On the 7-8th Dec 2016, a select group of operators and attraction industry professionals met at the Vision XS Operators Conference held in Wallingford, Oxfordshire.
Hosted by leisure industry specialists, Vision XS, the theme of the conference was “Why Should I Stay?”. It explored the positives and negatives of adding various forms of accommodation to a day visitor attraction. Delegates also heard about the revenue possibilities. Attendees heard from key speakers and existing attractions that have already taken the leap to become a resort.
Revenue-Generating Walls and Roofs?
Blooloop’s MD, Charles Read, kicked off proceedings with an overview of emerging trends across the attractions industry. He looked at high tech AR/VR experiences and interactivity, as well as live actors and IP at the low tech end of the scale.
Lead sponsor Ray Hole of Ray Hole Architects spoke to attendees on the options and space model for tourism and resorts. He explained how because owners want to get the most from a site, they should exploit the environment. They shoud also limit the public exploiting them. (Here, Ray cited Stonehenge where passers by, who haven’t paid an entry free, can still get the perfect souvenir shot).
Ray also advised that it is best practice to theme operations that have to share the same space. He mentioned the Charlie Chaplin pooper-scooper at Disneyland, who because he is so entertaining becomes part of the show! He even asked attendees to consider revenue generating walls and roofs as an alternative income.
On Insurance and Technology
Next up was Barry Davis who demystified the red tape surrounding planning permission for accommodation. He highlighted highways as vital to securing permission. He also advised operators to be mindful of the potential issues surrounding glamping groups such as hens and stags (don’t p*** off the neighbours too much!).
After a short break, attendees heard from Kevin Williams of KWP about the latest tech developments impacting on the industry. Examples included accesso’s new wearable tech Prism and contactless rings used for payments. The Olympic Committee first trialled the rings at the Rio Olympics. He highlighted the demands of Generation Y and Z and how this is driving new innovative technologies.
Next up was Rick Turner from North Devon’s farm/theme park, Big Sheep. There was nothing woolly about his opening gambit – “We do pretty much everything you can do with a sheep”. His talk focused on the Big Sheep’s hugely successful sister attraction.
He explained that The Ultimate Activity Centre was essentially an accident. It only came about after the installation of a home-made (but huge) ropes course up the hill which became very popular. Then, the addition of cheap group accommodation transformed the centre into the popular group/stag/hen/corporate centre it is today. The wide selection of activities includes a UK version of Wipeout, archery, rock climbing, surfing, zorbing, all generating huge amounts of revenue. The venue’s own brewery is an added draw. Rick’s next step is working out how to get the activity centre and Big Sheep to work better together with the intention of joining the two businesses.
Vision XS Keynote from Tony Sefton
Vision XS CEO Tony Sefton then led the keynote “Why Should I Stay?”, presenting stats to support the view that changing from a day visitor attraction to a multi-day stay resort increases profitability. Sefton described the importance of making the stay special and finding that “money-no-object moment”. He recalled one of his own family trips where his kids only remember singing around a campfire with Cowboy Dave rather than the lavish trip to Disney World. He was clear that while adding accommodation is all very well, venues need to offer activities that justify the extra day. In particular, he praised Europa Park Resort for its high standards and Michelin star restaurants that do this very well.
The next speaker delivered something completely different. David Russell from the Russell Partnership, hot off a flight from Dubai, walked us through the details for the Expo 2020 in Dubai. With over 25 million predicted visitors, 180 Country Pavilions, a leadership pavilion and 3 themed expo pavilions, the show aims to engage business in the day, and leisure at night, with a closing time of 2am.
The Russell Partnership are looking after the F&B needs for the project itself. A staggering 68, 000 people will be fed every hour during the expo, which runs from 20th Oct 2020 to April 2021. The project has extensive plans for the site’s use after the expo. These include a university, a hospital, the new home for the Dubai World Trade Centre, and the world’s largest airport.
Lodging with Tigers
Attendees heard from Bob O’Connor, MD of Port Lympne Reserve, about the wildlife park’s extensive range of accommodation. This ranges from shepherd huts and yurts, to the Livingstone Lodge, cottages and a Treehouse Hotel. A Tiger Lodge is also planned where the accommodation will look directly onto the tiger enclosure. Bob gave attendees valuable information about the costs and potential return on each option.
Colin Evans, from Cantref Farm, spoke of the farm park’s history. From its humble beginnings in the sixties as a caravan park with pony treks, the attraction has developed into a farm park and now also includes accommodation and a variety of activities. Colin emphasised the need to keep the authenticity of the Breacon Beacons and to keep the brand local. He also touched on the increasing number of multi-generational family groups. More grandparents want to be involved in a wider range of activities.
The National Trust Fesses up
We then heard from two National Trust speakers. First Jessica McGurk, Head of Visitor Experience and Learning, spoke to attendees about the mission of the National Trust. She highlighted the £32 million spent on conservation every year. She also talked about the struggle to get visitors to associate the brand more with the outdoors and less with historical houses. One way to tackle this has been the successful partnership with Sport England and its weekend Park Runs around National Trust properties throughout the UK. Another way of engaging perhaps the less “outdoorsy” audience was to increase the Rangers involvement and presence at the properties.
The second speaker was Mick Wilkes, the General Manager of Gibside, a National Trust property in Gateshead. Mick described how the attraction had seen its visitor numbers double in 6 years. While there had been no investment in the heritage part of the business, the key had been the addition of accommodation and additional activities. These included a ropes course, a natural play area, a weekend market and even a plastic milkable cow called Cheryl Cole!
He put part of this success down to strong relationships with the community. “We work in partnership with others but not diluting the visitor experiences.” The attraction enjoys partnerships with local businesses and has an incubation unit on site. It also has a special relationship with the council. In particular, the attraction has a close bond with local schools. Every child in Gateshead has had National Trust membership for free for the last three years. This also gives The Trust the opportunity to put marketing materials in book bags for mum and dad.
Double Vision XS Excess
The last session of the Vision XS Operators Conference was led by The Russell Partnership. Attendees were split into groups and asked to run their own hotel from a model simulation. Each group made decisions on staffing, pricing, advertising, staff satisfaction, guest satisfaction, amenities and channels. To see which hotel came out on top, every quarter, the decisions were put into the system. This also encouraged some friendly competition between attendees!
After the event, an open bar, buffet and evening entertainment were put on by Vision XS and its sponsors to continue networking and discuss the day’s talks.
Attraction operators were invited to stay with Vision XS for the second day of the conference. Delegates examined a series of case studies from the National Trust, RSPB, The Woodland Trust and Historic Royal Palaces. Tony Sefton, Vision XS, got down to the nitty gritty of in-depth strategy, speaking about market assessments, potential growth, product and investment strategies.
Photos kind courtesy of: English Heritage, ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey, ©National Trust Images/John Millar, Port Lympne Reserve, Dubai Expo 2020, accesso, and Ultimate Activity Centre.