If you’re in the visitor attraction business, you couldn’t summarise what your operational Covid recovery objectives should be any more succinctly than this title line from Bernard Donoghue, Director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA):  “Sanitise your site, don’t sanitise your experience”.

Over the coming months, finding that delicate balance between making visitors feel safe and looked after during their visit, yet continuing to deliver a first class experience which showcases all on offer, will be a major challenge.  

There is no doubt that as an industry, the attractions sector has laid the firm foundations for recovery – making visitors feel safe.  Evidence from ALVA’s Visitor Recovery Benchmarking survey, that we at Decision House run on their behalf, shows that visitors to the participating 42 UK-wide attractions have so far rated the Coronavirus safety measures in place at these sites at an average of 9.0 out of 10 and this remained high throughout the summer.

Furthermore, the presence of these safety measures has been critical in generating the required confidence to return.  Almost half of visitors (46%) said that they would not have visited had these measures been absent.  Again, with confidence fragile, this remained at similar high levels throughout the summer and is likely to remain so as we progress to the uncertain autumn and winter periods.  Perceptions of safety at attractions will continue to be paramount in driving visits going forward.

Having reassured ourselves that those critical ‘safety’ building blocks are in place, our attention can perhaps turn more to the other seat on the see-saw.  How can we ensure that we continue to deliver against our visitors’ motivations?  How can we meet and exceed expectations?  How can we continue to leave visitors feeling that they have had a great experience?  After all, it’s these aspects that will ultimately determine whether they will return and the enthusiasm with which they talk about their visit with friends and relatives. 

First of all, we need to be honest with our visitors.  If the nature of our site means that we really need to significantly limit the visit experience, then reflect this clearly on the website and reduce the admission charge to an appropriate level.  Within the Visitor Recovery Benchmarking survey, website ratings for the information provided on what was open / closed has been very high and value for money ratings have also been as high as in previous years, so the sector seems to be passing this test at present.  However, visitors are tending to see through tokenism where it does exist – comments such as “the visit was frustrating as I knew from our last visit how much we were missing and there was only a £2.00 reduction for basically two rooms”  were not uncommon.

With a more limited visit experience, overall visitor enjoyment has declined.  Comparable ALVA visitor experience data from summer 2018/19 and summer 2020 reveals that ratings for enjoyment have dropped from an average of 8.8 to 8.5.  At the moment, visitors seem prepared to forgive attractions since the critical ‘likelihood to recommend’ scores have remained at very high levels, but how long will this last? 

At the root of these lower enjoyment ratings are two themes:

  • Elements of the visit which are closed
  • Less freedom of movement, particularly queuing

Therefore, delivering as close to a ‘normal’ visit experience as possible, as soon as possible, will be vital if we are to keep our reputations as fantastic visit experiences.

Of course, this is easier said than done for many and safety will always need to come first, but now that summer is over, we may need to add some additional flexibility to our operations.  The principal aspect that visitors seem less willing to forgive is where they see safety measures as “over the top”, which tends to occur during quieter opening times – exemplified by comments such as “probably a bit heavy on the one way systems given the number of visitors that were there” and “we felt that you had clearly taken time to comply with all Covid related measures but in many cases you had gone overboard”.  So can we be more nimble with the safety measures?  Does every area need to be closed all of the time?  Can we slightly relax the one-way system on certain days or times?  Can we make some of our interactives available in quieter periods? 

Could we even relax the mandatory advanced booking requirement during the winter months?  The Visitor Recovery Benchmarking survey unveiled many circumstances when visitors were, rather farcically, being helped by entrance staff to book online before being admitted.

What is clear is that the motivations of visitors haven’t changed dramatically.  They still want to learn new things, have new experiences, feel engrossed and be entertained.  With these privileges partially taken away over the past few months, these motivations will undoubtedly be supercharged when we return to something resembling normality.  Each attraction needs to understand which of its features really drives visitor enjoyment and recommendation and try its level best to deliver these as well, if not better, than they did in the past.

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