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In depth

Attractions, Interactions, Punting and Pimms.

The 3rd Vision XS experience Conference for the operators of theme parks, zoos, museums took place earlier this month in Oxford, U.K. and was a success both from a commercial and social point of view, being larger and more ambitious in its scope than its 2 predecessors, incorporating more exhibitors and case studies than before and ending with an action packed evening’s punting in the River Cherwell.

The conference is designed to help attractions operators – of Theme parks, Zoos, Waterparks, FECs, Museums and other visitor attractions – to maximise their revenue and profitability through a number of mechanisms, not the least of which is by working with Vision XS, utilising their consultancy skills and their state of the art software package, X-Mod. Blooloop went along to drink some Pimms and learn more.

Proceedings began at the Oxford Centre, where an “Early Birds” session which focussed on “The Dos and Don’ts of Planning an Attraction” was followed by a half hour break during which a number of exhibitors manned booths showcasing their latest products.

An Insight into the Science

Session 1, “Experience/Profit/ Learning- The right Mix” was prefaced by an introduction from Mike Harrison, Vision XS’s Chairman. Tony Sefton- the company’s CEO , who originally set up the company some 8 years ago, then presented an overview of the issues facing the attractions operator in today’s changing market. Flow time, dwell time, repeatability, visitor journey were all explained and analysed as we were presented with an astonishing array of graphs and pie charts.

It was fascinating to get an insight into the science involved in the field of visitor attractions, a science largely pioneered by Visions XS with their blend of advanced psychology/ programming and statistical analysis. I learned for instance, figure of eights can work well as can spoke and hub and clover leaf. Aquariums tend of course to be linear, Wimbledon has no specific flow. The point being that a guest’s dwell time in the attraction is maximised whereas poor flow makes for short dwell time. Having a shop at the exit and not siting one of your peak attractions just before that shop are both important, as highly charged people don’t tend to shop. Positioning is vital.

In summarising Tony made a number of points:

• Do not be seen as a dry day experience (need to be able to accommodate 40/45% of visitors undercover)
• Have an exit shop, and importantly have enough tills to cater for your peak (“design”) days
• Add extra-pay activities (maximum of 5%)
• Control visitor flow/path
• Create an experience plan
• Remember: sites are changed over years not months

A mix of the “Hysterical and the Historical”

From the science to the application of the science. A number attraction owners then got up to speak about their own experiences as operators and about how they had worked with and implemented Visions XS’s plans. First came Steve Cook , CEO of Gold Reef City Theme Park in South Africa. He had, he said, “taken an ugly duckling and made it into a swan.” When he took over there had been a culture of “make do”, poorly motivated staff and the public perception of the park had been coloured by some disadvantageous coverage on a Consumer TV program.

Steve has turned around the park, making big investments (a 4D ride and re-theming many rides, a dinosaur museum etc) but also in emphasising the “edutainment” value of the park and its story: a mix of the “hysterical and the historical” is the final result with the fascinating history of the park and its mining past skilfully woven into a number of themed attractions and branded restaurants. He introduced a loop too, so that visitors go where they are supposed to go. The staff are now motivated, empowered individuals; ambassadors for the park.

A French Aquarium, McFly and a Dog Show

Then to a zoo. Port Lympe in Hampshire had always been a world class zoo, putting the animals first and having had considerable success in conservation and breeding – the first captive bred snow leopard, over a hundred western lowland gorillas bred etc. However, it had grown in an ad hoc basis and there had been a number of tragic incidents with keepers. Bob O’Connor , Port Lympe’s MD, explained how he and his team has turned the zoo around , creating “nodes” (ie clusters of attractions) , adding new exhibits such as the rhino enclosure and looking to maximise revenue from non animal-based activities such as a football tournament, pop concerts and even a dog show.

He has a clear business plan and a number of developments in the pipeline, such as an intriguing link up with a French aquarium which looks to cross pollination of the two attractions and a presence at the Bluewater shopping centre. Bob is also looking to create a permanent venue for concerts and more play areas, perhaps incorporating water.

2 more case studies followed. Cantref, a Welsh farm park which has grown progressively over the last few years and boasts Europe’s longest sledge slide and Kids Play in Milton Keynes, with MD Paul Sharp talking engagingly about the challenges faced by an FEC and about how he has worked with Vision XS in implementing change.

Roundabouts in Africa

There then followed a buffet lunch during which my crisp/salad ratio was not as good as it might have been, the linear flow meaning that I spent too much time on the peak attraction (snacks and cake) and not enough time on the vegetables.

During lunch I chatted with Angela Wright, MBE and Managing Director of Crealy Adventure Parks about the Roundabout Play Pumps scheme. A wonderfully simple, yet effective idea , these devices allow kids to play and bring water to the surface via a roundabout linked to a bore hole and are proving successful right across Africa, bring much needed water to communities in over 1, 000 locations.

The afternoon kicked off with a “mastermind” styled session, in which a panel of industry experts – Ray Hole (RH Architects, ) Barry Davies (Davies & Co. Chartered Surveyors, ) Stef Puttnam (Jardine Lloyd Thompson Leisure, insurance brokers), and Phil Barker (Lloyds TSB Agriculture)- fielded questions from the audience and from Rosalind Johnson of “A Different View”, who might soon be given her own chat show such was her skill at handling both the panellists and the audience.

A review of new products followed in which a second panel, this time owners and operators of a variety of attractions (Angela from Crealy Great Adventure Parks, Sean Gaffaney from the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, and Andrew Wolfe, from Willows Adventure Farm) gave the thumbs up (or down) to, amongst other things, a portable climbing wall, a coin operated kiddie ride and a dinosaur dig.

After a case study exercise the day closed and, braving the English summer drizzle, we headed to the River Cherwell for an evening of punting and Pimms. A pleasant hour was spent messing around in boats, with no one falling in, followed by a glorious 3 course meal.

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