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The Business, Science & Art of Creating Successful Visitor Experiences

10 October 2012, 09:22

By Maria Sykes, Hornall Anderson’s Director of Experience Strategy

Great visitor experiences are magical. They can move us to raucous delight or reverent silence. Most of my career has been spent on the business behind that magic. I spent almost a decade as a senior executive at the Sydney Opera House, laser-focused on commercial margins and operational logistics.
In 2011, I jumped to the agency side. I didn’t come across the aisle to indulge my artistic tendencies; I did it because my experience has led me to recognize that the quality of the visitor experience is the single most potent driver of business success for any location.

A successful visitor experience today should be measured against two factors:
1.    Visitor awe
2.    Commercial performance

These are not opposing forces. Designing visitor experiences makes strange bedfellows to be sure—pairing creative idealists with business-minded realists. But these motivations are the yin and yang of any commercial endeavor: interrelated, interdependent and infinitely stronger together.
The “Queue-to-View” model for destination experiences is a relic. Today’s audience has iPad-level expectations, and you cannot expect to meet them with a tri-fold brochure. You have the tools at your disposal today to create WOW-inducing journeys that no one in their right mind would miss, no matter the cost, the crowds or the competition.

Growth and profitability are not only necessary constraints, they keep us focused on creating truly valuable experiences. If you want your business to be more profitable, you have several levers you can pull.

Sell more product: This is relevant in competitive markets, but, for many visitor destinations, foot traffic is determined to a large extent by inbound tourism volumes or external factors such as weather and economy. At the Opera House, our challenge was getting more of the 8 million annual visitors to step inside and engage with the property beyond the photo opp.

Cut production cost: A well-crafted experience can increase operational efficiency through technology or smart design, but it must not come at the expense of visitor satisfaction.  

Charge more: Most destinations regularly adjust prices to reflect market conditions, but there is almost always an opportunity to drive margin improvement beyond the norm if you take a value based approach to product development. You can’t change your view, but you can change everything else.

Blue-sky thinking is refreshing and fun, but no creative endeavor can succeed in a vacuum. A data-driven approach to product design and business management is vital. If visitor satisfaction and commercial performance are the yin-yang of success, then accurate, timely, relevant data is the glue that binds them together.

Know your product. Know the draws, the flaws and the competition your experience will have to contend with. Your very first task will be to close any gaps between visitor expectations and visitor experience. When Hornall Anderson was working on Seattle’s Space Needle, our first “A ha!” was that we could not succeed if we focused solely on selling a view in a city notorious for its cloudy weather.

Know your space. Visitor flow analytics is the science of how people navigate and interact. They show you how your customers move through your space, where they experience frustrations, where they are most open to transacting. They help you de-risk and debunk before you invest. Imagine our surprise at the Opera House when we learned that we received about 1.5 million more visitors than we thought, but that a majority never found their way to the area that sold tickets!

Know your audience. Your approach to consumer research may vary depending on your needs or tolerances, but what matters is how you use it. You have to fish where the fish are: a disciplined focus on the top five countries of origin for our visitation to the Sydney Opera House was a key driver of the dramatic growth we achieved in revenues and visitor numbers.

Keep experimenting, measuring and adjusting. Don’t wait until customers are condemning your experience on Trip Advisor before you try and make it better.


Checking the “I saw it” box is not enough. We want to create something that people will be climbing over one another to be the first to photograph, touch and share. Awe has to be the target and it becomes a harder target to hit every day. Today’s audience is informed, connected, skeptical and demanding, but they are also hungry like never before to have their jaws dropped.

Transcending the expected requires vision, a passion for your customers and little leap of faith. The top echelons of the operating business must trust in the power of the creative concept to drive business results.

The creative horsepower behind your visitor experience is the only limiting factor in determining the ceiling for how much that experience is worth to a consumer, emotionally and financially. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach, but there are some underlying principles that are shared by nearly all of the world’s best-in-class visitor experiences.

End-to-End: Your story can be chaptered, but it has to be a single story, from the ticketing to the gift shop, or the illusion is broken.
Emotioneering: At the heart of every great experience in our lives lies a visceral emotional connection. Emotional responses come from stories. Great stories are cohesive, chaptered and choreographed. They whisper secrets rather than lecturing you with facts.

Immersive: Visitors want to be whisked away from the frustrations of being a tourist and transported to a place where they are open to emotional experiences. Disney has mastered this nuance, from keeping the car park out of view of the rides to the security guard who asks every little girl entering the park in a princess outfit for her autograph.

Activate your Queue: Lines are inevitable, boredom is not. Make a virtue of a necessity by providing moments of delight in the queue, reinforcing the fact that this is a journey, not just a photo opportunity.

Multi-sensory: Think beyond words and pictures on the wall. We want to touch, prod and sniff. Aim to stimulate as many of the 5 senses as possible. Invite your visitors not just to look or listen but to play.

Interactive: It is my expectation that I can control what, how much, how long. Even if your experience is linear, think of non-linear ways to engage visitors throughout. In our work for Madison Square Garden’s Transformation Center, this meant giving high-powered executives the childlike satisfaction of initiating their tour experience with a custom etched glass key.

Personalized: Go beyond the Like button – people need a way to find ownership, to make your brand part of their brand. How can they put their thumbprint (literally or figuratively) on your experience?

The last point I’ll discuss and the first step any owner operator will have to take is building the right team, and that brings us right back to where we started, discussing strange bedfellows. If visitor awe and exceptional business performance are your twin goals, you will need artists, scientists and business people to get there. Look for people and organizations that bridge the gaps between traditional silos of expertise. Build a team of big picture thinkers and creative visionaries and harness them with seasoned practitioners who can get the job done on the ground. Value creativity above all, and don’t settle for less than WOW.

Maria Sykes is Experience Strategy Director at Hornall Anderson ( , a global design firm that  has created dramatic visitor experiences for some of the world’s most renowned tourist destinations including the Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House, Space Needle, Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), and Madison Square Garden.

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