Behind the doors of visitor attractions: How has it all changed during Covid-19?

By Hannah Smith

Ah, those happy days when people could simply turn up to visitor attractions; hardly more than a memory now.  In recent months, pre-booking has become the norm, with spontaneous ‘on the day’ visitors missing out.  Research from our tracker suggests that 1 in 5 make the decision about their visit on the day.  With tickets selling out weeks in advance (even if they are free), many of us who do plan our visit before the day can still miss out, unless we book weeks ahead.

With limitations on what can be open, some attractions have chosen to change their pricing. There are two ways in which organisations are responding to these ‘restrictions’.  Firstly, they can compensate for the diminished experience with reduced entry charges.  On the other hand, some take the view that smaller numbers of visitors actually delivers a better visitor experience. In particular, RHS Wisley has capped visitor numbers at 4,500 (up to 8,000 on a peak summer weekend) and Salisbury Cathedral has even moved from free to a chargeable ticketed entry lasting 12 months.

Advance bookings have been a tough pill to swallow for some visitor attractions. The membership experience has been suffering from reduced capacity, limited access and visitors not turning up on the day. This raises questions about the purpose of a membership, which traditionally helps to sustain the work of the organisation, but nowadays is seen as a way of making savings on regular visits.

The ‘no show’ has always been a problem; now, it’s become worse. Although some members have felt frustrated about not being able to visit, they themselves have contributed to the very problem. ZSL, National Trust, RHS, Kew Gardens and Colchester Zoo among others (mostly gardens and zoos) have all reported cases of members booking tickets but not showing up on the day.

RHS, English Heritage and National Trust have reported that they don’t have the capability to reallocate tickets from members who fail to turn up; this hits outdoor attractions harder than indoor ones.  Tensions have developed between organisations and their members, with impassioned emails to members explaining the organisation’s frustrations.

It is not just members of individual organisations that have been affected. Membership aggregators such as Museums Association and Art Fund also feel forgotten in the advance booking process.

Membership organisations with paid for attractions have faced criticism too. There have been examples where member tickets are sold out, but paying visitor tickets are available. It is understandable that attractions would be looking to increase paid ticket sales given months of lost revenues, but it does leave a sour taste in the mouths of members who have paid money in advance to support these organisations.

So what else can be done?

Merlin has set about tackling ‘no shows’ by introducing a £1 booking fee on pass holder tickets. This has faced obvious criticism from members who have already paid for an annual pass. This model would be easy enough for other organisations to implement, but perhaps they could refund the booking fee through purchases in the café or gift shop.

Some inspiration can be drawn from the restaurant sector, which notoriously has a high proportion of ‘no-shows’.  With demand for limited space higher than ever they have had to take measures in response. One approach is to take card details or a deposit at the time of booking.  Within the visitor attractions sector, the Natural History Museum has set about combatting ‘no-shows’ at the point of booking. They have introduced the opportunity to add a donation when booking a free ticket, making the visitor feel as if they have paid to go and therefore are more likely to turn up.

If you want to find out more about what visitor attractions are up to, and more specifically the Natural History Museum, take a read of our recent blog written by Katie Vosper, Director at BVA BDRC here: https://www.bva-bdrc.com/opinions/its-alive-the-natural-history-museum-returns-better-than-ever/

 

 

 

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