In the tourism or visitor experience sector, the term “product” is used broadly. It refers to anything you offer to your public, in which they might invest money or time.
Note that in this sense, we don’t differentiate between products and services, the way one might elsewhere in the business sector. Our products often are services, or a combination of a physical product and a set of services surrounding that product. Here are some examples of products:
- A guided walk
- A Spring Break event
- An exhibit
- A trail brochure
- A singles’ evening
- A behind-the-scenes tour
- A picnic area
- A public washroom
- A site map
- A hike-swim-paddle package
- An overnight stay in a furnished tent
- A site orientation video
- Interpretive panels
- School programs
- A meet-the-scientist drop-in
- Souvenirs in the gift shop
- An educational smartphone app
- A nestbox-building workshop
- A hop-on bus tour
- A day-camp program for local children
- A Facebook post
Is a visitor centre a product? Absolutely, in the sense that it is something you offer your public in which they might be expected to spend money or time. However, there may be times when it is more useful to break down that visitor centre into its component products: the welcome desk and orientation experience, the exhibits, each brochure, the washroom experience, the parking lot experience, et cetera.
What is not a product?
An interpretive plan is not a product; it is a means of developing and evaluating products. A visitor survey is not a product, except perhaps for the few minutes it takes for your public to take part in the survey. A program for your volunteers is not a product; remember that a product is something you offer your public. A research program is not a product, but a bulletin to your public about its findings is. Staff rehabilitating a wetland is not a product; visitors stopping by to help out or watch that restoration definitely is.
What about your landscape? Is your local mountain or lake a product? Quite possibly. On the one hand, it existed before you, and will exist after you. You can’t really lay claim to it as something you offer your public. However, if your organization is responsible for the stewardship of that mountain or lake, and makes decisions about how it will look in the future, then you may well consider it a product, working the visitor experience into your resource planning accordingly.
Certainly, the brochure that promotes that mountain or lake is one. The beach that you groom and patrol along your lake’s shore is definitely a product. The hiking trail you place on your mountain is a product, and the guided tours you might lead there are products. The safety orientation that your staff offer the public is a product, and the social media posts you publish to connect your visitors to that mountain or lake are products.
Don’t let yourself get bogged down in the question, “Is this a product?” The more important question to ask is, “How does this product meet our public’s needs and desires, and help us meet our goals?”
But I hate the word “product.”
Classifying all the magical, beautiful, educational, aesthetic and sometimes spiritual things we do as “products” rubs some people the wrong way. The word strikes some as too commercial; others find it too clinical or generic. That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with calling your work a program or a lesson or an encounter or an experience. Product simply means that which is produced; the important idea here is that we are talking about all the things we produce on which visitors might spend money or time. A couple of things to consider, though:
Product vs Visitor Experience
It may be tempting to think of all the things you offer as visitor experiences instead of products. Each of the products listed above might be described in that way: the picnic area experience, the hiking trail experience, the beach experience, the gift shop experience.
In general, this is a constructive way to think, as long as you keep in mind that there is a subtle, real difference between a product and a visitor experience. A product is what we offer, but a visitor experience is what the visitor makes of it. Visitor experience is a cognitive and affective process that happens within the visitor; we use products to try to facilitate those visitor experiences. This may sound a bit esoteric, but it’s worth remembering: the visitor experience itself is a highly personal process that we never fully control.
It’s similar to learning. Teachers may teach, but learning happens within the student. A teacher may offer the same “product” (lesson, field trip, assignment) to ten different students, but each may learn something slightly different, or assimilate the same lesson in a slightly different way. An effective teacher is one who can facilitate the right kinds of learning for the students, to ensure that their highly individual learning experiences lead them ultimately to measurable, standardized outcomes.
In the same way, our job in the world of visitor experience is to facilitate the right experiences for our audiences, to lead them toward appropriate outcomes. In the tourism sector, we can only meet our goals by facilitating experiences in which our visitors meet theirs.
With a definition that is so broad, is there any real value in using the word “product?”
Let’s take the example of the welcome orientation, as offered by staff at the front desk of a visitor centre or nature house. You may think of it as a simple service that each staff member improvises in their own way over the course of their duties. But what if that orientation were, in fact, something conceived as a discrete visitor experience in itself, with a specific set of desired outcomes, and a specific set of standards for quality? What if that welcome orientation had a beginning, middle and end that were carefully conceived? What if that welcome were evaluated against its target markets’ needs and interests, and adjusted subtly by the staff for each visitor type who walks through the door? What if that welcome experience was worthy of sharing on social media? What if it gained renown, setting your site apart from your competitors?
Another example: the picnic area. You can think of a picnic area as a physical amenity: a collection of tables arranged in a scenic locale. Or, you can think of the picnic area as a potential visitor experience that has, once again, a beginning, middle and end. You could match that picnic experience to its target audiences, and in doing so you might discover that a picnic is a vastly different experience for, say, extended families of new Canadians than it is for a young couple on a hiking date. What if you facilitated those different experiences by arranging your tables and campfire pits accordingly? What if you made multilingual information available at that picnic area? What if you were to offer a unique service (a fun touch-table for children, say) to accompany that picnic experience at peak times?
Here’s one that hits home to many of us: the special event. Taking a product-based approach to something like your Spring Break program or your Historic Re-enactment Days or your Bird Festival helps you identify the quantity and quality of work required. Each special event needs be matched to its target market. It needs its own promotional campaign, its own evaluation framework, its own product structure through the visitor experience cycle from wishing to remembering. Thinking of each special event as a discrete product (rather than something you scramble to put together off the side of your desk) might lead you to evaluate why we create so many of these products each year and throw them away after one use.
A product has structure. It is planned and thought-through. It acknowledges the needs and desires of its target market, and it has concrete objectives that can evaluated. It has the potential to facilitate unforgettable visitor experiences.
Elevating your programs, your services, and even your merchandise to fully-thought-through visitor experience products might be the paradigm shift your site needs most of all.