Are physical experiences under threat from digital alternatives?

Digital experiences exploded during the pandemic as we turned to home entertainment to escape the humdrum of lockdown life. Now as we re-open, the question is, are they here to stay?
Ellen Wilkinson
June 2021

Is this real life, or is this just fantasy?

Truth is, it can be hard to tell these days. During the pandemic, day trips gave way to Netflix, Nintendo, and a lot more sitting on the sofa than many of us would have liked. At the same time, physical experiences at theme parks, zoos, museums, and other popular entertainment venues suffered as lockdown[s] put a sharp end to leisure activities.

Let's put that in context. A Wells Fargo Securities forecast predicts that Disney’s global theme park attendance will decline by a combined 148 million guests in fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The two-year loss nearly equals Disney’s 155.2 million international attendance in the fiscal year 2019. Elsewhere, multiple lockdowns have placed zoos around the world in a precarious financial position. The London Zoological Society stands to lose £20 million in revenue this year as delayed reopening and a reduced guest capacity heavily impact guest numbers. 

However, as attractions struggled, new forms of virtual entertainment have thrived. In 2020 alone, Netflix added 36 million new subscribers to its roster, and we’ve all heard the stories of Zoom’s explosive growth; sales of the video conferencing platform increased by a staggering 326% to $2.6bn in 2020.

Now that we’re in the final phases of re-opening, the question that remains is how will physical entertainment co-exist with new digital formats in the future? Are people likely to turn down trips to attractions in favour of a night of immersive video gaming and are physical experiences under threat? 

A changing landscape

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital solutions as everyone from our kids to our grandparents utilised online tools to connect, communicate and escape the humdrum of lockdown life. But this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon; customer expectations have been evolving for years.

Just think about your smartphone. Initially, mobile phones were an accessory. They were useful, but we didn’t fundamentally need them to maintain our lifestyles. Nowadays, the opposite is true. Today’s smartphones are as powerful as our laptops and have brought unprecedented access to technology in the form of mobile apps. We rely on them for knowledge, maintaining our schedules, talking to friends and colleagues, and for entertainment in the form of games, social media and streaming content. 

Even technology that has until recently been too expensive to use in a home environment, such as virtual and augmented reality, is now accessible from a mobile phone. For example, TikTok let’s you create AR-enhanced videos from your mobile; Instagram enables you to change your hair colour in just a click – even Ikea is getting in on the action with its AR furniture fit service! 

In light of these changes, it’s easy to understand how some attractions see technology as a threat; after all, it’s just too easy to stay home these days – right? 

Blended experiences are emerging

Blended experiences are emerging

At, we often speak to visitor attractions worried about having to fight for attention when guests are on site. For instance, a common concern we encounter is operators worrying that our mobile apps will distract guests from the experience at their theme park, zoo or resort. And we get it. Nothing sounds worse to us than heading to our favourite attractions and watching mobile-addicted guests walking around staring at their phone screens. 

In the past, if a guest took out their smartphone at your event, you had failed. It signified that they’d switched off, were looking for something more interesting to do and had chosen a digital alternative to a real-life opportunity. However, that’s fortunately no longer the case. 

In today’s digital-first world, it's not necessarily bad if guests pull out their smartphones during their visit! It means they are so engaged with the experience that they want to share it with their friends and family – and you want guests to share their experiences digitally to drive demand and brand recognition. The phenomenon is so extraordinary that physical experiences are now being designed purely for their Instagram value; attractions such as Dreamland in Margate have even created a whole day for you to snap pics. Signs that used to say “no photographs” increasingly now beg you to “please take photos!”

It’s these experiences that are your real competition. When asked about the decline of physical experiences in a Blooloop interview earlier this year, Joseph Pine, world-renowned author of The Experience of Economy, argued that people still crave physical experiences: 

“You may have new competition, but that doesn’t mean they’ll win. Most of all [people] want to share feelings of joy and togetherness again. We all need that sense of belonging.”

Joseph explained that although he believes digital won’t win out overall, he does think successful attractions will need to combine physical and virtual experiences in the future. He cited a new generation of experiences, such as the Museum of Ice Cream in New York, which is known for its ‘instagramability’ and multi-sensory, interactive activities. To Pine, physical experiences will continue to represent time well spent in consumers’ minds; we just need to learn how to enhance them with tech. 

Using technology to enhance physical experiences

When thinking about how to compete in a digital world, attractions need to consider two things:

  1. How to use technology to enrich the guest experience and give guests what they want
  1. How to leverage this consumer shift to benefit their bottom line

Improve the on-site experience

Instead of being nervous that digital tech will replace real-life experiences, attractions should lean into the moment and incorporate consumer tech into the on-site experience. Smartphones, in particular, are your greatest asset. 

Many attractions are doing this already. For example, Zoo Tampa has been using their mobile app to educate guests about the animals in their care. Sandra Torres, Director of Communications and External Affairs, shared how they’re using mobile as part of their education strategy:

“We want guests to make the connection between the animal standing in front of them and an action that they can take to help that same species out in the wild. For example, when they visit our orangutan habitat, they see these beautiful animals up close, often for the first time. 

At that moment, if a message pops up saying, ‘you can help these animals in the wild by buying sustainable palm oil,’ that really resonates. We make that connection through the app so that when they leave the zoo, they go back into it and check what they can do to help.” 

Disney is also leveraging mobile tech but in a very different way. Guests at their theme parks can use Snapchat to take AR-enabled selfies with their favourite Disney characters and share them with their friends! The feature is only available to guests within the park, illustrating how they can use technology to enhance physical experiences rather than replace them. 

These features demonstrate how you can use technology to connect with engaged guests by embracing our smartphone addictions. Suddenly you’ve got a unique opportunity to influence their behaviour, just as Zoo Tampa are already doing. 

Whatsmore, guests are now so accustomed to interacting with brands on their devices that they won’t view the interaction as intrusive. In fact, they actually expect it, as Pine explains:  

“The rise of the smartphone allows us to centre the universe around us...and one of the things it drives is the need for more customised goods and services within experiences, so they are more personal.”

Today, 90% of consumers say they are more likely to purchase a product or service if the brand personalised content and promotions. In light of this, Pine recommends adopting a digital experience platform that allows you to identify the customer and personalise for them to provide the experience they expect.

Disney+ on iPad

Grow your bottom line

You know what they say; if you can’t beat them – join them! In addition to blending virtual and physical experiences whilst guests visit your site, you can also extend your reach to guests living rooms and take the entertainment to them. 

Disney has done a great job of this with their Disney+ streaming service, which competes with the likes of Netflix in the home entertainment category. But you don't need to launch your own content streaming service to build digital engagement. A great example comes from WildEarth, who broadcast virtual safaris by combining point of view style filming with interactive Q&A sessions. They’ve experienced a five-fold increase in online audiences since last April.    

These examples show that the success of digital entertainment isn’t something to be feared. On the contrary, it’s creating new revenue streams for attractions operators all over the world! Digital creates new opportunities to monetise your experiences and, to a degree, could compensate for some of the losses facing the sector following the pandemic. 

For instance, if you can only open with a limited capacity, consider filling those empty spaces with digital viewers by live-streaming content. AirBNB did a great job of this during the pandemic by pivoting to their Online Experiences product, which has been hugely successful and helped to sustain 'offline' businesses during multiple lockdowns. Take a leap out of their book and consider recording animal feeds or offering virtual tours of a new ride. Of course, you won’t fetch as much for a digital ticket as a physical one but you’re also not limited in terms of capacity or location meaning you can sell to a wider audience.

So what does the future look like? 

While it’s easy to understand how the success of digital experiences over the past 18 months could make operators uneasy, ultimately, real-world experiences aren't going away. Initial visitor statistics following the re-opening suggest this too. Despite virtually no international attendance this year, which historically accounts for 20-25% of attendees, Universal Studios Orlando has already hit capacity and reached 2019 visitor levels. Just as Pine explained, humans crave connection and belonging, and after a year trapped in our virtual worlds, people’s desire for togetherness is stronger than ever.

That said, it doesn’t mean you should ignore the power of technology altogether. Mckinsey estimates that the pandemic accelerated global adoption of digital technologies by three years, and the future is set to be a blend of physical and digital experiences. We need to understand how our guests want to use digital offerings and adapt accordingly to keep them engaged.

We can help you use digital to deliver richer in-person experiences for your guests. Sign up for our free audit and find out how to prepare your attraction for a blended future. 


Watch on Demand

Watch on Demand

Create a connected digital guest journey that better meets your guest's changing expectations

Watch on Demand

Ellen Wilkinson

Head of Marketing
June 2021
Book a demo mobile app

Request a Demo

Find out how attractions of all shapes and sizes are deploying mobile apps to improve the guest experience, increase revenue and unlock visitor insights.

Be a part of the digital revolution.

Technology is rapidly changing guests' expectations. In our monthly newsletter, we explore the trends and technologies set to shape the future of the experience industry. Subscribe for expert insights and tips.
By attractions enthusiasts for attractions enthusiasts.
Related News & Resources
View all