Start to think of yourself as narrator, stage manager, and prop assistant.

two rowers

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of interpretation in the rapidly-expanding world of experiential tourism.

What is experiential tourism? It’s the future. Actually, it’s the present—the world of tourism began moving to an experiential model at least fifteen years ago. Where once it was enough to see Florence, to see Old Quebec, to see Long Beach, we now need to engage with these places in ways that are tactile, emotional, local, authentic and transformative.

Eating pastry in Paris? Nice, but now we’re taking pastry-making classes from local chefs there. Riding a gondola in Venice? So ten years ago. Now we’re learning to steer our own gondolas under the tutelage of a local pro. Sampling Italian food in a restaurant? Lovely, but now we’re eating in Abruzzo country homes, hosted by local families (and brokered by the Italian government.) Learning about dinosaurs in the badlands? Okay, but you really must take part in a real dig with working palaeontologists.

And shuffling along on a guided tour listening to an interpreter talk about pastry in Paris? Um, no thanks. That’s the way people travelled thirty years ago.

Interpreters love to talk. And they really love to find themselves a captive audience and bend their ears back for 45 minutes or so. And I think this is why, 59 years after Freeman Tilden pointed out that our role is to reveal and inspire rather than to inform, we still haven’t stopped talking.

And the world of travel and tourism is slowly but surely reacting with a giant, collective yawn. They’ve had enough. To quote my friend Fred: it’s time for interpreters to STFU. We need a collective shift away from presentational interpretation.

What do I mean by “presentational?”

Are you on a stage, standing in front of a circle, behind a touch table, in front of a group at an artefact? That’s presentational interpretation. Are you talking more than half the time in your program? That’s another hallmark of the presentational model. Are you the star of your program? That’s definitely presentational interpretation.

And what is experiential interpretation? Experiential interpretation moves the interpreter from the front and centre to the sidelines. The activity becomes the star; the interpreter is still key to the experience, but she is no longer front and centre. She plays second fiddle to the experience: the things that the visitor is doing to connect with the place.

humpback whale spouting

The activity is the star. The interpreter is secondary in the visitor’s eye (but still omnipresent in the background as the designer of a carefully-crafted suite of experiences.)

Steve van Matre calls this “interpreter as narrator, stage manager, and prop assistant.”

In my previous post, I talked about the making of memories. Recently, I’ve been going further with my reading, and came across a pretty compelling study. It suggests that lifelong memories are made when visitor experience accomplishes the following: 1. social impact— the experience deepens our friendships and other relationships; 2. intellectual development—the experience challenges and advances our understanding of the world; 3. self-discovery—the experience transforms the way we see ourselves in the world; and 4. physical challenge—the experience pushes us in the acquisition of new skills. [ref]Exploring the essence of memorable tourism experiences VWS Tung, JRB Ritchie, Annals of Tourism Research 38 (4), 1367-1386 [/ref]

Look at those four criteria. Nobody’s going to get them from a touch table, I’m sorry to say. Nobody.

I’m whistling across the Bay of Fundy in a Zodiac; my guide is Tom Goodwin, a biologist with thirty years’ experience on these waters. At no point does he lecture us about whale conservation or pollution in the bay or climate change—here’s here to help us find the whales. But as we search, he points out what he sees, and contrasts it with what he used to see. When we find our whale, we whoop with delight and snap photos like crazy—and he points out its behaviour, and in a few words, tells us how whale behaviour is changing. It’s enough to make you think. For me, it was enough to inspire my own reading on the subject after I got home. Looking back, I had a wonderful time. I certainly never thought of it as a program or a lesson… but the lessons, in retrospect, were clear.

I’m the a parrot sanctuary in Costa Rica, and I’m surrounded by gorgeous, outrageously-coloured macaws. We snap photos as they pose and cavort and occasionally climb on us. We snack on local fresh fruit as the director quietly tells us the history of these birds: they were confiscated at the airport, stuffed in tubes inside suitcases. Later we walk to an area where we can watch successfully-reintroduced birds streak past through open skies. I knew about the illegal pet trade before; I’d never really felt its impact before now.

scarlet macaws

Experiential interpretation looks a lot like recreational tourism, and goes by the same names: River rafting. Cross-country skiing. Canoeing and kayaking. Horseback riding. Snorkelling and diving. Orienteering and geocaching. Backpacking. Whale watching. Wine tasting. Heritage cooking and gardening. Heritage quilting and knitting. Traditional hunting and fishing.

But it’s more than recreation; it has its own quiet agenda. It is a designed and choreographed experience with concrete interpretive outcomes: to inspire thought; to make meaning; to connect with essence of place; to facilitate epiphanies large and small; to quietly connect the ecological or historical dots, however subtle they may be; to teach a few, relevant and carefully-chosen facts, and then to stand back and watch those facts come to life.

That’s what makes it interpretation, and that’s why the world of experiential tourism needs us. The pure tourism model is content to let visitors simply have fun—and there’s nothing wrong with having fun while we travel. But experiential interpretation says yes to fun, and a lot more.

We can craft experiences that change lives. We can facilitate subtly choreographed activities that challenge, provoke, reveal, and inspire—using minimal words and maximal action. We can build lifelong memories; we can design experiences to connect people to all things real, local, authentic and sustainable.

It’s good tourism, it’s good conservation, and it’s good interpretation.

And it’s high time.


  1. F’ing YEAH!

  2. Celes Davar

    Well articulated. Thanks for sharing. I wonder what your thoughts are about the factors and actions required to help interpreters leave the safety of talking, and embrace the uncertainty and dynamic aspects of creating facilitated experiences? Having been an experiential tourism operator for 20 years, and facilitating experiential tourism workshops across Canada for the past 15 years, I am curious how organizations help interpreters to shift from STFU to FETET (Facilitate Experiences To Engage and Transform)? Old habits die hard. New habits require re-training. IMHO, it is this reliance on talking that has not enabled agencies that have good interpreters to reach a new level of relevance for today’s visitors. Once treated to a talk that does not engage, twice shy.

    • Don Enright

      Hi Celes- I don’t think the challenge is at the front-line level. For field interps, we just model the behaviour we want to see. Interpreters are quick studies and tend to have chameleon personalities. We show them what we want, and they go AHA and they do it.
      We need to define what we want to see, codify it and write it out as a set of standards. Find and celebrate pockets of excellence, and use them as models. Create new style training modules, and slowly roll them out. Change job description and hiring protocols. Find the people who have demonstrated they know how to do it.
      It won’t happen overnight, that’s for sure.

      • Celes Davar

        Hmmm… My observations from a number of locations across Canada is that front-line staff are pretty darn entrenched; I say that less as a criticism, but more as an observation of the local organizational culture and leadership where they work. Yes, front line staff are open to change, but it needs to be modelled and supported. And, you’re right, they are quick studies. So, who is going to model what is needed? Many supervisors at the field level in museums, provincial and national parks are busy doing supervisory things. Standards?? I am not sure that we need standards. Protocols and well-defined outcomes with which interpreters practice creatively to try new techniques are definitely needed. There are many pockets of success across this country. Who is curating these pockets of success and making them accessible in ways that accelerate uptake by interpreters to try different? It seems to me that there is a need for the world of interpreters to intersect with the world of experiential tourism operators who are already doing some cool things. Who might facilitate that?

        • Sherry Dangerfield

          Celes there are lots of front-line interpreters that see themselves as facilitators more than instructors, especially those with a few years behind them. This isn’t a new discussion, it’s an elegantly written one that reaches deeper.

          • Thank you for your feedback Sherry! Sweeping with a big, broad brush is often not fair. I appreciate your heartfelt observation that the discussion is not a new one.

            I am very interested in learning about the interpreters in Canada who are not entrenched and who have made the shift to facilitation mode; learning what kinds of experiences they are facilitating; and what techniques they may be using. Any suggestions as to your first recommendations across the country? I would love to recommend these folks to others as models and go-to people. Some I know; others I don’t. All of us have been delighted and learned from the Fred Sheppards and Cal Martins, and in my day the Bob Waldons and Michael Burzynski’s, and many, many others. There must be many new delightful interpreters and facilitators across this country.

            Three challenges that I have encountered (and continue to encounter) in coaching interpretive staff from various agency contexts (provincial and national parks and museums) to craft engaging experiences, include:

            1. Trusting and believing that if they put the learning situation into the hands of their guests, that their guests will engage (with their various learning styles), and will bring a wonderful sense of enquiry with them. Doing this makes it easier for the interpreter/guide/facilitator because guests will ask questions, and the process of engagement magically happens. Set the stage. Create the tools for learning. Let them engage. Dewey’s concept of “experiential learning” in practice.

            2. Making the shift from “activity/presentation/talking” to “visitor engagement”. This requires thinking creatively not about what you will say, but inventing tools, props, and techniques for engagement that fulfill Tilden’s principles. I often say to guides and others whom I am coaching…”Imagine that you have duct tape over your mouth. You cannot talk. Yet, you have a program to facilitate. How would you do that?” That’s when the real creativity kicks in, and they come up with wonderful ideas that work.

            3. Learning to set the stage and then deliver one or more wow moments, that offer an opportunity for the guest to learn-by-doing, discover something that is transformative, insightful, and relevant. With one or more of these wow moments in a visitor program, guests can leave with a profound personal ownership of the learning experience (that is memorable). Stepping back to craft these wow moments as an interpreter/facilitator takes time and thoughtful planning. (Brain compatible learning).

            Would love to have your feedback and observations or any other…Thanks!

            One thing that we have learned is that recreational activities like skiing, hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, kayaking, wildlife viewing are not experiences. They have experiential elements, but from an experiential tourism perspective, they are only one point on the continuum of the progression of economic value that raises the bar on guest relevance. Experiences that are guided (storytelling), that provide opportunities for hands-on engagement, and are well-designed to create moments for transformation require artful crafting. Raising the bar to craft experiences is the opportunity that awaits travellers who are in the hands of good interpreters. This is some of what I see reinforced from Don’s thoughtful musing and challenge to all of us.

            I would love to see a face to face opportunity for experiential tourism practitioners/operators/guides/facilitators to engage with interpreters. My sense is that we would quickly expand our collective network, learn from each other, and reinforce our mutual passions and commitments. It seems that there are two solitudes that don’t intersect often enough – practiced and trained “interpreters” who are most often within agency/organizational environments, and experiential tourism operators/guides who provide experiences/tours/programs within the private sector who are also very experienced and practical. What can we do to bridge these two worlds of amazing people and bring awareness to their best practices?

            Painting with the broad brush of generality is not helpful. Thanks for sharing and confirming that there are lots of front-line interpreters who see themselves as facilitators. Much appreciated!!

          • The people involved in storytelling and creating facilitated travel experiences come from so many areas across Canada – historic sites, cultural centres, aboriginal communities and centres, parks, and museums, and more. Women and men whose gift of story comes alive in the hands of well-crafted experiences that they create.

            Appreciating and reflecting on many things in this blog post (the research, the links, the opportunity, the call to action)…Yes to….”We can craft experiences that change lives. We can facilitate subtly choreographed activities that challenge, provoke, reveal, and inspire—using minimal words and maximal action. We can build lifelong memories; we can design experiences to connect people to all things real, local, authentic and sustainable.” Agree. In a world gone mad with “reality whatever”, there is much yearning for inspiration, and being connected to things deeper. Meaningful.

  3. Mariee Devereux

    Exquisitely written Don!!

  4. Pam Murray

    Awesome, Don. Any thoughts on how we STFU on interpretive signs and in other nonpersonal/passive interpretation?
    I recently visited a garden with QR codes in every flower bed (ugh) and then a garden with no signage whatsoever (not even directional signs) and I liked the un-signed garden so much more that it’s caused me a bit of a mental crisis. I now find myself recommending that my site DOESN’T put more interpretive signs up. Instead of traditional signage on our new forest viewing platform we are thinking about little engraved plaques with facts on them sunk into the boardwalk….

    • Don Enright

      Pam- QR codes are dead in the water- of course they’ll be lingering on all the obsolete signs around us for another 20 years. (I’ve always advised putting QRs on vinyl stickers, not printing them in phenolic resin that will be around long after the technology is forgotten). Anyway- I have seen engaging panels, and they follow some of the same principles of STFU interpretation: they direct the reader to look, reflect, and connect the dots. And they do it in very few words, with a single beautiful image to go along with those words. They resist the urge to inform; instead they facilitate. I’ll try to post some examples.

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