As someone who enjoys a moderately healthy, hearty meal, the catering at visitor attractions always catches my eye. Imagine my disappointment when, at various venues in the last year I’ve been priced-out by fine-dining, missed out due to limited stock or put off by ‘beige stodge’. I’ve also seen vegan items ‘temporarily’ (perpetually) unavailable and children’s menus reduced to the bare basics.  I’ve had great experiences too, but such is my fear of going ‘hangry’ I now make sure I eat before a visit. 

First world problems of course, but if my experience is felt by others then visitor attractions risk losing out on revenue (and good will).

So in this light it is perhaps a good thing that we are seeing brands such as Costa and Benugo increase their footprint across the sector.  These established, well-run chains usually offer a range of tasty options, and rarely run out of stock. I may not be blown away by their offering but there is a reassuring sense of familiarity and predictability, which means a reduced risk of disappointment that might go on to taint the entire visit.

That said, when food has the potential to meet both a human functional and emotional need, could ‘predictable’ also represent an untapped opportunity for both the attraction and the 3rd party? I would argue that with a few smart moves, there is potential to add a little extra wow factor for mutual gain.

Take a recent visit to London Transport Museum as an example and source of inspiration.

I was impressed that the Benugo had adapted the menu to offer three bespoke cocktails that reflected the setting – the Elizabeth Line, Routemaster and Red Arrow.  The core Benugo offer remained intact, but this relatively simple step forged a clear connection with the attraction and created a memorable moment that added to the visitor experience.

But what about other more fundamental aspects of the experience?

Often, when sipping my flat white in one of these cafés, I no longer feel as if I am sitting in the attraction. I feel I have temporarily stepped outside, perhaps to my local high street or train station. I get this feeling regardless of where the café is situated – be it at the entrance of a city museum or deep inside a rural castle’s walls. 

This feeling of disconnect is driven by some logical factors such as the chain’s branding and staff in different uniforms, but also by the way that the chain’s employees represent the attraction.  Of course, they are not directly employed to represent the attraction, but visitors may not see it this way.

In 2023 we conducted over 400 mystery visits at visitor attractions, which included a detailed assessment of each venue’s catering offer.  Fuelled by my observations, mystery visitors were tasked with asking café staff a question about the visitor attraction.  The question had to relate to the site’s visitor experience offer, such as ‘are there any guided tours on today?’

It was striking – if not surprising – that where catering was run by a third-party chain the ability to answer a question about the attraction was dramatically reduced (60% compared to 85% overall).  

Moreover, far from just not knowing the answer to relatively basic questions, third-party staff would often proactively disassociate themselves from the attraction with responses such as “I’m not sure, ask the museum staff,” or even “I don’t know – I only work in the café”.  The adage ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’ comes to mind.

This presents a challenge. Visitor attractions work so hard on consistency of language, message and brand at all points in the visitor experience so any disconnect in the café breaks the flow. Suddenly that sense of escape vanishes and time-travel to World War II, Medieval England or Ancient Egypt becomes a flat white in your 4th favourite High Street coffee chain.  Compare that to the likes of Warner Bros Studio Tour London where you can sip a hot chocolate in the Chocolate Frog Café, and the difference in visitor experience is obvious.  It’s not too extreme to argue that this break in the flow may even curtail a visit, or at best require visitors to psychologically ‘start again’.

I’m by no means advocating throwing the baby out with the mochaccino – third-party catering chains bring lots of benefits – but our research suggests that more needs to be done to integrate these chains into the whole venue.

We don’t have all of the answers, but training seems to be a good place to start, either with the attractions involving 3rd party staff in their own training or providing some simple guidance so that they have a basic understanding of what’s on at the venue or are able to suggest a helpful alternative when faced with trickier enquiries. Couple that with a sprinkling of magic from some menu adaptation, as we saw at the London Transport Museum, and it could be a recipe for success which benefits everyone.

Don’t let your visitors go “hangry” – fuel the experience with on-brand food that ignites imaginations: Assess catering provision and the visitor experience at your attraction with Mystery Visitor Benchmarking

 

A trip to a visitor attraction is a chance to get out and enjoy everything from historic UK landmarks to theme parks – with massive potential for memorable experiences.

We have developed a valuable tool which can help visitor attractions design unforgettable customer experiences and strengthen customer relationships.

Behavioural economics brings a new vision of how humans make decisions in real life.  We are not rational ‘bots’ making optimal decisions, but humans subject to external influences and prone to making mistakes (some of them systematic). The theory of EPIC framework is that people judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak moments (the most intense points) rather than the sum or average of every moment of the experience.

Benefits of using the EPIC framework for visitor attractions:

Our research look at whether UK visitor attractions deliver EPIC experiences and, more specifically, which key moments are driving these experiences. In general they have exceeded expectations by delivering elevated experiences far beyond other sectors. What does that actually mean in practice, though?

ELEVATION

Elevation is the act of going beyond the routine and the expectedsomething that pleasantly surprised you. Such experiences are likely to influence word of mouth awareness, where people share their elevated experience with friends and family, and in turn drive repeat visits.

Examples:

PRIDE

Pride is generated when visitors feel recognised and valued. This can be through a particularly special experience, or simply by receiving the care and patience of staff. Value should be conveyed through the experience and at each ‘transition moment’ to help form a deeper connection to the brand.  These transition moments happen when visitors are the most open to an emotional response and can occur during booking, arrival, entry and exit from exhibitions, using the café or shop and leaving the building.

Examples:

INSIGHT

Insight relates to enabling visitors to discover something new or find new inspiration which is an important value-add to the overall experience. The ability to gain a deeper understanding of a topic of interest adds to the excitement, and can even trigger a sense of adventure when inspired to get involved.

Examples:

CONNECTION

Creating an emotional connection with visitors can be difficult, but behavioural science can maximise the chances of success. Enabling visitors to be surrounded by people with shared interests, and feel a sense of belonging during the experience can help forge a deeper connection. This increases the likelihood of visitors sharing their experience with friends and family and thus generate additional visits through recommendations.

Examples:

Delivering memorable customer experience goes beyond delivering the basics – it’s about going the extra mile in key moments of the experience that really matter. In short, it’s about being EPIC!

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?

Our findings

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.