During the pandemic, the residents of Venice found they were happier looking out on dolphins in the Lagoon than cruise ships when the sudden reduction in travel had an immediate impact on the environment around them.
Venice had been one of several global focal points for concerns about over-tourism, and this summer, the city submitted plans to control the number of visitors, in particular day trippers. The proposals were intended to encourage more permanent residents, limit the stock of private apartment rentals and bring in a reservation system with an access fee to manage day visitors. In July, it banned all cruise ships from sailing through the city centre. Good news for the dolphins.
Prior to the pandemic, proposals for charges to visit destinations such as Venice were met with objections over elitism – surely, it’s everyone’s right to visit St Mark’s Square? – but has the pandemic shifted that mindset?
We live in an age where there are more causes than room for badges on a jacket, but our research on brand purpose has found that messaging on environmental issues has broader support than other causes and much less distinction across demographic groups. Political issues may polarise us, but we’re united in our concerns for the environment.
That doesn’t mean that it is without its issues. Consumers have fears over greenwashing and whether brands are selling a message they’re not backing up with action.
And while concern for the environment is high, we have found that it is not the main motivator of leisure travel choices with the weather and price ranking at one and two, respectively. Sustainability trails far behind at 25.
While sustainable standards are not a key motivator of leisure choices, they are becoming a hygiene factor. If sustainable standards are clearly not being met at a leisure organisation, people may start to avoid it – now or in the future.
The good news is that people are happy to undertake a range of different sustainable practices, from recycling their rubbish to flying with lighter luggage. They also showed a willingness to make small sacrifices, such as limited access to conservation areas and a day without meat on the menu – small changes which have been shown to make a difference. Sacrifices should be re-framed as positive actions, empowering visitors to perceive they are helping, not losing out.
The urge to travel is strong and dreams of far-away places mean that long-haul flights will not fall foul of flight-shaming trends. But we have found that, when framed positively, behaviours can be changed to benefit all.
The National Trust has received much of the attention on the subject of historic links to slavery, however a number of our other clients in the attractions sector have also sought to re-evaluate how they talk about it.
A key concern from our clients is the impact any reinterpretation will have on attraction visitor numbers.
Some worry that by drawing attention to the negative side of a place’s history, there is a danger that the ‘idealistic traditionalist’ may decide not to visit.
But others argue that the public’s understanding of how historic sites relate to slavery has shifted. There is an expectation that interpretation conveys the full history of a venue (warts an’ all). By doing nothing, they will be providing a sanitised version of what happened, which will lead to a less fulfilling visitor experience. This will also mean people will decide not to visit.
As individuals, our team has fairly developed opinions on the subject – the excellent Story of our Times podcast on Penrhyn Castle will give you a clue as to mine.
But as consultants who work in the sector, we seek to understand the objective truth, so we put the question to the general public.
We asked a nationally representative sample of the U.K. public (sample size of 1,750) the following question:
In the last couple of years, organisations such as The National Trust have started to examine the links their properties have with colonialism and historic slavery. In cases where slavery has played a large role in the site’s history, how much do you agree or disagree these organisations should include information about their links to slavery as part of their on-site interpretation?
The key finding was that the majority of the population (55%) supported information about links to slavery being included in the interpretation. Perhaps more importantly, only a small minority of 15% opposed it. 30% had no firm opinion either way.
Notably, although support for this sort of interpretation falls as people get older, it remains significantly higher than opposition for every single age group. Arguments that there is a huge cultural divide by age are largely unfounded.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is majority support across all ethnic groups, with agreement increasing to 7 in 10 UK residents of black ethnicity. For sites that champion an inclusive agenda (which is every historic attraction we work with), this figure may be enough motivation to update interpretation in itself.
We tried in vain to find an audience that is more likely to oppose, but such was the support for the suggestion, we were unsuccessful. The closest we came was amongst ‘anti-vaxxers’. But even amongst this ‘counter-cultural’ audience, support was higher than opposition – 39% to 27%.
A few words about the minority
This is a complex subject with many layers and nuances, and we don’t expect this one question to provide meaningful recommendations. But we hope it demonstrates that – despite what some tabloids may say – opposition to including links to slavery is only held amongst a minority of the general public.
However, we mustn’t forget this minority either. Although 15% is relatively small, no venue would want to lose this amount of visitors. With any additional interpretation on slavery, this minority will want to be reassured that their ‘traditional visit’ is protected and that extra interpretation adds depth rather than takes anything away.
Our wider research on brand purpose suggests that one possible objection from these detractors is that places are responding to a ‘woke’ political agenda. So it’s important that interpretation is clearly supported by robust source material too.