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Lessons learned #3: Keeping visitors guessing....and returning

An early lesson I learned after entering the world of Science and Discovery Centres was that if you want to encourage visitors to return time and time again you need to regularly offer them fresh and compelling content.

My goal when leading venues has always been to integrate new and substantial content, often temporary, around themes that deepen engagement and support an expansion of audience in terms of attendance figures, age and more. Given the traditional visitation patterns of most Science Centre's attracting repeat visits has also been really important. Well chosen content can extend the profile of your brand, even stimulate conversations in your community that leverage impacts beyond anything you could imagine - I've seen it happen.

New content, whether permanent or temporary, can keep you in the headlines and generate a significant volume of visitors through the door. In my personal experience the tactical deployment of temporary exhibitions has had more impact than permanent changes to galleries and which are often simply deemed as necessary in order to avoid becoming dated. The challenge with permanent changes is they typically cost a lot more and the benefits are often short lived.

As I look back to my eight years leading the team at Dundee Science Centre I can plot the exhibitions by the spikes in annual attendance over the years. We hosted exhibitions on dinosaurs, robots, animation, even eating creepy crawlies. Perhaps unexpectedly it was an exhibition based on one of the Wallace and Gromit films that drove greatest attendance, I think we had 74,000 visitors that year. Interestingly the Science Centre hasn't focused so much on the temporary exhibitions since I left and the annual attendance hasn't gotten up to the same levels and despite several very significant capital refreshes of the permanent exhibitions which have effectively changed 100% of the Centre's exhibits.

When I moved to the US I had the relative luxury of arriving at a venue that, in addition to six large exhibition areas and a dome IMAX theatre, had a large temporary exhibition space (1,000 sq.m). This doubled up nicely as a large space for hosting community events and mid sized temporary exhibitions. Arriving in post with a brief to reinvigorate audiences with the, still new, $64m facility it felt like finding a means of hosting a series of 'blockbuster' or large scale exhibitions on popular themes could be a partial solution. The challenge with the concept was that there wasn't enough available space for these larger experiences and which generally start at c.1,200 sq.m. Ultimately we found a solution in vacating two of our permanent galleries and linking them to the existing temporary space.

My first exhibition in post was Da Vinci: the Genius by Melbourne-based Grande Exhibitions, a great team to work with and who I've had the pleasure of working with a few times since. Grande had crafted an absolute masterpiece on the varied life and skills of one of the most famous people in history, a two (plus) hour spectacular that charted the man's life as artist, scientist, engineer, inventor, anatomist and more. With life size recreations of many of his inventions, large format copies of pages from his notebooks (or Codices) and dedicated sections that revealed secrets of the Mona Lisa and Last Supper you can imagine it absolutely wowed visitors.

The interesting thing from a visitor perspective was that the exhibition transformed the whole of the ground floor of the Science Centre, it took spaces and re-imagined them into a series of rooms and corridors that took the visitor through a well crafted, well told and choreographed story.

I still recall the crowds and particularly because they weren't just the usual crowd, yes we had the young families but we were also welcoming couples, independent adults, young professionals. We'd created a welcoming space, a great experience and one that substantially transcended our traditional audience.

With a premium product we were able to charge a premium ticket price, we also ended up extending the run in order to meet public demand. I have no doubt that there will be people in the community who still talk about visiting this exhibition.

Needless to say the experience of hosting da Vinci: the Genius gave us a taste for more. It also made perfect sense given the still newly reconfigured space(s).

The next two exhibitions could not have been more different but suspect they were all the more popular with audiences for that reason.

With da Vinci we'd gotten a taste for attracting exhibitions that you might typically have expected in a larger city e.g. Chicago in our case. We wanted to see how far we could push our luck so we started talking with the owners of the popular but sometimes controversial BodyWorld's exhibitions, controversial because the objects on display are real human bodies.

My understanding is that we were the smallest market by catchment to secure the exhibition at that time. If anyone reading this has visited the exhibition they are certainly more likely to have seen it in London, Singapore, Berlin or Paris than Des Moines, Iowa!

With various BodyWorld's exhibitions available we were drawn to the one that presented the human body in health and disease. An interesting fact about Iowa is that almost everyone is related to someone who works in the health system so in addition to securing a major sponsorship from the lead heath network in the State we also secured almost a hundred volunteers as docents, many medical students and who helped bring the experience to life for the tens of thousands of visitors who passed through the exhibition.

Once again the exhibition was an incredible success, securing a record sponsorship and media coverage far beyond our initial expectations.

The last example I want to mention is arguably the most impactful exhibition I've ever hosted, the Science Museum of Minnesota's, Race: Are we so different? The exhibition looks at race in the United States through the eyes of history, science and lived experience. The exhibition explains how human variation differs from race, when and why the idea of race was invented, and how race and racism affects everyday life.

Prior to hosting the exhibition I had not fully appreciated the extent to which almost every American has had a personal experience with race, even in a predominantly white state like Iowa.

In this instance we felt from the outset that this was an opportunity for us to be a convenor for dialogue in our community, a venue in which to support a dialogue over an important subject matter. Again, we were absolutely wowed by the response we received. The exhibition touched a nerve in the community (in a positive way) and the conversations that flowed from it were incredible. This was an exhibition in which grandparents and parents shared their own experience of race with their children and grandchildren, tears were shed and we welcomed over 10,000 employees through the exhibition as part of a structured programme of diversity training. The experience of hosting this exhibition was a powerful one.

These last few examples were delivered over the space of a couple of years. They had the collective effect of positioning the Science Centre as a thought leader in the community, they supported positive dialogue and a level of engagement that the Centre had not seen in many years.

The challenge in the above is always 'what do we do next?' but there are worse challenges to have. The great thing is if you set the expectation that things are going to be refreshed and change regularly your visitors are going to be asking the same question, looking for that next reason to pay you a visit.

In a world where so many things are in constant flux, moreso than ever in the wake of a global pandemic, visitor expectations will change and will evolve, consumers have higher expectations than they ever have and are more demanding than they've ever been.

As business continues to recover maybe give some thought as to whether changing things up a little is plausible, affordable, maybe even essential. What might attract visitors back to your venue....and keep them coming back?

Carefully considered adjustment in content can move you along the spectrum of nice to necessary, from being a nice thing to having in a community to an essential one because of the role you play and the impact your organisation has on its audience.


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