Striking the right balance – Heritage attractions and technology

How heritage attractions can embrace technology without compromising the authenticity of their historical experiences.
December 2020

For heritage focused attractions, 2020 will be a memorable year for all the wrong reasons. While closures and capacity restrictions decimated visitor revenue, the costs of maintaining historical buildings, parks, and sites have remained the same. While many attractions are currently in a holding position regarding future planning for when the operational impact of COVID-19 recedes, heritage attractions have other challenges - such as changing guest demographics and expectations.

Statistics show that between April 2019 and March 2020, the most frequent group of visitors to heritage sites in England were those aged between 65 and 74. While visit frequency falls off steeply in the over 75's, visitors aged 45-64 are only a few percentage points below those in the peak (65 to 74) heritage visitor demographic. Meanwhile, around 63 percent of respondents in the age group 16 to 24 said they visited heritage sites.

For heritage attractions, engaging new visitors while maintaining the loyalty of returning guests will be a balancing act. Although their average visitor is becoming far more tech-savvy than before, heritage attractions also need to focus on creating the digitally relevant experiences that increasingly younger visitors expect. However, in doing so, attractions in this sector have to be careful not to obscure their authenticity.

Authenticity and inclusion

Research points to authenticity as critical for figuring out what keeps visitors coming back to heritage attractions. However, defining heritage attraction authenticity is a tricky thing to do. That said, as shown in further visitor research, which focused on world heritage sites, both uniqueness and learning, as well as escapism, stand out as being critical drivers of positive visitor experiences at heritage sites.

What these studies, as well as further research into heritage attraction loyalty, make clear is that vibrant and viable heritage attractions are ones that don't lose sight of why visitors come to them in the first place but also remain accessible to new audiences. With around 63% of respondents in the age group 16 to 24 saying they recently visited a heritage attraction, keeping sight of this trend in the future entails meeting changing guest expectations head-on.

However, younger visitors aren't the only thing that’s changing when it comes to attraction guest demographics. Visitors to heritage attractions ultimately need to reflect the population as a whole. For attractions, this means working to attract a more diverse audience by being relevant and representative to all. Heritage attractions need to be inclusive to all guests regardless of their cultural background or ethnicity. Looking at how Disney is approaching re-imagineering projects, leveraging storytelling to foster diversity and inclusion can provide lessons for heritage attractions that might not see much else in common with the theme park giant. Disney, as explained by Disney Park’s Digital & Global Chief Technology Officer Tilak Mandadi, see increasing value in technology's ability to facilitate storytelling by being more manageable and more cost-effective to update.  On another level, meeting guests’ cultural expectations in a heritage site means telling truly authentic stories that address potentially controversial aspects of many historical attractions’ pasts. An example of this can be seen by looking at how National Museums Liverpool handled their connection to the transatlantic slave trade that also created Allerton Towers.

The benefits of balanced technology use for heritage attractions

While technology is undoubtedly an essential part of the future guest experience for all attractions, this trend does pose a crucial question for heritage attractions. Can attractions that have built their brand on providing an authentic historical experience embrace digital transformation without losing their core reason for being? According to research, they can.

The Black Country Museum has become an unlikely member of the top 100 TikTok accounts in the UK with over 350,000 followers, Abby Bird, Communications Manager at the museum said

“Part of us being accessible as a museum is being in the spaces that young people are digital” she explains. The museum’s TikTok videos remain authentic to the museum. Featuring actors in historical dress and set ‘on location’ in the living museum, its videos educate as well as entertain.

Indeed, sensitive use of technology to enhance the guest experience shows a strong positive correlation with visitor satisfaction within heritage attractions. As long as technology doesn't jar with the authentic historical experiences that drive guest visits in the first place, heritage sites can reap a wide range of benefits for bringing technology into their guest experience. Part of this benefit comes from meeting the expectations that new generations of guests have and ultimately attracting new audiences through technologies that allow personalisation.

For generation Z (anyone born between 1997 and 2012), personalisation is an expectation rather than a bonus when it comes to new experiences and purchases. Heritage attractions that provide their guests with personalised marketing, visitor experiences, and educational media will be able to keep pace with this trend and benefit from the premium that younger generations put on personalisation.

New technologies such as virtual and augmented reality also present opportunities for heritage attractions to improve their guest experience dramatically. Whether through integration with augmented reality search as a marketing effort or built into the visitor experience through innovative experiences like V&A's upcoming London exhibition 'Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser', technology presents a tremendous opportunity to engage new audiences. By investing in creating a connected digital guest journey, heritage attractions can also increase their revenue through smart up-selling strategies and personalised outreach designed to maintain guest engagement; before, during, and after their visit.

Digitisation without alienation

Ultimately, smart, sustainable technology use in a heritage attraction is when digital transformation doesn't dilute an attraction's inherent authenticity. But what about older guests? Will increased digitisation leave core visitors at many attractions feeling left behind? Well, one of the few upsides of the COVID-19 pandemic is that technological alienation is now less likely to occur.

For many people from older generations, 2020 was a crash course in technology. From video calling to online shopping and app usage, 2020 made catching up with digital technology necessary for many who would have thought it beyond them before. When the pandemic recedes, the long term impact of this trend will create a more tech-savvy generation of seniors than ever before. In 2021 and beyond, rather than seeing technology as a hindrance, generations of people will see it as something that not only makes their lives easier but also, through real-time updates and clear communication, keeps them safe too. For heritage attractions, faced with social distancing being the norm for a while yet, meeting this expectation will be particularly vital.

Final Thoughts

For heritage attractions, striking the right balance between technology and authenticity remains a challenge but is also a tremendous opportunity. From allowing the kind of personalised digital guest journeys and visitor experiences that guests now expect to finding new ways to tell old stories, digitisation is an opportunity for heritage attractions to secure their viability and relevance in a changing world.

When integrating digital solutions to improve the guest experience, the primary barrier for many heritage attractions is likely a fear of incurring high costs. However, even for smaller independent and non-profit organisations, rolling out cutting edge digital solutions and creating consistent digital guest experiences is far more accessible than it used to be. For heritage attractions, smart mobile guest apps can provide a smart, future-orientated guest experience without an unachievable price tag - download our guide below now to find out more.


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December 2020

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