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In depth

Visitor Attractions : The Vision XS Operator’s conference report 2010

The 6th annual conference run by Vision XS, the UK based consultancy, was an opportunity for attractions operators from the UK and beyond to meet in an informal environment and discuss issues and challenges facing them all.  Disney veteran John Holland , James Berresford, CEO of Visit England and BRC Imagination Arts’ Bob Rogers were the Keynote speakers at this year’s event, which took place 7th July at Oxford University’s Keble College.  

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The conference was first created as a networking event giving operators from widely differing attractions the chance to meet and network with fellow professionals.   A keen interest in visitor behaviour is a common denominator between those that run even the biggest zoos and theme parks and those operating small farm parks and niche museums: why do people visit an attraction, what do they expect and how can operators manage these exceptions?  The event has grown steadily since its inception, its first incarnation managing 25 delegates, this year’s ten times that many. Mixing and mingling was the order of the day as an impressive array of executives from great heritage sites (Hampton Court, Chatsworth House, Blenheim Palace), major zoos (London, Chester, Marwell) and theme parks (Disney, Bewilderwood, Crealy, Drayton Manor) heard the thoughts of a number of speakers and engaged in practical exercises aimed at exploring and understanding visitor behaviour.
 

Keep the customer satisfied

James Berresford (right), CEO of VisitEngland opened the conference by emphasising the importance of tourism and destination management.  Stressing that though he doesn’t particularly like the term “staycation” (For a note on attractions industry buzzwords see: Subverting the Dominant Paradigm – What's it all about?) he pointed out that England had 18% more visits than the year before and that 85% said they had a “good or very good time” in England . Whilst recognising that the country and its attractions could not please all the people all the time (he received one comment that “The weather was just not what we’d hoped it would be”) James spoke persuasively of the benefits to the nation of its tourism industry. Though tourism doesn’t dig up material from the ground or manufacture product, he stressed the importance of the industry in creating jobs, earning money and adding tremendous value to the country.  After all, he said, “you can’t offshore tourism, it can’t be outsourced to a Mumbai call centre, it has to be done here, and that contributes to the economy and that means jobs”.  

Although he was guardedly optimistic with the new UK Government’s attitude – it appears they “get” tourism – he suggested that a pertinent riposte might well be “yes, but does the Treasury?”.  

He needs no Introduction…

Juliana Delaney, Continuum’s CEO – who, togetbob roger themed entertainment brc imagination artsher with Anita Waddell from Agility Marketing, was an engaging Major Domo for the day – then observed that our next guest needed no introduction and in fact he did not, being one of the big draws of the day. Bob Rogers (left), BRC Imagination Arts’ CEO and founder is often referred to as a “legend” in the industry. He and his company have worked on a huge variety of attractions across the world, have been instrumental in creating some of the most captivating and illuminating visitor experiences and have received over 250 major awards,   including 17 THEA awards and 2 academy award nominations.
 

Bob discussed the importance of the story and how it is easy for a designer to lose sight of the fact that an  effective visitor attraction and experience should start, not with the design, the budget, the site or the technical wizardry but with the story and most importantly a consideration of the audience. “Only the most effective storytellers start by looking into the hearts of the audience to seek the deepest meaning of their subject. Then they imaginatively communicate that meaning back to the audience. These are the designers whose work changes the world”.

How should a designer should best approach a project? Some of his thoughts are set out below:

  • Know yourself;  start by thinking about your audience: what do they want, expect, what does the story mean to them? Ask yourself what is the story of your attraction in the mind of your guests?
  • Showing us a slide of the Disneyland plaque from 1955 (right), he pointed out that what was notable was that it is guest centred.  Make your attraction true, local, personal and fun. 
  • Globalisation is commodotising what we do. We must innovate and be original. We copy and die.

 In search of Miracles? Your team may well include the following personalities, each important contributors in their own right but none should override the others:

  • "The List checker" – ticking boxes and following procedure is important.
  • "The Cheerleader" – enthusiasm is vital
  • "Eyeore" – cautious, pragmatic , possibly gloomy.
  • "The Fool killer" – poo poos ideas, can stall lateral thinking (“Send him on holiday for the first part of the project” suggested Bob)
  • "The Magician" – provides the creative spark.

Frankly My Dear…

Bob then highlighted two of BRC’s recent projects, The Heineken Experience and the Louisiana Old State Capitol. In the former, the team replaced the old brewery tour (which curiously didn’t actually have any brewing) and changed what had been a confusing layout, one in which, for example, bottling was shown before the brewing. New content and design created an enhanced emotional connection between the visitor and the brand.

The Louisiana Old State Capitol was an attraction without a unifying story.  It had sleeping assets. It turned out there was a (ghost) story to be told and with the help of a fully immersive theatre the tale of Sarah Morgan was revealed. She was a real person, her father owned the land upon which the State capitol was built and academics even suggest she was the inspiration for the Scarlet O’Hara character. The design team helped bring to life a story of love, hope reassurance and strength.

 “It’s all about quality control, ” concluded Bob.  “Reject the bad, nurture the good and know the difference. Have strength to say “it’s not good enough” and if you can’t do it right, pass on it.   Believe in your own ability but not in your own invincibility.”

But where's the rabbit?

After lunch in Keble’s Great Hall we then had a practical exercise. Split into small groups and sent of to critically asses a local museum (very local, The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, directly across the road) we had to come up with a plan as to how it might improve and enhance the guest experience. Captained by Bewilderwood’s Simon Egan (right in image below), our team employed a classic 1-3-2 formation as we approached the grand Neo-Gothic facade, with a solid back four of Ian Jenkinson (London’s Natural History Museum – far left), Heather Carter (Bleinham Palace) , Izzy Warren (Paignton Zoo – second from right) and a glamorous foreign signing, Paul Davies (second from left) from New South Wales’ Taronga Zoo.

This particular museum seemed to me an unfortunate choice for such an exercise.  As we strolled around what is a space of quite breathtaking beauty, looking at well ordered, neatly designed exhibits, clearly labelled and thoughtfully displayed to their best advantage in a building in which I doubt they had little leeway for change (given the age and Grade 1 listing), I felt a little churlish looking for errors.  Our little troupe of pedants did in fact identify a number of areas in which we might conceivably have done things differently but none were particularly compelling.  Sure the Allosaur game, where a child pays to make the baby therapod break out if its shell needed addressing, as it sported the curious instruction “Pay £1 or £2”.  The obviously popular ”touch” table, where visitors could handle various artefacts from fossilised dinosaur dung to a stuffed wallaby and a chunk of quartz, was missing a rabbit.  There was a label but no rabbit. Had it been stolen?  But all in all the museum was glorious and in fact I spent  the next morning there, marvelling at the entomological collection and the extensive palaeontology display.
 

85 million smiles

Back at Keble, John Holland, with over 37 years of Disney experience, spoke to us about managing the guest experience and in particular about how important staff/cast are in effecting this.  Starting out as a car park attendant, John had 20 years as a senior manager and 9 years as an executive with Disney  (he was General manager at both Animal kingdom and Magic Kingdom) and his words carried considerable weight; as Juliana estimated, he had been responsible for the Disney visits of over 85 million people!
 

He emphasised the importance of empowering his cast members and getting the best out of them as this naturally leads to giving the best experiences to guests. As an operator he was focused on metrics, asking his guests what they were expecting and delivering them this and more. It is vital, he explained, to listen to your employees. Also to fully train them and to constantly invest in their continued development. Key points for staff included:

  • Maintain a positive image and smile. Be approachable and look happy.
  • Courteous and respectful; eye contact, treat each guest as an individual.
  • Stay in character, play the part.
  • Go above and beyond – anticipate create surprises. 

And as to the Implementation and sustainment of procedures for staff/cast, operators should :

  • Communicate constantly and observe behaviour
  • Stay committed and be sure to have metrics in place
  • Employ mystery shoppers and experience product/service personally
  • Create a culture so people can thrive.

He suggested two books on leadership (above right) that given his weight of experience were persuasive recommendations: Indispensable leadership (Maxwell) and 212 Degrees (Parker & Anderson).tony sefton vision xs

He's British but doesn't like tea? 

Finally, Tony Sefton (right), Vision XS’s CEO, brought the event to a close with a typically boisterous session, involving doughnuts, sugar levels and his aversion to tea.  He encouraged delegates to become “obsessive about visitor experience” and said, “You need to know what your visitors expect before they arrive, manage their expectations and ensure you can deliver. Create a visitor experience charter and make sure it’s shared and owned by marketing and operations alike”.

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