Learning And The New Visitor Experience Paradigm

Let us talk less about learning, and more about connecting with essence of place, about the forging of links, the fostering of emotions and the long-term making of meaning.

This is the conclusion of my series on the Visitor Experience (VE) Revolution. You might want to start with the first chapter, here.

I consider myself both a champion and a casualty of the new visitor experience paradigm. And as a career interpreter, I find I have fairly strong feelings about how learning fits into this new picture.

I think we’re going to have to be judicious in our use of the L-word for a while. Learning is a hot-button term among managers, just as marketing is among interpreters. The L-word epitomizes all the things our managers are trying to leave behind. We need to choose our terms—and our battles—carefully when charting our path in the new VE.

To that end, I suggest a two-pronged approach. Let us champion learning experiences when we can demonstrate—with our new-found social science expertise—that our audience segments are actually there to learn. And damn it, they still are. The Explorer type, in Falk’s terms, or the Cultural Explorer (and Authentic Experiencer and Cultural History Buff) in EQ terms, are still our bread and butter audiences and we need to continue to meet their needs. They’re actually still in the majority, though in Canada we appear to be doing our best to alienate them. So let us arm ourselves with good research, demonstrate that our audiences do want to learn, and facilitate their learning experiences in all the exciting and innovative ways we’ve always aspired to.

bear's hump, water ton

But with that, we must also learn to speak the language of the non-learner. We have to get off our high horses and recognize that some segments don’t want to learn; they will never want to learn, and we have to stop looking down on them.[ref]Obviously, everyone is a learner: we all learn to tie our shoes, make it through school in some form, etc. By learner in this context I’m referring to people for whom learning is a substantial motivator when choosing visitor experiences.[/ref]

Non-learning audiences are a massive new market and a very attractive one to our managers and boards of directors. And those same managers have made some truly awful efforts at attracting them in the last few years: paint balling at the historic site! Zorbing across our national parks! Zip lines! Zip lines everywhere! As an interpreter, I think these efforts miss the mark, because they slap an extrinsic value on our resources: people come to our sites and go home again without every really connecting with where they’ve been. They may meet their own mandate (having fun), but we don’t meet ours (connecting people to place.) And good visitor experience is all about the win-win.[ref]Actually I’m fairly sure that, in the right hands, Zorbing and zip lining could be very interpretive activities—but sadly, they’re generally not done that way.[/ref]

I had an epiphany earlier this year as I was traveling. I had the opportunity spend seven months on a cruise ship, as a lecturer, and as we traveled to different destinations around Australia and the South Pacific, I would go on a lot of different excursions. Snorkelling became a favourite pastime, and I often went as part of a guided trip with the other guests. The snorkelling was very good and I found myself frustrated with the guides: they weren’t teaching anyone. I wanted to know about the fishes and corals, and I kept complaining to my partner, “Why isn’t that interpreter telling us the names?”

Black tipped reef sharks
Black-tipped reef sharks. For those who need to know.

My big epiphany was when I stopped asking that, and started to ask, “Why am I the only one who wants to know?” Nobody else was asking. Everybody was having an incredible, moving, exciting, bucket-list experience on the reefs—but almost nobody needed it to be a learning experience as such.

Now, as an educator, you might think of that as a lost opportunity: some of these people might have actually enjoyed learning the names if they were presented by a good interpreter. But under a more constructivist approach to learning, you back off and realize that this amazing moment of snorkelling will be nested away as a cherished memory, and the next time those guests see a documentary or read an article about the reefs, suddenly everything they learn at that moment will have meaning and relevance because of this trip. And maybe when they’re sitting at Thanksgiving dinner and Uncle Jim the climate-change denier starts beaking off, they will speak with a new voice because of that transformative and ostensibly non-learning experience.


So with these new audiences, let us talk less about learning, then, and more about connecting with essence of place, about the forging of links, the fostering of emotions and the long-term making of meaning. And let us teach our superiors that this approach fits well within the definition of interpretation. It’s what we do, and they don’t need to hire anybody new to make it happen. Let us design experiences that lead our non-learners to genuine, place-based experiences: experiences that are fun, transformative, memorable, and deeply rooted in authenticity. It’s not just good interpretation; it’s good tourism.

What if, when planning experiences for non-learners, we identified behavioural objectives and affective objectives, and left out learning objectives completely?


  • Visitor will feel off-shore winds and smell salt air
  • Visitor will immerse his/her feet in cold sea water
  • Visitor will shake hands and chat with local fisher people
  • Visitor will taste fresh local seafood


  • Visitor will feel exhilaration, pleasure
  • Visitor will feel connection with coastal people, environments and economies
  • Learning objectives: none.

white point beach, Nova Scotia

Another one:

  • Behavioural objective: Visitor will ride on horseback with park staff, dig fire trenches, eat trail food, speak and work one-on-one with a park ranger
  • Affective objective: Visitor will feel connection, passion, satisfaction
  • Learning objective:  Zero. Nothing. Nothing immediate, anyway. In the days, weeks, months ahead, who knows?
chester lake AB
Who needs learning?

Would that feel like selling out? Would that feel tawdry? Would you feel that your degree in environmental education were suddenly cheapened? I don’t think I would. It would simply be fulfilling our mandate of creating emotional connections between the interests of the visitor and the meanings inherent in the resource.

What if interpretation embraced the world of promotions, rather than looking down on it? In fact, what if we thought of promotions not as a bunch of ads, but rather moments of connection that happen during the wishing and planning phase of the visitor experience cycle? That might sound a bit airy-fairy, but it’s absolutely brilliant when you see it in action. A few years ago the Vancouver Aquarium took an interpretive approach to its advertising: a lamp post was cleverly disguised as a glowing angler fish, and the call to action was a visit to the bioluminescence exhibit. A frightening shark’s fin appeared in the water near the Vancouver sea wall, but at low tide it revealed an ad for sharks and rays on display. These ideas are clever enough to go viral, yet still honour the integrity of the institution. They’re on-brand and on-theme; they work as interpretation and promotion equally.

vancouver aquarium shark promotion

What if the arrival experience were equally interpretive? Big museums like the Louvre are taking their exhibits (and their whole look and feel) and expanding them right into the nearest subway station. Before you even walk through the doors, you’re immersed in the sights and feelings of a beautiful museum. It’s fully promotional, fully welcoming and fully interpretive.

louvre metro station

Lastly, what if the departure experience weren’t just a matter of dumping visitors in a cheesy gift shop? What if that shop were fully interpretive and fully thematic? What if we could say with pride that not only were we making money in that shop, but facilitating the remembering phase, with unique souvenirs that honour our messages and our essence of place?

What if, when promotions and merchandising teams got together, they made sure there was an interpreter in the room because our expertise was too valuable to ignore?

Of all the professions in the cultural tourism sector, interpreters should be the ones to lead the way in the visitor experience revolution. I believe that we are the ones who are in the best position to facilitate fully integrated, fully satisfying, fully memorable experiences. And isn’t that the holy grail, after all? A visit where nothing is compartmentalized: where everything flows seamlessly and effortlessly through the entire visit cycle, forging connections from start to finish?

The visitor experience revolution is well underway. You’d better make sure you don’t get left in the dust.

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  1. Is the term non-learner an industry standard or one you have coined? I am the demographic for the folks who frequent tourist, museum, art gallery, tourism sites and yet I would identify as a “non learner” I prefer the term experiential visitor. I experience and take in information sensually and emotionally, but I won’t remember the name of the fish even if you tell me.

    • Hi- I wouldn’t say “non-learner” is industry standard as a segment in itself- but segments are definitely described as learners or non-learners. John Falk’s “experiencer” is less of a learner than his “explorer”.
      Again I emphasize that everybody is a learner- we need to learn every day to function and survive in society. By “learner” in this context I mean those who are substantially motivated by learning when making travel choices. By that definition you would be a learning type, judging by the way you frequent learning institutions; and definitely in contrast to the non-learning traveler who would only frequent a museum if trying to facilitate somebody else’s experience, IE “I’ll go because it’s important to my partner, but I probably won’t enjoy it.”
      Re not learning names- perhaps you’re a non-verbal learner, or another kind of learner. (Which gets us into learning styles: kinaesthetic, verbal, etc… plus the whole theory of multiple intelligences. Many ways to slice the pie.)
      The taxonomy is a bit sensitive- people are offended by labels and because this is tourism, we don’t want to alienate anybody. With EQ, they had to change a lot of the labels to make them more appealing to people who wanted to self-identify among them. Thus “familiarity seekers” became “Gentle Explorers”, hedonists became “Free Spirits” and so on.

  2. As my personal travel list has grown, so has my thirst for deeper knowledge of the things I see and experience in travel. The South Pacific/Asia trip this winter was preceded by an earlier visit 5 years ago. That first trip expanded my of the world and left me thirsting for the second experience. Thank you for the knowledge you shared. You have no idea how this has enriched my life.

  3. I heartily agree that we need to transition the concept of interpretation more to experience opportunity design, much as Van Matre argues. Yet I wouldn’t abandon (if you are) an important behavioral objective which is thinking. As Ham argues, our goal as an interpreter is to provoke thought and thought, if well provoked, has a strong affective component (“Wow, I just had this cool idea!” or “I’m braver than I had imagined”, people forge those relationships with a place. I believe there are emotional connections that follow two paths as the Elaboration Likelihood Model has argued for years: through thought (elaboration) and through not thought. ELM talks about cues for people coming to decisions (such as a person’s credibility), but I would also include all the experiential elements that you mention that create strong positive associations with a place. But if the visitor doesn’t create new and positive meaning about a place and his/her relationship to place, we have achieved our principal goal as interpreters. Without meaning created (if that’s even possible) then maybe those people you cite who months later defend the climate change theory, wouldn’t defend climate change theory. People in reality always create meaning, our job as interpreters is to guide, coax, nudge that meaning making in a direction toward the place as a component of the overall experience opportunity. I would argue it is the most important component. But it is not education.

  4. Late to the party so there’s probably no-one here, but…

    ‘our job as interpreters is to guide, coax, nudge that meaning making in a direction toward the place as a component of the overall experience opportunity. I would argue it is the most important component. But it is not education’
    Absolutely and I can’t agree more with Don either, but it’s a failure to express what we do, or explain to our managers what we do, because they hear learning and think education or knowledge gain, but when we say learning I hope we really mean:

    ‘Learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior* that occurs as a result of experience’ S. P. Robbins.

    ‘Learning is a change in behaviour* as a result of experience. Learning can be defined as relatively permanent change in behaviour* potentiality that results from reinforced practice or experience’ (Steers and Porter).

    Which is totally in keeping with Don’s argument. And indeed Tilden’s writings as long as the reader recognises the emphasis on experience and revelation rather than get caught up with that line about understanding.

    *beliefs or attitudes would sound better, but behaviour is easier to measure, so behaviour it is.

    • Thanks Ian- well said. It’s not just our managers, though – it’s fellow interpreters who feel compelled to teach, to lecture, to pontificate. Still so much of that going on.

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