experiential learning combines immersive activities that mimic real-world challenges with a targeted debrief that connects the lessons learned with the reality of the workplace. It allows participants to learn by doing, and not by just listening, reading, or watching. Because they have personally experienced the results that come with applying their existing skills (both successes and failures) they are more inclined to do things differently next time. New competencies are developed, more information is retained, and individuals are more likely to enthusiastically apply their new knowledge to their real world back on the job. 

Put it another way, if you think of a spectrum on a blank sheet of paper where a training ACTIVITY is on the left-hand side.  A good example might be a “trust fall”, a simple exercise where some brave soul falls backwards, and a group of their colleagues catch them. Ideally everyone takes something away from this activity and nobody gets hurt.  

If you go to the other end of the spectrum on the right – a SIMULATION An exact replica of the work environment.  For example, an airline recreates in a simulator the inside of a cockpit and together with hydraulic lifts and superb graphic re-produces a virtual real-life flying experience. 

In the middle falls EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING.  Something that can recreate a situation which is familiar to the individual and where huge learning can be taken from. It’s not by itself the only way to deliver training, but when you include with the other forms mentioned above it really does make an impact.  

Experiential Learning brings to life things not so readily seen


Many Experiential Learning programmes are themed in a fun way that captures the imagination of the participants.  The theme creates the storyline and the metaphor that then unfolds during the experience and in which the learning is embedded.  Disney is a past master at this from an entertainment point of view.  There is a story behind each of their attractions and as you make your way slowly along the line, you’ll notice random posters on walls, items left by the characters of the story and video which brings context to what you’re about to see.  By the end of the queue you’re literally there!  The story is brought to life, it all makes sense.  This same logic applies to any corporate development which must be effectively themed so people will genuinely accept the challenge and fully engage. 


Experiential Learning is always a big hit for anybody pressed for time.  And when you actually drill down in any company the key question to ask is always “do we manage time well?”  Do staff have a clear sense of how they use their time effectively and are colleagues simply busy working hard or are they actually productive 

One of the best examples of Experiential Learning that answers these and other key questions is a programme called GOLD OF THE DESERT KINGS. 

Traditionally when you enter a conference room there’s a group of round tables and a screen showing the first PowerPoint slide. Sound familiar?  Hardly inspiring. 

Walk into a room where Gold of the Desert Kings is the focus and immediately discover coloured mats on the table in the form of a map, complete with graphics and squares.  Instantly your imagination is hooked, and you wonder what’s about to happen. 

Facilitators quickly bring you up to speed.   

You and your team are about to embark on a journey for an agreed time.  In this World, each day is three minutes long and you’ve got 25 days or put another way one and a quarter hours.   

It’s your job to navigate over to the mountains and mine gold.  Each day you wake in a different location. The weather forecast for all the different places you could move to is given.  The weather is changeable (no surprise there) affecting your need for certain resources.  Your teams got to decide what they are likely to need before moving on.  Food, water, shelter from sand storms, compass etc. Decisions need to be made quickly and collaboratively otherwise members of the group risk not getting back.  

As an observer watching different colleague teams each with the same information, plot their way across the desert and decide how long they will stay is extremely interesting.  Each day in the desert guarantees an extra piece of gold, but there’s a real threat of running out of food and water. 

Teams typically arrive back on different days with different amounts of gold.  The team coming third may have got the most bars of gold. Another team might not get back at allIt’s high-energy fun with participants immersed in everything they do.   


After a much-needed coffee break following time in the dry desert and with teams safely back at base, there’s a celebration of who has collected the most gold. 

Facilitators ask team members if they’ve have played game beforeTypically, the answer is no.” But when delving further and asking what they really had to do, the penny suddenly drops.  Deliver the best results, manage resources on a day by day basis, work in challenging environments and make decisions as a team”  It’s a game played every day at the office, although not necessarily out in the baking sun of a desert! 

This particular programme could be used at a sales kick off conference.  The business has had a successful last year and is looking to set new targets.  Everyone believes they work hard and smart. Well here’s the opportunity to demonstrate that as a team.  Can you deliver the best outcomes? Are you committed to doing things which are key to having a great strategy and what about that allimportant plan to execute in order to deliver the best outcome? Put it to the test by sending colleagues across the sand dunes on a journey to the mountains! 

Or perhaps your company is about to head off into a new financial year. There’s going to be challenges and a robust plan with clear goals, commitment and accountability is needed to deliver the best possible result for the team.  Inevitably at the end of the year when results are reviewed the question will be asked how have we done?  So, if there are things to learn from the desert, learn them.  If one team got three gold bars another four and one 6 it’s clear there were many different outcomesIn each case what was different were the decisions made at each table.   

The principles applied to wining in the desert are exactly the same as in the real business world.  Those principals are universal and can be applied back in the office assuming there is a willingness to change behaviour and of course mindset to deliver results. 

And that’s the crux of it.  Changing peoples behaviour to improve and power performance whilst sustaining over a prolonged periodApply what you know and in the face of change and challenge work as a team. This will resonate with many, as most people learn best through experience. 


But changing behaviour is easier said than done, so keep it simple:  

people’s HEART. Staff must want to learn – use Experiential Learning tools to build conviction. 

 Now I want to learn, I need knowledge the HEAD.  Experiential programmes using relevant content and pragmatic working models are key. 

 Teach skills in training sessions and post training follow up.  Put into practice, become HANDS on. 

 HARVEST the results of what you’ve sown. That all important application and measurement of what we do. 


It sounds easy, but changing behaviour has to be continually worked on.  How often do people in your office come back with a real buzz after having been away for a couple of days on a training course?  Then reality kicks in. They play catch up answering 250 emails and a couple of weeks later are back into old their old ways, the wonder course a distant memory. 

The good news is that Experiential Learning slows the decay curve down.  That’s because participants have experienced it for themselves, it’s understood better and the actual learning is much deeper.  Good exponents of Experiential Learning also have reinforcement mechanisms which they employ over time holding leaders to account for behaviours learnt at the course.   Reinforcement of “desert” themes comes to the fore.  What was learnt about time management? What was learnt about setting goals? And how did getting great information help make great decisions? 

Sadly, if you think you can buy an off the shelf EL programme and implement it without the buy in from senior managers think again…  And if you do invite in a specialist deliverer, make sure they ask lots of questions and clearly understand what in your World needs to change in the behaviour of your people to deliver a better result.  Remember, there isn’t any organisation that delivers results without its’ people. 

There’s also further potential risk by introducing Experiential Learning if there isn’t a highly relevant debrief at the end of the session.  Without this, participants may see it only as a game with no real link to their business and not worth the time spent out of the office.  As Experiential Learning guru Phil Geldhart points out, “without the ability to clearly link the experience to improving on-the job-training performance, the power of Experiential Learning will be completely lost.” 


It would be remiss not to mention that training in the right venue environment has a marked, positive impact on end results. So often you can have the best programme on paper but then you arrive at a hotel or venue with limited car parking, no natural day light, little sense of adventure and real space.  It has a real impact on the outcomes.  It’s one of the reasons why finding the right venue is so important.   

meetingsclub could not agree more with you Simon!  We were so impressed when we visited Yellowfoot Lodge near Windsor, a venue you have so carefully developed specifically with event organisers and trainers in mind. Loads of natural light, plenty of space and a creative environment with super food options helping delegates power their way through any desert! 

Check out meetingsclub’s editor’s destination! 


For more information about Eagles Flight and their Experiential Learning programmes or to sample for yourself at one of their many open days, please contact Simon Percival at Eagles Flight simon.percival@eaglesflight.com or check out the Eagles Flight website: http://www.eaglesflight.com

To find out more about Eagle’s Flight European “home” in Windsor (Yellowfoot Lodge), click on the link below.  Also, check out meetingsclub’s editor’s destination for this great venue, which is available to hire for meetings, training courses and events.  PLUS see Simon take part in the meetingsclub “Quick Fire 12.”