Pre-Booking Insights for Visitor Attractions

By Jon Young

Introduction

Many visitor attractions have responded to COVID-19 by changing to pre-booking only.  There are clear benefits of this for some attractions. However, pre-booking doesn’t suit everyone, including the following visitors:

  • ‘Spontaneous’ visitor
  • Flexible holiday-maker
  • Weather dependent visitors
  • The crammer
  • Disorganised visitor

We conducted some research amongst the UK population as part of our ClearSight® survey covering the following areas:

  1. The benefits of pre-booking
  2. ‘No shows’ and ‘yes-shows’
  3. Attitudes to pre-booking
  4. Instances where pre-booking doesn’t help the visitor

1. The benefits of pre-booking to the visitor attraction

Before we delve into what the visitor thinks, it’s worth summarising the numerous benefits of pre-booking to the visitor attraction.

Pre-booking…

  1. Secures bookings in advance of the visit day, and allows them to plan accordingly.
  2. Makes the visitor psychologically more likely to visit and eliminates last-minute competition, or drop-off due to weather.
  3. Increases secondary spend. When payments are made before the visit, visitors feel they have more disposable income on the day.
  4. Increases donations and gift aid.
  5. Evens out the pattern of visitor arrival throughout the day enabling a better experience and making secondary spend more likely.
  6. Provides attractions with visitor contact details for pre and post-visit communication. In the short term attractions can build excitement and raise awareness of parts of the site that are typically missed.
  7. Provides a wealth of data on visitor origins for attractions.

 2. ‘No shows’ and ‘yes-shows’

Why do people ‘no-show’?

The earliest challenge to attractions as they re-opened with pre-booking was the volume of ‘no-shows’.

For some venues, ‘no-shows’ were as high as 30% of all bookings (anecdotally those that were free and with membership).  15% of the attractions market had ‘no-showed’ in the previous six months.  The true number is likely to be higher – even in a survey environment people will feel bad about sharing undesirable behaviour.

When asked why they hadn’t turned up, the vast majority stated they were not committed to visiting in the first place.  Strikingly, 7 in 10 stated ‘a visit was always 50/50’ or ‘they had booked more than one place to visit and would decide on the day’.

The remainder gave more understandable reasons such as government restrictions (higher for indoor venues), unsuitable weather (higher for outdoor venues) and ill health on the day.  Some blamed poor organisational skills.'no shows' never fully committed

Whilst some reasons are unavoidable, there is potential to reduce ‘no-shows’ among people who were not committed to visiting in the first place.  There are a few ways this can be achieved:

    1. Make the ‘no-show’ taboo: visitors at attractions are reasonable people, and it’s likely that they are not aware of the consequences of the ‘no-show’. No shows at restaurants are a lot lower than at attractions which may be because it's easier to visualise the impact of a ‘no-show’ (empty, unfilled tables).  If attractions can communicate the negative impacts of the ‘no-show’ at an attraction, attitudes may change.
    2. Reminders leading up to the day: visitor attractions should send visitors reminders – the increased contact may also reinforce the taboo of the ‘no-show’, and build excitement about the coming visit.
    3. Flexible booking software: anyone who has pre-booked several different sites will know that booking software differs.  Some – like the Roman Baths– allow you to cancel your visit up to the last minute.  Others don’t allow cancellation at all.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that the likes of Roman Baths have comparatively low ‘no-show’ rates – although the price point will also be a driver.

But what about ‘yes-shows’?

These are the people that would not have turned up if they hadn’t pre-booked. 11% of our market stated they had been a ‘yes-show’ at some point in the previous six months, which statistically puts them level with the ‘no-shows’.  There’s an argument that, on the day, the ‘no-shows’ and ‘yes-shows’ balance each other out.  If steps can be taken to reduce the ‘no-shows’ these might even be a net gain as a result of pre-booking.

no shows outweigh yes shows

3. Attitudes to pre-booking

Most of the visitor attractions market is positive about pre-booking. 

  • 7 in 10 visitors to indoor and outdoor attractions stated that they would likely still go ahead and visit if they had to pre-book.
  • 75% stated that compulsory pre-booking post COVID-19 would be a good thing or would make no difference to them

The ability to plan a trip is a key benefit for them, as is the experience incentive of reduced queuing on arrival and a less busy experience.  ‘Fewer debates about what to do on the day’ resonated with 1 in 5, even higher amongst families.

pre-booking as a good thing-ability to plan a leading benefit

What are the drawbacks of pre-booking in the eyes of the visitor?

Despite majority support, a significant minority of the attractions market see pre-booking as a bad thing.  3 in 10 would be less likely to visit if pre-booking was in place, and a further 3 in 10 would ‘think twice but probably visit’ (a seed of doubt attractions will not want as they seek to maximise numbers).  1 in 4 see 100% pre-booking post-COVID-19 as a bad thing.

With fewer international visitors expected in 2021, attractions will need to maximise the number of domestic visitors.  25% is a minority but it represents lots of potential visitors.  So combined with our knowledge of the spontaneous visitor, these findings raise a red flag for a 100% pre-booking model.

minority see pre booking as a bad thing

When asked why pre-booking is a bad thing, we see a reversal of the benefits amongst pre-booking supporters.  Whereas pre-bookers like to plan ahead, non-bookers prefer to be spontaneous and don’t like to plan.

One of our respondents said “I like to be able to make spontaneous decisions in my life and don’t like to be tied to a time.”  Some were almost offended that they would have to pre-book – “when it’s about entertainment it’s just stupid to plan your mood,” they argued.  Others found the very idea of pre-booking stressful - “I like to float around and browse.  Time limits are stressful.”

Some raised the point that when visiting more than one place e.g. on a London daytrip, sticking to strict timings is difficult at best.  A range of other specific factors were mentioned, including waiting for the weather on the day.Conversations with visitors

4) Instances where pre-booking doesn’t help the visitor 

Often the argument in favour of pre-booking is supported by the impressive best practice of Warner Brothers Studio Tour London and some Merlin attractions.  And whilst they are undoubtedly great examples of pre-booking in action, focussing on them can constrict the debate so that we are only talking about tick-box visits to attractions - trips that will create unforgettable, lifelong memories (as these venues certainly do!).

But many visits are not tick-box at all.  Our ALVA Benchmarking Survey regularly shows the importance of the ‘social mindset motivational segment’ which is made up visitors who simply wish to be in a pleasant environment, to spend time with friends or to go to a nice café.  These people may be wandering around the local area, or going for a walk on their lunch break – my colleagues and I often fit this description when stationed in our Holborn office.  For the social mindset segment, the attraction’s competition in this context may be a local park or a coffee shop.  Pre-booking is likely to be a ‘micro-barrier’ to visiting.

There are also people who like to visit attractions but are almost indifferent to which one they visit.  So the ease of visiting will be a key factor in their choice.

This casual visitor will often be one of your biggest advocates, or a regular spender in your catering and retail facilities.  Visiting should remain as easy as possible.

Are there any audiences that are more likely to be impacted by pre-booking?

One objective of our research was to understand if certain party types were more or less opposed to pre-booking.  The research didn’t uncover anything revealing here.  Families were marginally more likely than other life stages to be opposed to pre-booking, but less likely to ‘no-show’ - the pressure of predicting their children’s moods perhaps offset by the need to fill their time.  Unsurprisingly, pre-nesters were more open to pre-booking online than retirees, but these differences weren’t significant.  The overriding finding was that the majority of all life stages were in favour of pre-booking.

The key discriminator amongst the UK attractions market is attitudinal not life stage – put simply, some people like to plan and others don’t.

That said, beyond the scope of our survey, there are a few audiences that are also likely to be put-off by pre-booking.

  • International visitors: Language is likely to be a significant barrier for international visitors who aren’t confident English speakers.  It’s possible that booking (and paying) on a website may be off-putting.
  • Older retirees: Our survey speaks to people on online panels, but we know from experience that many attractions visitors are retirees with low IT literacy.  These would also feel uncomfortable booking online.
  • Low-income audiences: We often work with attractions that have catchment areas with limited internet access.  For these people, pre-booking online simply won’t be possible.  An alternative option is essential for attractions that have social outreach goals.

Put-offs for audiences

What about different types of site?

It’s worth noting that by separating indoor and outdoor venues, our research takes a fairly broad view of this challenge.  There are clearly a range of other factors that will impact decisions:

  • Admission fee: Free, paid-for (high/low) and membership
  • Venue size: Large or small
  • Location: Urban or rural; holiday hub or local; high passing footfall
  • Tick-box or not
  • Catering or retail on site

Summing up

There are clear advantages to maintaining pre-booking post COVID-19.  However, there is almost certainly a need for a hybrid approach that allows for walk-up visits too.  Clever messaging and booking software that allows for last-minute cancellations will reduce ‘no-shows’.  But regardless of how well this is done, there will always be a spontaneous, disorganised visitor who would rather just turn up on the day.  There will always be people for whom pre-booking is too much of a challenge.  Fail to cater to the disorganised or the disenfranchised, and you simply may lose them as a visitor.

Allowing for walk-ups whilst incentivising pre-booking is likely to be a challenge.  In her excellent MA dissertation, 'Issues of overcrowding at world heritage sites and technology-based solutions', Themis Chalvantzi-Stringer makes a positive case for virtual queueing as a way to encourage pre-booking, whilst giving space for walk-ups. I'm sure the logistical geniuses will have other ideas too.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the invaluable contribution to sense-checking by Simon Addison of Roman Baths, Paul Griffiths from Panshill Park and Kelly Molsen of Rubber Cheese.  The findings were then launched on the brilliant Skip The Queue podcast, which you can listen to here

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