The Business, Science & Art of Creating Successful Visitor Experiences

POSTED BY Maria Sykes on Sep 20, 2012

I’ll begin by admitting that I’m in this business for the magic. I love that we can design spaces and experiences that move us to raucous delight or reverent silence. That said, I am squarely on the business side of the equation. I spent almost a decade as a senior executive at the Sydney Opera House, and some of my proudest moments there include tripling the net contribution of commercial engagements on the property and achieving a UNESCO World Heritage designation after 27 years of failed attempts.

In January 2011, I jumped to the agency side to work with clients like Madison Square Garden, GE, and the Empire State Building (as well as my old colleagues in Australia). 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: Satisfaction is not sufficient. 2. High-powered Commercial Performance:  Margins are the holy grail.

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. Your audience is going to demand them, and your bottom line is going to love them.  


Visitors can only enjoy your superlative experience as long as you can afford to operate it. Growth and profitability are not only necessary constraints, they keep us focused on creating truly valuable experiences. Remember that your visitor experience is your product, every bit as much as the widget that rolls off a factory line, except in your case, every widget is unique. If you want your business to be more profitable, you have several levers you can pull.

Sell more product: This can mean increasing traffic or designing more opportunities for incremental revenue within your property. 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. Iconic venues like the Willis Tower and the Empire State Building could not change their views, but there was an opportunity to increase the value of everything that comes before and after those views.


Blue-sky thinking is refreshing and fun, but no creative endeavor can succeed in a vacuum. Visitor experience design cannot be divorced from the operational realities of the space. 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 with your space. They show you how your customers move through your space, where they experience frustrations, where they are most open to transacting. Sound analytics “de-risk” a capital project or creative makeover by simulating and modeling the impact of design changes before you invest and by debunking entrenched assumptions about your space. 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. This is where we apply the psychological layer of ‘why’ and ‘how.’ Your approach to consumer research may vary depending on your needs or tolerances, but what matters is how you use it. No one product can be all things to all people. An often overlooked step is to identify which markets you are NOT targeting. 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. Incremental changes can drive big success. Build metrics into the experience and pay attention to consumer responses. 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 WOW. We want tears. 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 and in the discipline of visitor experience design to drive business results. To be fair, many venues can and do make money with embarrassingly poor visitor experiences. But I will argue that there is not a venue in the world—from the Pyramids at Giza to the Condo Sales Center next door—that could not generate increased revenues,  conversion and satisfaction by investing in an improvement to the journey their visitors take.

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 visitor experience begins before the visitor arrives and extends long after they leave. 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. We are striving to engineer, or at least set the stage, for this connection to happen for every visitor in a unique, authentic and proprietary way. Emotional responses come from stories. Great stories are cohesive, chaptered and choreographed – a gripping narrative on a beautiful canvas. They whisper secrets and surprise you with anecdotes rather than lecturing you with facts or lessons.

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. Small gestures are as important as big moments. 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 and a meaningful experience, not just a photo opportunity.

Multi-sensory: Think beyond words and pictures on the wall. We want to touch, prod and sniff. People learn and interact in different ways, and we need to provide multiple points of entry into our story. Aim to stimulate as many of the 5 senses as possible. Invite your visitors not just to look or listen but to play. Great interactions don’t necessarily require high-tech electronics, but they do require participation.

Interactive: I want to drive—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. At the Empire State Building, this meant a embracing the fact that people were on their phones in line and creating a complementary mobile experience. In Madison Square Garden’s Transformation Center, it meant giving high-powered executives the childlike satisfaction of initiating their tour experience with a custom etched glass key.

Personalized: This is beyond the Facebook generation – 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. I’ve outlined visitor awe and exceptional business performance as our twin goals. You will need artists, scientists and business people to get there, but I exhort you to look for hybrids—people and organizations that bridge the gaps between traditional silos of expertise. I have seen a number of visitor experience projects, up close as an operator, from afar as a competitor and more recently, from inside the creative process. 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.

WRITTEN BY Maria Sykes

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