A changing landscape for attractions

04/01/2021 By Katie Vosper

A healthy outlook entering 2020

The attractions sector began 2020 with a skip in its step.  The sector had been growing steadily with admissions up 2% each year from 2015-2018, increasing to 3% in 2019, as evidenced by the Annual Visitor Attraction Survey that BVA BDRC conducts on behalf of VisitEngland.

VisitEngland Annual Attractions Survey 2020

Source: VisitEngland Annual Attractions Survey 2020

The increase in inbound tourism over the past few years certainly helped, with overseas visitors increasing by 2% in 2019.  However, the attractions sector has also succeeded where conditions have been less favourable.  VisitEngland’s Day Visits survey has recorded a downwards trend in day trips since 2012, with the market contracting at a rate of around 2% each year.  This makes the performance of the sector all the more impressive when we see that day visits to attractions grew by 2% in 2019.

In combination with the increase in admission fees, this visitor growth led to a sector level increase in gross revenue of 4% in 2019.  So heading into 2020, sector performance and consumer desire to visit attractions were clearly both very strong.


The pandemic has fundamentally changed consumer needs from a day out to attractions

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated closure of attractions changed everything… leading to internal conflict and change in needs in consumers.

Our research shows that at heart consumers still want ‘normality’ and to get out and have some ‘fun’ (the top two priorities from a list of needs).

However, fear of the virus and the financial impact of the lockdown (with over a third adversely affected) have created significant barriers to visiting attractions.  This is compounded further for urban attractions, with only a third of consumers comfortable in using trains or buses.

As we might expect, the comfort gap (calculated as the % who felt comfortable visiting an attraction before the COVID outbreak minus the % who feel comfortable now) is greatest for indoor attractions and those with a focus on hands-on activities.  Outdoor attractions, in particular gardens, are perceived as the safest option.  This plays out in consumer behaviour, with large garden attractions with plenty of on-site parking selling the vast majority of available tickets.

BVA BDRC Clearsight Recovery Tracker

Source: BVA BDRC Clearsight Recovery Tracker

The health and safety measures put in place by attractions after the first lockdown have been  absolutely essential to overcome consumer reservations about visiting.  There is a clear prioritisation of different health and safety measures, with hand sanitisation at the forefront.  Evidence of regular cleaning and managing visitor numbers and social distancing are also important across all types of attraction.

BVA BDRC Clearsight Recovery Tracker

Source: BVA BDRC Clearsight Recovery Tracker

There is a higher demand for face masks, visitor capping and timed entry at indoor sites, as we would expect.  Visitors to outdoor sites, on the other hand, are more likely to want hand sanitiser around the site, regular cleaning and contactless payments, reflecting a shift in concern from airborne exposure to touch transmission of the virus.

Only a small minority of visitors expect or want health checks on arrival, packaged food only or closure of communal areas such as playgrounds and cafes.  Although the ‘safety first’ message is appropriate, this cannot be at the expense of the experience.  After all, with fewer opportunities for days out, consumers want to make the ones they do take count.

Unfortunately, some changes required to keep everyone safe do made it more difficult for visitors to actively engage with the site and with other people.  For example, certain features or areas of the site having to close, and fewer tours and demonstrations.


The ‘key drivers’ of an excellent visitor experience have changed

To understand what drives a great visitor experience during the pandemic we developed our Experience Intensity model.  This is an update of a model we developed in 2019 and we can see that consumers are now placing more emphasis on the experiential ‘visitor engagement’ elements of their attraction visits, such as the atmosphere, and whether it feels like a place they belong, than they did in the past.  In contrast ‘site content’ is less important in driving the overall visitor experience.  To engage with consumers during the pandemic era attractions should therefore focus on the emotional elements of how the experience makes them feel – welcomed, safe, comfortable, relaxed, a place they can get away and have some fun… a place they can feel like themselves again.

While the announcement of a vaccine in October helped to bring forward the expectation of when life might return to normal, people on average still don’t expect ‘normality’ to return until the second half of 2021, suggesting that consumer caution associated with days out is likely to endure for some time yet.

Opinions on Coronavirus in UK

Source: BVA BDRC Clearsight Recovery Tracker

If you’re interested to learn more you can sign up for our free ClearSight® reports here, or contact Katie Vosper to learn more about the Visitor Experience Benchmarking Survey and Experience Intensity key driver model.