Bob Dylan’s refrain, The Winds of Change Are Blowing Wild and Free, on his 1997 album Time Out of Mind echoes his earlier anthem, The Times They Are A’Changin’. The sentiment is prescient and wholly relevant today. The pandemic, together with other global crises, has shifted many aspects of leisure consumer behaviour, demanding a response from the supply side of our industry.
Nowhere is this challenge more pronounced than in the attractions sector. It is time to reconsider the concept of a visitor attraction. Time to scrutinise their role and purpose. Time to re-imagine their business and operational models. It was 30 years ago when, in 1993, my essay Playgrounds or Agents of Social and Cultural Development won the American Express Annual Award for Travel. The text challenged theme parks and other attractions to become benchmarks of sustainable development and to recognise the needs of thoughtful consumers with their new priorities for selecting their leisure experiences. Very few rose to the challenge. Three decades on there is a new imperative to act. Precious time is definitely slipping away.
The heartbeat thumping the sector into action is compliance with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and the paradigm shifts within the industry that will have profound impacts on how we re-imagine the future of the development and planning of attractions.
These paradigm shifts are:
HYBRIDITY & TRANSFORMATION:
The appearance of novel, unique solutions, in product development, experience creation and tourist engagement that are blurring definitions and making it increasingly difficult to categorise and accredit an ‘attraction’ – and does it matter anymore if a product receives a 5 star or a 2 star assessment by a tourist board? Initiatives that boldly go where few have been before to make a positive transformational impact will prevail.
As part of the era of the hybrid, we’re seeing the rapid emergence of attractions that would have been regarded as being ‘left-of-field’, or quirky, but now these niche outliers are fast becoming mainstream – ‘who would have thought it’ ideas are now becoming the expected, delivered by hybrid-thinkers and often developed by the new pirates (as they have been described).
Multi-faceted, multi-layered, co-created, and collaborative unique experiences capable of commanding high value and capturing guest attention and involving the guest in their design will become a demand driver for destinations.
A cornerstone of co-created experiences is the need for destination stakeholders to work together and recognise a co-dependency tourism eco-system rather than a business-centric, ego-system.
The need for everyone involved in attraction development to be more agile, flexible, and fluid in their design, planning , and operations, welcoming new ideas, different ways of working, and nurturing innovation.
Exploring the idea that an individual’s talent may well be more important to a tourism business than a traditional skill or qualification – the fact that your security guard is the best fiddle player in the village might be more important than his security qualifications.
The culmination of these shifts is resulting in our need to re-calibrate all aspects of perceived and real value of tourism in our destinations and, ultimately, to deliver new metrics of success.
In this context, much has been written about the experience economy and how attractions can deliver memorable experiences to add value and competitiveness. However, as Design Hotels founder Claus Sendlinger has challenged us on many occasions, “The tourism industry needs innovative and creative ideas to survive but the industry is not sufficiently innovative or creative to deliver what will be needed. We need hybrid thinkers delivering hybrid solutions.”
The next five to 10 years in the sector will be a period of unprecedented experimentation, where old formulas no longer hold true; where traditional forms of partnership and collaboration will have to change and where hybrid solutions created by hybrid thinkers will prove to be winners. This will be about creating the ‘new-extraordinary’. In the words of Martin Raymond of The Future Laboratory: “We’ve spent our time fretting about the New Normal, when we should be talking about the New Extra-ordinary! The pandemic has precipitated scientific advancement, championed innovation, and ushered in a new age of collaboration, challenge, and accelerated change”.
Key to successful experience creation in attractions are the twin notions of co-creation and co-dependency. How can tourism (and other) stakeholders work and play better together to ensure optimal sustainable outcomes and exceptional experiences? For K Michael Haywood, Professor Emeritus, School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, the answer in his 2021 ebook Astonish, Smarter Tourism by Design is that, “There is a need for well-developed eco-systems (networks and clusters) for innovation within the tourism industry, its various interdependent yet operationally independent sectors, and all host communities and neighbourhoods.”
This brave new world will not be kind to, or tolerant of, a traditional visitor attraction offering well-rehearsed, tired, experiences – be it a castle, stately home, theme park, or zoo. There are examples of enlightened investors and operators embracing these changes who are ahead of the curve; they are few and far between, but they prove the winds of change bring wonderful opportunities to refresh, re-ignite, and regenerate the attractions sector.
Hybridity characterises the success stories in this new world. Take for example, Jupiter Artland near Edinburgh – an extraordinary collection of large-scale artworks in an heritage setting on the western fringe of Edinburgh. Or Monastero di Astino, Bergamo, Italy – a former monastery that’s a working farmscape, a religious centre, an exposition of local food and drink, and a conference and cultural venue. Or global trendsetting attraction Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria – an iconic building housing a collection of immersive exhibits exploring the interrelationship between art, technology, and society together with the inspirational 8-D Deep Space Evolution. Other successful hybrids showing how it can be done include Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, UK; Meneghetti Winery and Hotel, Istria; ARoS, Aarhus, Denmark; and Babylonstoren, Franschhoek, Western Cape.
These attractions all combine several different offers to create something new, fresh and intriguing – none of them are playing it safe.
Undoubtedly, the trendsetter of these new ways of thinking about attractions and experiences is the Slovenian Tourist Board (STB) with its national initiative, known as Slovenian Unique Experiences (SUE). The STB have created a scheme for the curation of unique, 5 star Slovenian experiences that conforms to the requirements of the national tourism strategy and are evaluated by an independent commission prior to going to market.
Each proposal has to meet 40 criteria within 10 thematic groups: Local identity, Authentic, Unique, Experiential, Green, Boutique, Premium, Added value, Off-season, Digitally enabled.
The result is a wonderful palette of experiences delivering the new extraordinary. A template for the way to realign our attractions, maybe?