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Lessons learned #1: Common observations

Having worked in and with visitor attractions and their supply chain for almost twenty-five years, the last ten on a consulting basis, now feels as good a time as any to consider some of my lessons learned and how this has shaped my approach to consulting for a sector I remain passionate about. I led six different attractions at GM or CEO level before becoming a consultant and a couple more since in an interim capacity. I’ve also gained extensive NXD experience over the last twenty years and found myself deep in the supply chain of the sector on several occasions which has helped round out my understanding of what is required to deliver a visitor attraction firing on all cylinders.

I’ve worked with many different clients and in eight different countries. For the first half of my consulting career I found myself apologetic for being a consultant, preferring to describe myself as a ‘reluctant consultant’ because I am an operator at heart, my instinct to take a challenge and lead it through a full process to resolution, recovery, growth, etc. I have subsequently come to view myself as an extension of a client’s team, adding value and leverage whether short or longer term to help clients successfully navigate periods of change.

A few patterns have emerged from working with so many varied clients.

Leadership is key

The simple truth is that any visitor attraction delivering a consistent five star experience is doing so because of sound leadership, an approach that both expects and demands the best from its people. In my experience you feel that the moment you step over the threshold of an attraction, you already have a sense of knowing that you are going to enjoy what is about to follow. Good leadership has to be consistent and be seen in all departments if it is to help sustain the organisation and keep visitors coming back year after year. In good leadership you find the highest standards and a commitment to continuous improvement in all areas of the operation, it is selfless, holds itself accountable and is supportive of the whole team.

Leaving things too late

Consultant’s are often brought in late in the day to provide support. This is often because the in-house team is already over committed, doesn’t see the value in bringing in external support or feels it cannot afford that option. Using a consultant in a tactical or, ideally, strategic way can deliver rapid changes while allowing the existing team to focus on the day job. A good consultant will add far more value than they add extra cost.

Being pragmatic is a really important leadership trait and especially in recognising when help is needed in order to successfully pursue an opportunity or navigate a period of change.

Blind spots

While consultants are generally engaged to support redress of a known challenge or opportunity their work often uncovers much more. Every organisation I have ever supported has had a number of issues that for one reason or another have become hidden to the organisation. Left unchecked some will remain dormant while others have the potential to act as literal show stoppers under ‘perfect storm’ conditions. These issues often lie close to the surface and are sometimes known about but if they don’t impact day to day operations they are allowed to continue to quietly exist. Depending on the work being engaged clients should expect one or two of these to be identified.

Building the resource engine

Most visitor attractions have a ‘resource engine’ that underserves their organisation i.e. its resources fail to meet the full needs of the organisation at least part of the time. This could be because of lack of free reserves of cash, skills, leadership priorities or something else. A focus on building the engine that drives the organisation allows organisations to be more ambitious and more in control of their own destiny. This can be accomplished in a number of ways but should start with an objective look at where the organisation is succeeding and falling short. Often due to the absence of sufficient cash looking at the commercial and fundraising/development aspects of the organisation often reveals sustainable solutions.

Augmented experiences

I’ve always been clear that visitor attractions operate within the experience economy, they compete for discretionary spend with a vast array of activities and experiences for consumers to engage. On that basis there is a growing sense of urgency to consider how the visitor experience can be made more engaging, more dynamic and ultimately more impactful. Technology, particularly digital technology, has a growing role to play in lifting the visitor experience. There is much more to say about this so will save that for a future blog.

New markets

If you operate in the visitor attraction supply chain and want to enter a new market it is going to take longer and require more investment than you think. Considering new markets or territories to be the same as your existing one is generally a mistake. Familiarity with your type of service, cultural and language differences, different legal systems, etc all need to be considered. Start with a plan and try to be pragmatic over the requirements of gaining traction in a new market.

Strong and healthy visitor attractions are dynamic organisations, they are constantly evolving in order to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated audiences and ever more dynamic market place. They seek out constant improvement. Maybe think about how some targeted support could help your own venue.


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