Five things we learned from our mystery visits to Scottish Attractions

01/11/2021 By Diana Meterna

Following the long-awaited re-opening of visitor attractions, we worked with ASVA (the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions) to conduct mystery visits to 20 diverse Scottish visitor attractions.

During these visits, our trained auditors assessed:

Auditor assessment criteria

The main objectives were to:

  • Inspire the sector with best practice examples
  • Give individual attractions an understanding of what they are doing well and what could be improved

Overall results were positive; the sector received outstanding scores, with none of our assessment criteria scoring below ‘good’.

Average scores by section (all sites)

Some common themes stood out, and we were delighted to uncover many examples of good practice that can be applied across the sector.  Here are five  of our top tips that can help improve the visitor experience:

1. Pre-visit and arrival: Provide more detailed, visual information to reduce confusion

The sector scored well on pre-visit aspects like website navigation and booking confirmation.  However, there were some challenges around ease of understanding. The lack of clear information (on the website or via emails) and unnecessary extra steps was a common theme in pre-booking feedback. On arrival, some sites lacked clear site plans, meaning visitors were uncertain of where to go. It became apparent that maps - often taken away due to COVID - are popular with visitors and, when given out at arrival, provide a good opportunity to strengthen visitor-staff interaction.

Best practice: National Museums Scotland and Abbotsford The Home Of Sir Walter Scott

  • Offered detailed information, including clear instructions where necessary (getting there, facilities and important changes such as card payments only)
  • Easy to understand COVID-19 information displayed at the forefront of the website and emails
  • Had a simple, clear and quick booking process
  • Made checking availability and attraction details easy


2. Pro-active staff engagement helps to create a connection with guests

Staff are key to creating memorable experiences and these positive, unprompted interactions drive up visit ratings – particularly during COVID when anxieties can run high, and some interpretation is ‘switched off’. Staff knowledge scored highly across all attractions, but availability and engagement were the key common improvers. Indeed, having approachable staff available in most areas of the attraction (especially around the entrance and exhibits) is a hygiene factor and pro-activeness is a popular delighter among visitors.

Best practice: Stirling Castle, Scottish Seabird Centre and RRS Discovery

  • Ensured regular, pro-active and genuine engagement with visitors


3. Encouraging visitors to ask questions enhances guided tour experiences

Friendly attitudes and the ability to hear tour guides received strong scores, however, the desire for more engagement was a common theme for improvement. Some visits would have benefitted from allowing visitors to ask questions throughout the tour and receive knowledgeable answers. Ease of experience was also important – having a tour guide not talking too fast and sharing information coherently and engagingly increased the ease of seeing exhibits.

Best practice: The Scotch Whisky Experience, Glengoyne Distillery and Glenkinchie Distillery

  • Whisky experiences led the way in creating rapport with visitors through knowledgeable, attentive and engaging guides who went over and above to enhance the experience


4. Creating a COVID safe visit doesn’t have to hinder the experience

All attractions did well in terms of cleanliness and hand sanitiser availability, but some experiences were negatively affected by a lack of social distancing and parts of the experience being closed due to COVID. Staff visibly cleaning in front of visitors provided reassurance, but sometimes there was a lack of clarity and inconsistency as staff didn’t always police people breaking the rules.

Best practice: Culloden Battlefield, National Trust for Scotland and V&A Dundee

  • Provided verbal information on arrival to ensure visitors complied with protocols.


5. Find creative ways to display COVID-related information

COVID has challenged attractions by demanding safety measures and reassurances, leading to many of the ingredients needed for a positive experience to drop off. However, many sites used these circumstances to generate an emotional response. This creates positive memories when interaction is limited, and it also makes reading signs (and compliance) much more likely!

Best practice:

RZSS created several opportunities for this:

RZSS examples of COVID practices

Stirling Castle used the unicorn as a guide for social distancing:

Stirling Castle COVID practices

Abbotsford House dressed up Sir Walter Scott:

Abbotsford House COVID practices

According to our EPIC framework and visitor testimonies, Scottish Visitor Attractions deliver memorable experiences through a number of different ways:


  • The empty library was very evocative. You don't often see empty bookshelves. I am interested to find out more about the private railway station
  • The barrel ride at the start of the tour was an innovative way of immersing guests in the whisky making process without having an actual distillery to refer to


  • I felt valued when I interacted with the staff at the entrance, café, and during the exhibition
  • The effort the guide made to interact with everyone and learn their names was great


  • Learning about the unicorns was a huge revelation. As non-Scots we had no idea they extended beyond modern fairy tales!
  • I enjoyed seeing how the ship was engineered so cleverly for its time, and it must have been hi-tech and expensive in its day


  • There was a nice buzz of people being excited by the artworks they were seeing which was lovely to be a part of
  • I enjoyed being surrounded by similar people taking an interest in the local history

Mystery visits are a great way to generate tangible areas for improvement, suggested by experts.  If you’d like to find out more about our Mystery Visitor benchmarking service please visit Or fill in the form below:

Have we left you wanting to learn more? Feel free to download a copy of our whitepaper that explores the science behind creating memorable experiences, here.