Visitor sentiment research undertaken by BVA BDRC (consumer insight consultancy) and the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions confirms the pent-up demand for days out experiences. At the same time, the findings show that there are equally significant numbers of visitors who have no intention of returning to their pre-Covid-19 behaviour yet, especially in regard to visiting indoor venues. The outdoors inevitably appeals. Day-trippers are rushing back to coastal and rural locations, whilst city centres are eerily empty. Seasonal destinations and venues are also rushing to salvage what is left of the summer season but sustainable, resilient and now ‘safe’ tourism isn’t built on such foundations. Together with tourism partners, the heritage sector has a major part to play in rethinking the model to make sure that visitor levels are controlled, that the experience is rewarding, reassuring and responsible – for operators as well as visitors. Anything less will do long-term damage to the positioning and perception of heritage tourism with key markets.
We have identified four priority areas for the heritage sector to address to ensure its recovery planning also maximises its long-term value for heritage tourism:
Focus on place and localism
It will be a long time before international visitors return to anywhere near pre-Covid-19 levels. The traditional growth-driven tourism model of more visits, more visitors and more spending has become more at odds with powerful voices calling for the sector to become more environmentally sustainable. It’s not long at all since some of the world’s best known heritage-rich destinations (such as Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona), desperately looked to radical regulations and visitor dispersal mechanisms to mitigate overtourism. Even in the UK we have all experienced the peak-season misery of shuffling around overcrowded museums and galleries, especially in London or in destination hotspots like Stonehenge, Bath or York. But are you and your local partners brave enough to switch to a model focused on value rather than volume? Now is the time. Our current work with Visit Flanders is about developing heritage-led tourism experiences which tap directly into its landmark Travel to Tomorrow ambition. A model that focuses on sustainable and resilient tourism with local, social value and low-carbon transition, can provide impactful and memorable experiences that also support local economies. Co-designing the reopening of heritage venues and destinations in partnership with local residents, testing and piloting to address fears and anxieties will go a long way towards rebuilding local community confidence and shaping future visitor welcome.
Partnerships and collaborations
Many destinations are investing in place brand development, not to be confused with poorly conceived logos, straplines and short-term campaigns, but an in-depth approach to understanding a place’s values and how they relate to local residents, businesses, students, investors – and visitors. York is a great example of a city known for its extraordinary heritage. Yet it’s also a city with a strong independent spirit, technologically innovative and deeply socially progressive. Its new, values-based place narrative which we helped develop, undertaking extensive consultation with over 6,000 residents and visitors, is now ready for rollout. Rollout isn’t about a campaign but about all city partners adopting and communicating the values through what they do and how they do it. It’s about building a better city for the future – and it’s arguably at its most influential in a shared crisis. For The York Festival of Ideas, York’s museums sector delivered a public lecture – Locked Down but Not Locked Out sharing ideas with local residents affected by the impact on tourism to encourage understanding, ownership and engagement.
Ticketing and online bookability
If you do not have an online booking or reservation system in place, no doubt you are trying to navigate various technological solutions to manage your reduced capacity and control visitor flows. Everyone from the small independent to the National Trust has had to make changes to how people book and access their properties. You do not need to spend a fortune on a ticketing system, nor do you have to resort to online solutions that don’t provide you with access to your consumer data. Look to the travel & experiences sector for your solution – it is easier than you think (and considerably cheaper).
By choosing booking systems like Bokun, FareHarbor, Checkfront, or Rezgo that are built with visitor experiences and online distribution in mind, you can easily manage information about your products, set up complex schedules, and automatically ‘close out’ inventory based on the availability of key staff or equipment. While they’re often called ‘online’ booking systems, these systems don’t just power your website — they also support bookings over the phone, by email, or in-person, as well as by your approved affiliates, agents, or resellers. The best systems also include sophisticated channel manager software that automatically synchronises your availability and pricing information with channels such as Viator, GetYourGuide, Booking.com, Expedia, or Google, while allowing you to switch those channels on or off as desired. Using a single ‘connected’ system to power all your distribution is not only far more efficient — reducing the need for manual processing of bookings, cancellations, changes, and invoices by as much as 80% — but also gives you a real-time view of your inventory and powerful insights into how each of your distribution channels are performing.
Fáílte Ireland commissioned us to write the National Online Distribution Strategy for Visitor Experiences and is now fast-tracking its work programme with hundreds of tourism suppliers (including heritage attractions) to improve their online visibility and bookability.
Digital engagement with visitors for the long-term
International brands that had already invested heavily in their digital offer pre-Covid-19, such as Historic Royal Palaces, were quick to repurpose existing digital content and create new content exploring their venues, collections and stories. For those that had not prioritised digital engagement and marketing before lockdown, it’s been a rude awakening. But it’s not all about content, social media, PR or new technology (e.g. VR/AR). Unless you have your basic digital housekeeping in place – conversion goals, tracking, metrics and monitoring – you’ll have little idea whether what you’re doing is meeting your objectives. Take advantage of the free digital skills training available right now, including the Government’s Digital Boost programme, Heritage Digital from the Heritage Alliance and Arts Marketing Association’s Digital Heritage Lab (both funded as part of NLHF’s Digital Skills for Heritage Campaign), Coach by digital marketing expert Chris Unitt and Arts Council England’s Digital Tech Champions.
Most of the heritage sector is understandably focused on survival. It can be extremely tough to think about where you might be in 6-months’ time, let alone 3-5 years. But you’re not alone.
Destinations really are more than the sum of their parts. With increasingly limited resources, the need to step outside your comfort zone to collaborate with a wider range of local partners is becoming simply essential. Bringing local residents and visitors closer together needs to be at the forefront of your thinking, rather than seeing them as opposite ends of the heritage tourism spectrum. There is a real opportunity now to rebuild relationships with local markets to create better and more distinctive visitor offers. But that will only work if you invest resources into developing your understanding of your local markets and learn how to engage and communicate with them more effectively.
So are we really just trying to adjust to the ‘new normal’, find the ‘old normal’ or should we be focused on a more resilient heritage tourism economy built on more sustainable practices? We vote for the latter.
This article was originally commissioned by and published on the National Lottery Heritage Fund website in an edited version on 9 July 2020.