I have the good fortune to meet with the former CEO of the Franklin Institute, Dennis Wint, many years ago, c.2009. I’d asked Dennis if he would be willing to meet me as I settled into life in the US and wanted to quickly understand the differences between Science Centres in the US and UK. Our conversation was enlightening for me in many ways but the standout parts of our conversation were over whether Science Centres could, or indeed should, be concerned with commercial performance and the ‘bottom line’.
I have to confess to having been a little surprised by Dennis’ very clear views that a commercial orientation was far from a bad thing, in fact it was an essential thing. Having started my career in attractions with Merlin Entertainments this was far from alien to me, it had been a key part of my apprenticeship in the commercial attraction side of the sector, but having been in the Science Centre world for over eight years by then it was unusual to hear this from a very senior Science Centre leader at that time.
Dennis went on to describe a philosophy to running his own business that he called “no margin, no mission”, the idea that a commercial orientation allowed his organisation to be more ambitious in its public engagement and STEM work, not less so.
While the above will make complete sense to many of you reading this the inconvenient truth is it is still common to find the following in visitor attractions and not just Science Centres:
Commercial operations viewed as of “lesser” importance than other departments e.g. curation;
The commercial ‘footprint’ being small compared to the contribution these spaces make to the organisation;
Investment in commercial facilities and services often deemed of low priority;
Retail staff with little prior retail experience before joining the team;
Disconnects between in house retail staff and contracted food and beverage teams;
EPOS systems that lack any sophistication, which are often unconnected to other systems and which have been out of contract support for years;
Few tactical opportunities to increase sales e.g. pop-up catering;
Relatively few visitor attractions have an e-commerce presence and those that do typically have a very small portion of their assortment available on it;
Retail collections that don't come close to capturing the potential in a venues collection in the sense of product development;
Comparatively little sector focused professional development available for commercial staff compared to other departments;
On fundraising or development, relatively few of our visitor attractions employ professional fundraisers compared to their North American peers.
A simple audit of the above can highlight what might be being left on the table in terms of commercial spend and ultimately the performance of a department capable of contributing so much. Where investment might be required it is highly likely that a considered approach will deliver strong and sustainable improvements in performance, help strengthen the brand and support the work of non-commercial colleagues in the way that Dennis described to me.
Over the intervening years I've led a number of visitor attraction teams and independent of attraction 'type' a strong commercial orientation has served these organisations well.
During the extended period of recovery ahead of us, as visitors generally trickle rather than rush back to indoor venues, a reinvigorated commercial orientation, when balanced with the pursuit of delivering more strongly with the purpose of the organisation, will hasten a return to full health. Commercially sensitive and ambitious visitor attractions are more visible, more sustainable and more resilient to changes in market dynamics. If you haven't done so already consider taking some time to model what a change of approach could potentially deliver for your organisation - rather than having anything to lose you could have much to gain from doing so.