About ten years ago, when I was an employee at Parks Canada, we identified a need for more holistic planning. We already had tools such as management plans, marketing plans, and interpretive plans: what was missing was something to tie it all together. The Visitor Experience (VE) Strategy was born. It’s an ambitious, high-level kind of plan, but the clients I have worked with who have commissioned one have not regretted it. The most common feedback I hear from those who have a VE Strategy is, “We’re ready. We know what comes next. When money comes through, we just hit the go button; the planning groundwork is done.”
Signs you may need a visitor experience strategy
- When funds become available you scramble to come up with projects to invest in, and jockey with other departments to place yourselves at the front of the line
- Your assets department just announced they’re building a new picnic area or a new trail… without consulting anybody in visitor experience, interpretation, or resource management. Assets, marketing, interp, visitor services rarely plan holistically or rarely even talk to each other.
- Your marketing people have different target markets than your interpreters do; they’re promoting your site to, say, young adults or corporate groups while your interpreters are developing products for families and school kids.
- You don’t have an evaluation framework for any of your visitor experience programs; your managers declare Great Successes regularly and arbitrarily according to criteria known only to them. (My favourite: when numbers are down, it’s the weather or the economy but when numbers are up it’s THANKS TO US.)
Benefits of a VE Strategy
- You have a catalogue of priorities and projects ready for funding; when money comes through you’ve already done the research and the rationalizing and the prioritizing.
- You are all working toward the same goals, the same ecological/commemorative targets, the same target markets. You’re all singing from the same page and you’re all communicating the same themes.
- You have consensus on your site’s heritage values; you can describe and communicate your Essence of Place. Everyone is working toward the common task of honouring it and bringing it to life for your visitors.
- You have a common vision of what success looks like and an agreed-to set of evaluation criteria. Everybody on staff knows what’s important and what’s not. Everybody is working to connect people to place; everyone from maintenance to visitor services to resource management is facilitating positive visitor experiences in different ways.
Steps in a VE Strategy
- Research: assemble, review, and summarize management plans, strategic plans, operational statistics, State of the Site reports, visitor feedback, market research and other social science. Summarize and discuss your findings; learn from what the data are trying to tell you.
- Conduct a thorough SWOT analysis with internal and external stakeholders; summarize its findings and find the common themes within the results.
- Articulate a clear set of goals based on the previous steps. Be ready to revise it with further discoveries. Identify measurable performance indicators for each goal.
- Define your essence of place. What are the things that define your site? What are heritage features, tangible and intangible, that set you apart? “Without _____, this place would no longer be this place.” Get input from your entire community, not just experts and not just staff. Include voices you haven’t consulted in the past.
- Based on the data you’ve found, identify and get consensus on your target markets for the next few years. Who are the kinds of people you’ll need to create a relationship with in order to meet your goals?
- Draft a thematic framework based on Essence of Place and crafted with your goals and your target markets in mind. These themes will inform your interpretive programming, your public communications, your marketing material, and even the look and feel of your amenities. While you’re at it, examine everything you’re doing through a decolonization and reconciliation lens. It’s high time.
- Conduct a thorough and honest assessment of your visitor experience products, including programs, events, visitor services, amenities, way finding, and promotions products. A VE product is anything you offer your public in which they might invest money or time. Establish performance indicators for each type of product (programs, picnic areas, events, way finding kiosks, etc) and then score them. Are they meeting their goals? Are they connecting people to place? Are they sustainable?
- Draft a product plan, based on your assessment. What visitor experience products do you need to create, modify, or discontinue based on your assessment, your target markets, and your goals? For each new product, draft a short visitor experience narrative, match it with at least one plan goal, and at least one target market. If possible, attach a Class D budget estimate and a potential timeline to each.
- Review your promotions strategies and evaluate the leads they’re generating and the conversions they’re producing. Identify any modifications or new promotions products you’ll need for your revised goals, target markets, and VE products.
- Draft an action plan that includes concrete steps, with deadlines and individuals responsible for each.
- Publish the document, distribute it widely, keep it alive, and revisit it every three months. Keep it concise; put your extra data in appendices. Include an executive summary for managers with limited attention spans. Consider a Theory of Change section- a table of Actions, Investments, Outputs, and Impacts so a manager or funder can easily see the logic of what you’re planning.
How much money and time?
The resources you need to do this kind of planning really depend on how much groundwork you have done. If your social science is recent and thorough, if you have a current management plan, and if you have engaged and responsive stakeholders and partners, you can do this in three months. Six is more reasonable. If you have a contentious or non-existent relationship with your partners and stakeholders, it could take a fair bit longer.
In terms of funds, it depends again on how much groundwork you’ve done. Budget about 30 to 40 percent more than you would for an interpretive master plan.
I have now facilitate a half-dozen of these plans over the last few years, and would be happy to answer any questions you might have if you’d like to get in touch.