Every great travel experience has three parts: the anticipation, the realization, and the recollection.
Those of us who deliver interpretive programs—guided walks, talks, workshops, dialogues, and the like—have long placed ourselves squarely in the second of those three phases: the delivery/realization of the visit.
With the shift in recent years to new communications tools, it’s time for interpreters to take our place within the other two phases as well. It’s time to extend the interpretive event into the anticipation and recollection phases.
No more visitor-as-commodity
One of the hallmarks of experiential programming is that the visitors are no longer a nameless mass of people who appear on the day, listen to you, and then disappear to be replaced by another nameless mass the next day or the next week. In the experiential model, visitors have names and identities… and a personal relationship with you the interpreter.
With new communications tools, and with a shift to programming that involves visitors registering ahead of time, we have the opportunity to begin the interpretive experience in the anticipation phase and carry it into the future.
It looks like this:
Your registration system sends you an email list of your participants a week ahead of your program date. You email your participants, introducing yourself, giving a bit of your background and your experience in this place or with this topic. Next, you express your appreciation that they have chosen to participate in your program, and you offer a few stories or images about what they might be seeing with you. You take a moment to introduce your interpretive theme for the event. You also tell them what they need to know logistically, and give them the chance to address any safety or practical concerns with you.
If it’s a higher-end program, or perhaps a deeper engagement (a three-day hike, for example) you might go further in setting up an online forum where they can introduce themselves to each other.
On the day, as soon as your visitors show up, they recognize you and feel they know you. Your program warmup is already done; you’ve built comfort, trust, and affinity ahead of time—and your visitors are stoked for the experience and attuned to your theme.
After the visit, you follow up (within two days) with an email thanking them for putting their trust in you, recounting a few of the adventures you had together, sharing images (with permission) perhaps on a shared drive somewhere, inviting further communication from them, and planting the seed for a future visit: “If you enjoyed this, I’m leading a wetland bird walk next month and I’d love to see you again. You can register here…”
The above scenario sounds fairly simple, and when the right systems are put in place, it is. It’s easy and pleasant and rewarding for both visitor and interpreter.
Here’s what it requires:
First, you need a registration system that exports registrants easily. It is literally always a good idea to take registrations in advance—doing so allows you to allocate your resources adequately, prepare the program more thoroughly, and build those all-important relationships. (You an always take walk-in visitors on the day if the program isn’t fully subscribed.)
This approach requires managers to give interpreters the time and the resources to build the relationship (and yes, I realize this is huge.) This in turn requires managers to value the experiential model and see the benefit in building long-term customer fidelity. I can’t tell you how many programs I have registered for and literally never heard from the organization again. Huge wasted opportunity; I want to call them up and tell them how much money I was willing to spend on them.
If the organization sees visitors as a faceless mass to churn through as quickly and forgettably as possible, they won’t give the interpreter time to build long-term affinity and the repeat visitation that comes with it. (And logistically, this isn’t the giant investment in time it might seem to be. In practice, you can prepare the pre-event communication ahead of time and, to some extent, automate and reproduce it. The post-event communication, however, needs to address a few actual things that happened during that event.)
The hardest part
This system requires an organization that trusts its interpreter/guides to build relationships with customers. Many organizations treat their own staff as commodities; I call this the “talking uniform” model of human resource management. In this old-school model, one interpreter is as good as another; visitors have no idea if the interpreter has been swapped out at the last minute.
In the experiential model, where Interpreter A has built the relationship, then Interpreter A has to deliver the program; interpreter B isn’t going to cut it. That implies risk for the organization; what if Interpreter A gets sick (real risk) or what if Interpreter A develops an audience and builds a great line of business and visitors ask for them by name and choose to attend their programs month after month or year after year and then the interpreter gets all diva-uppity about it? (This is a not-so-real risk, but one that keeps easily-threatened managers up at night.)
Great relationships build great experiences.
Above all, this system requires interpreters who value relationships and are willing to invest in visitors as people. As an interpreter, it’s easy to become comfortable with visitors as a nameless mass; there’s much less personal capital involved in talking to an anonymous crowd. I get that. But the world is changing; tourism began moving to the experiential model twenty years ago, and it’s time for interpreters to catch up.
You are more than a rote performer; you’re more than a talking uniform. You’re an individual with experiences, knowledge, talents, ideas, stories, and values—you’re someone’s unforgettable experience waiting to happen.
It’s time to take that experience to the next level.
Thank you for inspiring interpreters to embrace experiential interpretation. I really enjoyed your thoughts and advice on this topic.