Over the last ten years, we have been busy helping audiences discover unmissable events and experiences through our North of England listings website, creativetourist.com. Meanwhile, through our consultancy work, we have been helping destinations and place-based consortia to position culture for visitors and locals and to better understand culture’s role in place-making, place branding and destination management.
However and wherever we have been working, the basic question of how to make listings work harder to reach audiences has never been too far off the agenda.
Our own listings platform, Culture Hosts, began life back in 2015, as part of Greater Manchester’s Cultural Destinations programme, an initiative designed to enable arts and culture organisations to increase their reach by working with the tourism sector. It was supported by funding from Arts Council England and developed in partnership with Marketing Manchester and a consortium of Manchester-based arts organisations. A Cultural Concierge was established as part of this programme, working with visitor-facing staff at hotels and visitor information centres to improve their knowledge of Greater Manchester’s cultural offer. We discovered that the combination of high staff turnover and a constantly-changing offer meant that a training-based solution alone was unlikely to provide a sustainable long-term solution – a centralised platform of quality arts listings in Manchester was needed.
To address this need we built a new, integrated online listings platform – Culture Hosts. The transformational point of difference is that with Culture Hosts, arts/culture and tourism partners supply the data directly themselves – manually or automated – and the data can then be shared openly with multiple online channels with increased value and visibility. For the Cultural Concierge, the Culture Hosts platform is used directly by hotels and visitor-facing staff to keep-up with current arts listings in Greater Manchester, and we continue to supply a weekly newsletter of edited cultural highlights direct to their emails. But the Cultural Concierge was only the starting point and Culture Hosts is now a fast-growing platform which powers a number of different listings-driven channels and projects around the UK, and several future uses are live in development too.
With all this experience of developing and building a shared-listings platform, we read the discovery report by Nesta and The Satori Lab published on Culture Hive in 2019 with great interest – they conclude that arts listings are broken and that there is a lack of standards and technical competence (or will) around the use and potential of data across cultural institutions.
We agree and back their recommendation that the arts and cultural sector needs to use standard, structured data fields and embrace the potential of their data. They recommend Schema.org as the data standard – an internationally agreed dataset used by search engines to identify things like events, dates and places – and they suggest API connections to help realise the potential reach of their data – an API is effectively a feed which allows listings to be shared with publishers. These ideas have been the driving force behind our listings platform Culture Hosts since its inception.
In developing the potential of Culture Hosts we embraced these open data standards with the exact intention of making arts and cultural listings more efficient and able to reach new audiences. To achieve this we have invested in building a fit-for-purpose listings database which goes far beyond the capability of the original WordPress site created to power the original Cultural Destinations project in Manchester.
Using the highly structured data fields based on Schema.org, this new database captures and stores information about venues, events and festivals alongside accommodation, food and drink, and retail. This information can be shared to as many publishers and applications as we wish using API connections. Similarly, the database can be populated by an infinite number of incoming API connections – not just from the Culture Hosts front end, but directly from existing databases, websites and even box-office systems like Spektrix.
With these added capabilities, we rebuilt our own consumer-facing ‘what’s on’ website, creativetourist.com, and we now power it entirely via Culture Hosts. Using the event and venue information from Culture Hosts has delivered a step-change in the efficiency and therefore sustainability of editorial and content management for creativetourist.com. Not only did it bring operational improvements and significant content and editorial time savings, but the data model nearly doubled the traffic to our website and helped connect more people than ever with cultural events in Manchester and across the North of England.
We opened up an outgoing API connection to Marketing Manchester and they worked with their platform developer to integrate listings from Culture Hosts into their Visit Manchester website, which is powered by Simple View – a widely used website system used by many destinations across the UK. This was really the start of our ‘upload once, publish many places’ thinking which has driven Culture Hosts’ development.
We continue to find new applications for Culture Hosts – it is currently supplying event listings for destination management websites like Visit Manchester and Visit Greenwich, as well as venue data for local listings website Manchester Wire and highly localised listings for the soon-to-launch Manchester Oxford Road Corridor website.
Other projects have taken a similar approach to creativetourist.com and built their websites on top of Culture Hosts listings – look out for Wakefield’s new visitor and resident facing website, Experience Wakefield (due to launch in 2021), and Manchester City Council’s new neighbourhood-specific website, Loads to do, designed to engage hard to reach audiences with the city’s cultural offer, both coming soon.
So to come back to the Nesta and Satori Lab call for industry-wide action here – we firmly believe that we have created a platform which meets standards needed to make listings data work harder and that our consultation with organisations and destinations helps bridge the gaps in technical competence. If you would like to talk to us about how this can help you, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is an amended version of Open Listings – how Culture Hosts works which was first published on Culture Hive.