The Importance of Visitor Research

Logo: The Visitor Studies Group

Lyndsey Clark, the Visitor Studies Group, 

For anybody working or managing a visitor attraction or any site or facility that attracts visits from members of the public or organised groups, there are many arguments, from the financial to the ethical, for undertaking good quality audience research.

Since our founding in 1998, the Visitor Studies Group has been the only skill sharing network in the UK for organisations undertaking audience research, whether they employ in-house specialists, buy-in consultants, or train staff from across the organisation. Our members come from a wide range of institutions: museums, science centres, zoos, national parks and botanic gardens to name a few. But we all have the same thing in common: a desire to engage with our visitors to improve the experiences we create with and for them. 

We believe passionately in excellent visitor experiences, and we believe in the power of audience research to help us deliver those experiences. We celebrate our collective insight, we work to influence leaders and funders, and we are committed to working in partnership with others.

VSG Members’ Networking at the 2012 AGM. © the Visitor Studies Group
VSG Members’ Networking at the 2012 AGM. © the Visitor Studies Group

Why should you engage in audience research?

Audience research can increase visitor numbers, repeat visits and visitor satisfaction by ensuring relevancy of experience. Whether publicly or privately funded, a charitable or commercial organisation, visitors pay towards our site through taxation, charitable donation or ticket sales. Those visitors deserve a level of experience we can only deliver if we understand their varied motivations and needs.  We are part of our communities and by talking with all our visitors and potential visitors we engage with our communities and create experiences that are valued by all.

Similarly, we regularly promise our funders that we’ll deliver certain experiences, emotions and responses in our visitors. Audience research is the tool we use to provide evidence of our achievements.

During the lifetime of the Visitor Studies Group we have seen a dramatic change in attitude to visitors. Once upon a time visitors were problematic and there was little sense that visitors could contribute meaningfully to the development of sites of informal learning. Yet we find ourselves in the current position where engagement is an everyday phrase. We take part in discussions around engaged museums, engaged services, community engagement; but how this looks in practice is diverse.

However we interpret ‘engagement’ audience research plays an important contribution. Asking visitors about their experiences to report to funders or boards of trustees can be a form of engagement. Working closely with members of a community to inform the development of a visit experience is certainly engagement. The benefits engagement brings are numerous; staff and organisation learn from their publics, are challenged and develop deeper insight into what makes their visitors value the site. The communities involved develop ownership of the site and become advocates for it, ensuring security into the uncertain future. The skills needed for engagement, for any end, involve asking the right questions, listening carefully and acting sensitively.

Participants on a guided walk on Skomer Island. © Pembrokeshire Coast NPA
Participants on a guided walk on Skomer Island. © Pembrokeshire Coast NPA

As we look to the future, audience research can only become more important. The need to truly engage is not going to diminish. With that comes a need for those skills to become embedded across institutions, and for insight to be valued at all levels and stages in project delivery.

Case study: The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority

Rebecca Evans, Interpretation Officer

Who comes to Pembrokeshire Coast National Park?  Why do they come?  What do they do when they get here? What do they like?  What really bugs them?  Will they come back again?  And more importantly, who are the ‘non-visitors’, and what can we do to entice them?  To help us go about finding answers to these questions we’ve joined the Visitor Studies Group.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park covers an area of 612 square kilometres, and includes iconic seaside resorts such as Tenby, one of  Britain’s smallest cities, St Davids, the rugged Preseli mountains, and the 186 mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path.  In addition to the natural landscape we manage three visitor centres, an art gallery and the two historic sites of Carew Castle and Castell Henllys.  It is this complex mix of free outdoor sites, indoor centres and historic sites that provide us with the challenge of knowing our visitors. 

People taking part in a crab catching activity at Carew Tidal Mill. © Pembrokeshire Coast NPA
People taking part in a crab catching activity at Carew Tidal Mill. © Pembrokeshire Coast NPA

To some extent quantitative data is easy to capture – how many visitors come into the visitor centres?  How many buy tickets to the historic sites?  How many pay to use the pay and display car parks?  How many hits are there on the website? Facebook?  Twitter? But that is only superficial.  We need and want to know more.  It is fair to say that part of our motivation is financial. 

We run a comprehensive programme of activities and events throughout the par. We need to know more about visitor motivations and expectations so we can target our events at these visitors, and thus run more efficiently.  If we can understand visitor behaviour we are much more likely to be able to influence it positively through interpretation.  A challenge for us is the co-ordination of visitor studies within our organisation, as there are a number of people and roles across different teams and departments, all with a vested interest in visitors.  

To date we have carried out annual visitor surveys of participants on our activities and events, and visitors to our historic sites and visitor centres.  While this is a step in the right direction it is important that we are aware of the shortcomings and know how best to use the results to our advantage as an organisation to become more efficient and, ultimately deliver a better visitor experience.   In the near future we hope to carry out much more targeted visitor studies, which will have been fully informed by research.  For this we definitely need to tap into the experience, resources and networks available through the Visitor Studies Group.

First published in CJS Focus on Visitor Management and Engagement in affiliation with the Association for Heritage Interpretation on 10 June 2013

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