Re-engaging your visitors

Due to the altered COVID-19 landscape, we may have to re-learn what our visitors want, explains Colin Mulberg.

The museum and heritage sectors are dealing with shifts in visitor behaviour, reduced attendance and related income, as well as concerns on the safety of visiting. A longer-term emerging change is in the type of experiences that visitors now want from a visit.

Though it is early days, other sectors are picking up signs that a fundamental shift is happening; we should look carefully at what lessons we can learn. The key question is: are the customers we left the same as the customers that we hope will come back?

In retail, for example, the long view is that visitors are increasingly valuing experiences and emotions; when people go out, they want to feel brighter, wiser, stronger and more uplifted than before they left home. Priorities are shifting, with a focus on family, friends and social, shared activities. People will think harder about how they spend their leisure time, accelerating the shift towards creating memories and experiences.

Both the business and retail sectors highlight the issue of in-home versus out-of-home experiences. In-home experiences have expanded during the pandemic with an explosion of digital content – more videos, broadcasts, podcasts, webinars, games, music, downloads and live streaming are available, with increased social media use/content and new film releases now by-passing cinemas and going straight to streaming services. This trend is set to continue. The conditions are also ripe for Virtual Reality to expand domestically over the next 12-18 months.

Much of this analysis applies to the museum and heritage sectors. Many of our visitors are spending much of their time at home and experiencing life through a screen; many museums and heritage venues recognise this and have been adapting and supplying on-line content. As the amount and choice of in-home experiences and content increases, venues will face stiffer competition to get their digital content viewed and it will be even more difficult to monetise on-line content.

Yet when lockdowns ease people will still want out-of-home experiences, away from their screens and the same four walls. They will be looking for the dynamic, physical, exciting experiences that they cannot get in-home – to feel alive, as one retail commentator put it. The out-of-home experience is already being seen as essential to wellbeing and combating social isolation. Expectations are changing and if visitors take risks venturing out, they will want to have a really good, fulfilling time as payback.

Museum and heritage venues are well placed to meet this need; indeed, large retail parks cite museums as the kind of experience they might require to attract shoppers. We have real objects, varied collections, interesting and personal stories to tell and a physical environment to explore. We are trusted as organisations and in many communities could become a focal point and safe space in which to enjoy socialising.

Yet for this to happen, we will probably need to change and adapt the experiences we give visitors, as traditional static displays of labelled objects in cases might no longer be sufficient. Taking the lead from other sectors, we will need to rethink the visitor offer to focus on what makes the out-of-home experience far better than in-home. This may be less about content and more about a dynamic, immersive, sensorial experience that cannot be reproduced at home.

Venues should look at all the assets that they can use to make a visit special, starting with spaces. Outdoor spaces are at a premium, and gardens, courtyards, covered walkways, terraces can all be part of imaginative offers. Car parks are being repurposed and many venues are using awnings and marquees to utilise outside areas. Re-imagine architecture and buildings both inside and out to see how they could contribute and be used for different purposes. Is your building interesting or connected to a strong story? Buildings could be labelled as exhibits to add value to a visit and reinforce a sense of place.

We can again learn from outside the sector, especially the creative arts. Music, art and performance are developing imaginative shows with new formats or using spaces in new ways. Drive-in opera or comedy and Shakespeare in pub gardens are just a few examples. Architects and designers are predicting a glut of empty offices and shops as work and retail patterns change fundamentally. Partnerships could help take collections and stories out beyond museum walls. We may have to re-invent how and where we engage with certain audiences.

Reduced capacity is an issue, but also an opportunity. There is scope to develop more intimate, personalised experiences, adapted to individual groups. More local visitors could encourage deeper relationships and repeat visits. Exciting offers with reduced numbers gives the potential for increased income generation (e.g. VIP tickets).

Many commentators are predicting that there will not be a return to ‘normal’ as our customers/visitors will have changed and moved on. The museum and heritage sectors will need to understand what our audiences now want from us and ensure that we offer them really wonderful reasons to visit.

Colin Mulberg is Director of Colin Mulberg Consulting, specialising in improving the visitor experience for museums, galleries and historic properties/sites. He curates the ‘Understanding Your Visitors’ strand of the Museums + Heritage Show and is looking for examples of venues that have changed their offer to visitors. Contact him via the website: