Interpretive Planning: Spice Girls Edition

I’m an interpretive planner and visitor experience consultant, and when I start a new project with a client, we spend a fair bit of time identifying goals. We often start with a blank-slate, blue-sky approach: “So! What are we trying to achieve here?”

But the more I do this goal-setting business, it occurs to me that in our line of work, there’s only so many benefits that visitor experience programs can bring, and they fall in three categories:

Benefits to the Visitor

In heritage tourism, we don’t get benefits to the agency until our customers, the visiting public, are reaping their own benefits. This is the win-win of visitor experience—we meet our goals by helping our visitors meet theirs. So what are benefits are they seeking?

Enjoyment (the exact definition of which varies from visitor to visitor, but generally involves having a nice time, having a good social experience, doing the things they were hoping to do on their visit.)

Learning and understanding: not all VE products are what you’d call didactic, and not all VE products need to identify learning as a visitor benefit. But we know that learning and understanding are benefits that visitors seek from most of their travel experiences, in one form or another. Visitors value learning—it’s just that the definition of learning, the rubrics of a positive learning experience, vary from visitor to visitor, and from situation to situation—and we need to understand how they define it.

Feelings of connection with heritage: this is the hardest to define, yet the most important. Visitors travel and visit heritage institutions to feel connected: to feel an increased sense of affinity, emotional connection, appreciation for the environments, people, stories, and history of the place they’re visiting.

Feelings of connection with each other and self: people also visit to increase their feelings of connection with their spouse, their travel companions, and themselves— their values, their priorities, their sense of who they are.

People want transformation: they want experiences that change their understanding of themselves in society, in history, in nature, in the universe. We exist to facilitate that.

Benefits to the Organization

We launch a VE product or program because it’s in our mission to do so. That is to say, there are benefits we are hoping to reap through these products, and those benefits are in line with our mission and get us closer to our vision.

Organizational benefits include increased revenue, increased visitation, or increased compliance with whatever rules or guidelines we’ve established to protect our heritage resource. We also want our VE products to bring us things like good publicity, increased media and social media reach, and increased good will towards us (in the form of feedback and comments, collected formally or informally.)

Good will hunting

We don’t talk about the good will piece enough: we rarely articulate it as a goal, yet in practice I find it’s a surprisingly high priority—particularly on the part of management. So let’s put it out there: when we launch a VE product or program, we want good will reflected back upon us, from our publics, our visitors, our partners and stakeholders, and (this is the benefit that dare not speak its name), our superiors: the VP, the board, the Minister. We want them to think well of us; we want to bank that good will and spend it in the future when we are in a pinch and need support.

Lastly: Benefits to the Heritage Resource

This one is tough to achieve and tough to document accurately, but when we launch a VE product, sometimes it’s because we want to improve the heritage landscape itself: its ecological integrity, its health, its intactness, its commemorative integrity. We have indicators in the field (say, the number and health of native plants along a particular trail) and we believe that through interpretation and engagement, we can improve those indicators.

Which of these benefits do you really, really want?

Here’s where goal-setting starts to get challenging. How are you going to narrow down your goals?

If you show the above benefits to a typical manager, they’ll get very excited for about six minutes, as managers do, and say, “Yes! Perfect. I want all of those things. Thanks.” And then they’ll go back to filing through their email.

But that’s rarely how it works. Creating a visitor experience that ticks all of the above boxes is a pretty tall order.

So in those six minutes where you have your managers’ attention, you need to focus their priorities on the benefits that they realistically think the product can achieve. And they need to prioritize the VE products that are most important, most strategic, for the agency. That’s a manager’s job, and it isn’t easy.

An exercise

Here’s a goal-setting exercise that can work for a single new product concept (say, a new set of evening tours for Millennials) or for an entire visitor experience/interpretation program that you’re either launching or evaluating.

First, gather your participants (including that manager, or that board of directors) and present the idea of potential benefits—walk them through it as I have done with you above. Show them the infographic, or make a powerpoint deck. Make sure everybody understands and agrees with the principles of the thing before you move on.

Then, focus their attention on the particular product or program they’re evaluating, throw those benefits on the table, and get your participants to put them in order.

Yes, literally throw them on the table. Print out each of the above benefits in large, 40-point type. Get out your paper cutter, and get each prospective benefit on its own little piece of paper.

Once you’ve put them on the table, get your participants to order them, from top priority to bottom. If you have a lot of participants, you’ll need to do this at several break-out tables, each with their own cut-out list.

Be a hardass with the rules

This is a tough exercise, and your participants will balk. The first thing they will try to do is create ties, equalities, among the goals: “OK we agree that revenue is tops, but the next level are all tied: learning, social media reach, and improved field indicators.” And they will lay them out side by side.

Nope. Make them prioritize. They will resist. Make them do it anyway. They can’t have snacks until they’ve prioritized their goals.

When they’re done, photograph the results with your cell phone, before somebody sneezes and scrambles them all again.

OK what’s next?

From here, you can start to attach measures to your goals—how will we know when we’ve reached them? You’ll also need to identify which audiences you’ll need to target. Which of your publics have the highest potential to get their benefits from this product—and bring you your benefits—for the lowest cost?

Good luck. Call me if you need help. Better yet, hire me.

Download the infographic here.

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Get monthly (ish) updates via email from Don Enright. I write about interpretation and visitor experience. I never sell or share my lists.

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