Benchmarking Visitor Experiences

14/03/2016 By Katie Vosper

The full version of this article first appeared in the Attractions Management 2015-2016 Handbook

Whether our motivations are educational, charitable or profit focused, delivering a great visitor experience is key to any visitor attraction's success. It leads to more recommendations, higher spend and ultimately better acquisition, retention and revenue. But how do we know what level of return, recommendation or spend is good?

ALVA (Association of Leading Visitor Attractions) runs two benchmarking surveys: a financial survey to benchmark income, productivity and profitability. And a visitor survey to benchmark the on-site visitor experience, managed by BVA BDRC. These two surveys allow attractions to track their performance over time, make comparisons with their peers and identify best-in-class sites to look to for inspiration.

"Learning from others, identifying and sharing best practice and measuring performance against trusted peers is key to improving the visitor experience. The success and popularity of our benchmarking services is gratifying because of what that means in terms of the improved levels of customer satisfaction and, we hope, repeat visits and business." Bernard Donoghue, director, ALVA.

Expectations of visitor attractions have always been high, but there's been a significant shift during recent years, with visitors expecting more from their visits (Figure 1).

Figure 1

“It is difficult for sites constantly to improve their offer, especially at a time when budgets are being slashed. However to maintain and grow visitor numbers (and financial success), evolution of your offer is necessary.  It is therefore vital to invest available resources where they will have maximum impact.”

Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effectively People, tells us "the key is not to prioritise what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities”. Great advice, but how do we know exactly what to prioritise?

BVA BDRC, which manages the visitor experience benchmarking survey on ALVA's behalf, have developed a key driver model to identify the importance of different aspects of an attraction's offer and delivery on the overall visit experience.

The drivers of an optimal visitor experience, or 'Experience Intensity', can be divided into three categories:

  1. Site Content: this relates to features/ exhibits, activities and learning.
  1. Emotional Impact: the way the site makes you feel, and supports your emotional wellbeing.
  1. Service Delivery: this encompasses staff presence and operational elements, such as cleanliness and upkeep, way finding and staff appearance.

Statistical analysis has revealed that, across the attractions market, Site Content has the biggest impact on the visitor experience, followed by Emotional Impact. The relative importance of these macro areas is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

However, the importance of these driver categories varies by sector. For parks and gardens, for example, the Emotional Impact of the site is the most important.

Tim Neal, senior visitor Insights executive at the Science Museum Group, immediately recognised the value of the Experience Intensity Model: “as an organisation we spent a lot of time focusing on operational elements, such as cleanliness of toilets, because these elements are tangible and easy to respond to ... The ALVA Experience Intensity drivers showed us we were assigning too much time and resource to these elements”. As a result, the Science Museum Group has shifted its focus to prioritise the aspects of their offer that will have a more significant impact on the visitor experience.

The best use of resources comes from prioritising important drivers that the attraction performs less well on compared with peers. Comparative performance is key because visitor expectations are set through visits to other attractions and will review your site in line with their personal benchmark.

There will of course be limitations in what can be changed, but by looking at 'best in class' sites, It is usually possible to find Ideas for Improvements that could be applied, or that provide inspiration for other enhancements. Patricia Dunlop, commercial manager of Bath Heritage Services, which manages a number of attractions including the Roman Baths, arranges a staff outing to a 'best in class' site each year. The team are given a homework task to do in advance and asked to feedback learnings and ideas on their return, which are then shared and used as inspiration for developing their offer.

The final step in the development process is to track improvements over time In order to ensure that changes have the desired effect.

In total, BVA BDRC identified 23 aspects of the visitor experience that drive Experience Intensity. The most important of these at a market level is 'bringing the subject matter to life'. There are endless ways in which sites can do this; the best approach will depend on your sector and audience. One site that we will be watching with keen Interest this summer is Tate Britain as they launch the Tate Sensorium Installation, created by the Tate's 2015 IK prize winner, Flying Object. This immersive, multi-sensory Installation promises to bring artwork to life through the addition of sound, smell, taste and touch, helping visitors to experience the art in a completely new way.

ALVA has run the Financial and Visitor Experience surveys for 20 years. Over time the surveys have been adjusted and finessed to best support participants.

The Visitor Experience survey, managed by research consultancy BVA BDRC, collects feedback from over 30,000 visitors a year across more than 80 leading UK visitor attractions. Participation includes 375-450 research Interviews at each site per annum across three waves of research.

If you'd like to find out more please get in touch.