Related: SATE 2012: Cultural Diversity or How to Translate "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique" Into Mandarin/ Keith James at SATE 2012: How JRA has Adapted to Different Markets Worldwide / Thinkwell’s Dave Cobb – Theme Park Nerdity and Jurassic Dreams
By Ray Hole, ray hole architects ltd
ray hole architects is an international, award winning architectural practice underpinned by Ray Hole’s experience gained over 25 years in highly creative, multi-disciplinary design environments as structural engineer, architect and designer, and through our diversity of projects, activities, locations and cultures.
Some say that without changeable weather the British would have nothing to talk about. This may indeed be a cultural myth, but UK visitor attraction operators certainly take weather very seriously because visitors do and have always made weather related decisions.
Indeed, as a child I remember the look of relief on my father’s face when the evening news would forecast sunny weather for the coming day. Conversely, the contrast in mood if rain was predicted wasn’t dissimilar to that of many operators following this year’s record breaking weather statistics.
As specialist architects we design across all the attraction sectors and therefore provide strategic advice for every type of built environment and associated landscape whether they be for outside or fully enclosed experiences – and any permutation between. Projects have equally challenged us with extremes of temperature, humidity and wind speed, and within this rich mix of unpredictable circumstances we discover every destination type hoping that their business models match the weather.
Sometimes this is achieved. Often not!
Even the most agile attractions are not always completely immune to such reversals in fortunes; too warm – and internalised attractions numbers dip; too wet or cold – and predominantly external attractions suffer likewise; too hot – and parents worry about sun exposure; too dry – and Glastonbury just isn’t the same; equally those bare alpine slopes are hard to ski on; and disappointed water and sky based activity fans can find themselves being in the ‘doldrums’.
In the UK we still have recognisable seasons and therefore have at least 4 distinct varieties of seasonal conditions to contend with or exploit. However, if an attraction is too predicated on any one particular set of climatic conditions they are at risk from any volatility in weather, be it for a day, a week or longer. And a disappointing ‘peak day or weekend’ impacts far greater than any others.
This increasingly unpredictable calendar that operators have to navigate each year has certainly been made more comfortable by the emergence of new types of insurance policies (which ironically rely on predictability!) But this naturally increases costs with only the promise of mitigating loss, and of course may even prove to be a redundant measure if the actual insured scenario doesn’t materialise.
Therefore we have believed for some time that a shift in strategic approach should be adopted not simply to mitigate or even neutralise any negative impact as a result of volatile weather, but one that actually thrives on the occurrence of any weather type – inherently promoting increased visitation, encouraging repeat visitation and generating higher revenues derived directly from the experiences that diverse climatic characteristics can provide. What is currently deemed a problem needs re-calibrating into a range of free assets.
The Met Office publish detailed records of weather statistics each year and what these show is that the overall annual totals of rainfall, sunshine hours, temperature, snowfall, wind speeds, etc. are relatively consistent. What isn’t constant however, is the timing and periods of weather type incidences.
Hence, long spells of drought (as in the 1970’s), rainfall (as we have experienced this year), snowfall (which closed major airports in 2010) and high winds (such as the famous ‘hurricane’ in 1987). What this shows is that attractions have always lost a certain number of days each year to weather.
But why tolerate the loss of even one single day?
Implementing such a different strategic approach would not only aim to eliminate negative impacts from extreme occurrences but gain significant advantage from every incidence of weather volatility – whenever and whatever – thereby providing a resilience which should transform any attractions business model.
So what could such a strategy look like?
It will not surprise anyone that the answer resides in the visitor experiences provided. That is why visitors come to attractions. But the physical and sensorial environment, programs of activities and operations all need to be both agile and flexible enough to allow rapid and easy adaptation in order to respond to and deliver extraordinary ‘weather enhanced experiences’. Equally, passive techniques need to be incorporated which automatically activate or simply occur when certain weather arrives. Only then can the different weather characteristics provide the very reason to visit – rather than yearn for the ‘utopian benign’ day which regularly eludes us anyway.
Some attraction sectors are already beginning to investigate such concepts.
For example Science and Discovery Centres are beginning to occupy previously underutilised external spaces with installations and experiments that allow visitors to engage with the elements –Wind, Rain, Sun, Snow, etc. This makes the traditional model of installing synthesised versions of natural phenomena within a ‘black-box’ seem almost counter intuitive.
Sports venues increasingly need to guarantee that events take place. By using under surface heating or all-weather tracks, not only are their industry obligations met but it also actively promotes advanced sales. Furthermore, such techniques gives weather the opportunity to intensify the drama of an event, even affecting the outcome, which ordinarily would have led to postponement.
And we mustn’t underestimate the potential for weather related secondary spend opportunities. IP enhanced ponchos and other weather dependent consumables/collectables do not sell in ‘utopian benign’ conditions.
There are contrary examples – Wimbledon Centre Court and the Millennium Stadium – where retractable roofs, although strategically guaranteeing the event, inadvertently separates the visitor from the weather, effectively denying any possibility of enhanced experience. Also significant investment is involved – just in case!
However, the theatrical act of deployment as part of ‘staging the experience’ is an important consideration, as demonstrated by the Roman amphitheatre fabric roof at Puy du Fou which is deployed deliberately as an integrated sequence of the overall experience.
Because it’s the staging of these experiences which attracts visitors, increases dwell time and ultimately delivers enhanced Experience Economy performance.
But staging weather enhanced and natural phenomena experiences requires careful management to exploit; Capturing sporadic but prolonged episodes (such as the Northern Lights in Iceland) or a precise fleeting moment (such as the sun’s equinox position at Stonehenge); The unpredictable lightning flashes and thunder claps during an electrical storm or the journey and arrival of a weather front or even a hurricane; The first snowfall or blizzard of winter or the dramatic crescendo of hail stones are all extraordinary opportunities for new visitor experiences.
But such a shift in strategic approach and program will also demand a different master planning attitude, one where the infrastructure and built environment – ‘attraction hardware’ – facilitates the necessary ability to adapt and/or transform, allowing the experiential techniques – ‘attraction software’ – to lend personality, authenticity, integrity and new engagement possibilities relative to the weather types and receptive audiences.
A number of our projects have incorporated strategies with weather enhancing techniques integrated into the design. A few examples:
The Rainforest House, Herrenhauser Garten, Hannover, Germany
- The roof provides the possibility to ‘tune’ the acoustic signature of rainfall on the ETFE air cushions to mimic the sound of the Brazilian forest.
Snowdon Summit Visitor Centre, Snowdonia National Park, Wales
- The building’s shape nullifies the extreme wind speeds local to the external walls so that visitors can experience the wind at a comfortable strength
- The cloud formations roll over the building’s extensive windows like a milky wave, creating both ‘white-out’ and the most evocative ‘reveal’, occasionally appearing to ‘levitate’ on the cloud
- Early morning sun streams through the high level windows providing free warming, whilst the sunsets are magnificent
- The formation of ice on the external facades transforms the building into an ice sculpture
Bentley Pavilion, Autostadt, Wolfsburg, Germany
- The original intention of creating a ‘racing green’ external stone cladding was thwarted as natural green stone is UV susceptible, however the sculptural form and the granite finally selected provides fleeting glints of ‘racing green’ at certain times of the day and sunlight angle.
This philosophy of creating Weather Enhanced Visitor Attractions can go a lot further though. If the aim is to stimulate all the 5 senses through engaging with all the varieties of weather characteristics the permutations of experiences are enormous.
When applied to the increasingly expanding ranges of visitor attraction types the possibilities become infinite;
Aquariums, Botanic Gardens, Brandlands and Industrial/Commercial Workplaces, Museums and Cultural Attractions, Themed Attractions, Zoos and Safari Parks, Play Environments, Wildlife and Farm Attraction, Retail Stores, Science and Discovery Centres, Restaurants and Hospitality, Heritage Centres and Landscape, Hotels and Mixed-Use Developments………….
The irony in all of this is that we may find the attraction industry in the future actually cultivating the cultural myth of weather obsession into an economically beneficial reality – but one where visitors wish and demand that weather provides experiential differentiation and extremes – that really would be transformational!
ray hole architects: The Rainforest House, Herrenhauser Garten, Hannover, Germany; Snowdon Summit Visitor Centre, Snowdonia National Park, Wales and Bentley Pavilion, Autostadt, Wolfsburg, Germany
Blooloop: Alnwick Castle Gardens and tractors in the rain, Mud at Lamar Tree Festival