The 2022 outlook for travel and tourism

The 2022 outlook for travel and tourism

Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC shares his unique insights into the state of tourism, mandates, omicron and the question of what’s next from the Nation’s capital, a premiere visitor destination filled with world class attractions.

Elliott talks about the pivot for destination marketers from ‘heads in beds and butts in seats’ into a new central role of chief communicator between venues and visitors, reflecting on the changing expectations and demands of travellers across attractions, events and hospitality.

Show notes

For more on Destination DC, visit 


Angie: Hello and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit here today with President and CEO of Destination D.C., Elliott Ferguson, who is the outgoing national chair of the board for the US Travel Association and the chair of Tourism Diversity Matters. Welcome Elliott.
Elliott: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Angie: I understand congratulations are in order too, because this month marks two decades for you at the helm of Destination D.C., it’s quite the tenure!
Elliott: You know, Angie, that means you’re either getting very old or, or… something along those lines. But yes, I did celebrate my 20th anniversary last week. Very happy to be able to be here for that long. So thanks for that.
Angie: I’m guessing the last couple of years have been your most notable there. Does anything else compare?
Elliott: Well, I moved here right after 9/11. We’ve had, as you look at tourism and you look at the things in which we try to influence, there had been a lot of obstacles, be it 9/11 itself… Anthrax, which was a major scare. And actually there’s a show on Netflix about it now and other government shut downs and anytime something happens, terrorism related globally, there is a perception tied to D.C.
So we’ve, we’ve had a lot of things in which we’ve had to deal with in that regard. And of course, January 6th, which comes to mind, is something that happened this year [2021]. So the key for us is resilience. And the fact that as the Nation’s capital of the United States, there’s so many amazing reasons for people to still want to visit and enjoy our world class destination, despite some of those obstacles.
Angie: I’m going to have to check out that series on Netflix. I think I fell in love with DC first on the big screen!
Elliott: Yes. It’s usually some movie tied to politics, hopefully with a positive ending.
Angie: Well, D.C. is my second home and I’m missing it so much during the pandemic. What is life like there at the moment? We’re in December ’21, all of us are holding our breath to see what next year looks like, especially with Omicron creeping
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re all concerned about Omicron. But I think we should still remain very concerned about Delta and the fact that as you’re looking at the number of cases that are being documented, two things come to mind.
One, those that are not vaccinated are those are the most, they’re the ones that are most vulnerable. And then two, Delta has proven to be far more formidable as it pertains to long-term negative effects, then Omicron at this point. So I think the fact that we have two variants plus the original are reasons for us to all remain concerned.
But to answer your question. You know, we’re unlike in New Zealand, we’re ramping up for our winter mind. So it’s a little colder here. This happens to be a slower season for us in terms of travel. So, you know, we’re, we’re optimistic keeping our fingers crossed that people will continue to follow the safety protocols and still enjoy being in the Nation’s Capital, being in the U.S. without having to go through another shutdown, which nobody wants.
Angie: I guess it can be a that some of the disturbance of these new variants is happening in the winter rather than the top of the high season.
Elliott: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s one way of looking at it. And, you know, I think the other is the fact that we’ve had so many months of people being at home, working from home. And I know that people are still doing that.
We know so much more now than we did arguably a year ago and we have protocols that are in place that should make it a lot easier. I think the key thing in which we’re focusing on Angie is not only getting vaccinated and telling visitors and locals to be vaccinated, but also continuous testing.
Because we all know that you can be vaccinated and you can still carry one of the Corona viruses and you just have to know your status. So constant testing is an necessity. If we’re wanting our industry to remain back on track and see some of the positive trends that we heard, that we would have moving forward based on where we are maybe 30 days ago.
Angie: So Elliott you’re out on the front lines with many of the cultural institutions in your area. And you’re an advisory board member to the Smithsonian National Zoo and Director for DC Jazz. I know you head up a few recovery committees and working groups. Can you give me a sense of what the industry’s confidence or spirit is out there at the moment.
Elliott: Well, I think overall, the outlook is very, it’s very optimistic from be it the Zoo or any of the institutions that are here in Washington, DC. You know, we’re all hoping and praying that as we learn more about Corona virus, that, each iteration, if you will, that we’re learning about will be less than the next and that’s what’s happening with Omicron.
And I think the key thing for us is to look at it through a positive lens. Let’s talk about groups and events that have been able to take place successfully – and in an environment such as we’re in now. I think that clearly there’s a need to communicate how detrimental the viruses and articulate the importance of testing and vaccines.
But as we’re looking at getting back on track for meetings, events, and activities, we’ve got to talk about what has and how it’s worked in which folks should do so that we can continue in that trajectory. So that’s what our stakeholders are asking of us. That’s what we’re sharing. And we’re always trying to get the latest information in terms of being global or national as to what’s the easiest way to navigate and to still meet in a COVID environment.
Angie: And are you expecting demand to pent up at any stage or for that to kick in, or is it going to be slow and steady wins the race? What’s your thesis on how that will unfold?
Elliott: Each sector is going to be different. As we look at our meetings or conventions industry, we were anticipating and still anticipate positive results in terms of the number of major citywide congresses we’ll host in 2022, we’ll host nearly 20 next year compared to 5 this year. And of course, 2020 after March of that year, everything just totally dried up in terms of meetings. So we’re anticipating a recovery, a strong recovery in terms of the larger congresses and small meetings that we normally host as we look at the international community, of course, the borders reopened on November 8.
That means different things to different parts of the US and the world in terms of travel. But we remain optimistic as we are being told by experts that by 2024 or maybe it’s as early as late 2023, we will have returned back to the numbers that we have hosted in 2019. So, you know, be it any obstacles that might skew or, or change that course of action, we remain optimistic as do our stakeholders, as we look at the future.
Angie: We’re seeing that visitor attractions in DC right now, they’re sitting at about 72% of normal on their visitation recovery index and the holiday lead-up. What is happening out there in the wider travel and tourism recovery, in terms of tourism numbers or occupancy rates?
Elliott: It depends on where you are. I mean, if you’re looking at locations that are on the coast or maybe in the Midwest, whereas folks who are able to do things outside, there are doing much better than major cities, like New York, Boston, DC, and, you know, that’s short-term of course.
So, you know, we anticipate, Washington is one of those cities, whereas you can come here, you can socially distance. Especially with monuments and memorials and the museums are so large. And the key thing for us is that there’s so many free attractions here, that in addition to them being amazing attractions, they’re free.
And that’s appealing to a lot of folks, especially those that have been financially compromised. But those destinations that have been skewing better are those that are usually beach destinations or places that like state parks in the middle of the United States.
Angie: That’s interesting. So it’s a real advantage for the DC region over New York and for some of those outdoorsy states over others?
Elliott: For now, I think that the key thing for us is that we normally rely on a mix of business travel, conventions and meetings and leisure, domestic and international. And for us, business travel is relatively non-existent, meetings are trying to get back on track. And as I referenced earlier next year as a stronger year, and the international leisure market has been totally decimated and the domestic market is still trying to recover.
And so as we look at the successes of 2021 – much better than last year, not remotely where we should have been, but very optimistic as we’re looking at potential for recovery. And the key thing too, Angie, is that individuals are ready to get out. Folks are ready to meet in person. I’ve attended a series of meetings and we all recognize how more impactful meetings are when you meet in person and just the opportunity to interact with your peers and to learn from others in person that is far more appealing long-term than any scenario that’s out there or Zoom or any other platform. So therefore there’s a desire to get out there. There’s a desire by the leisure market. The moment November 8th was marked as a day that international travel returned, we saw significant spikes in interest in returning to the US. So those are all good signs.
Angie: Are you hearing of any standout behavior changes in that market, such as advanced booking timeframes or changes to mode of transport or sensitivity to cancellation policies, anything going on there?
Elliott: I really think that it’s all the above. I mean, you know, folks are trying to figure out how to navigate the new norm.
And they need to know how flexible wherever they’re going is in terms of a need to potentially change plans for whatever that reason is. And so there’s a lot more sensitivity there. There’s also more sensitivity and knowing what the protocol is for venues for hotels in terms of cleanliness and say, as well as what is open and what services could someone suggest if they’re staying in your hotel, you know, people don’t like to show up and be surprised on site that there’s no food and beverage options or there’s no room service at all.
So there, there is a need to communicate, in some cases over communicate, simply because individuals want to know more and know exactly what their options are as they’re looking at.
Angie: You talked a little bit about the trends of domestic versus international tourism. Particularly now the borders are reopening and the outlook for winter and the coming summer season.
Are there any particular demographics or places of visitor origin that are recovering faster or conversely, is, is DC more appealing to a particular type of visitor is maybe a destination with a higher degree of mass compliance and vaccine coverage?
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. Angie, I think the key things for us is that: one, you can start with recognizing the world-class attractions that are here with our museums and monuments and memorials, and the fact that they’re free. So if you’re looking at a compromised financial situation and you’re trying to figure out where to go. And how to get there. Washington becomes an appealing destination. We’ve got 33% of the US population within a four hour drive of Washington. So that became a large part of what we were focusing on as people were trying to get back on track and figure out whether or not, in their mind, it was safe to fly versus getting on a train or to drive. And so therefore our strategy out of necessity changed from, you know, a global end domestic outreach to mostly domestic short term, simply because those are the only ones that only individuals that had an opportunity to travel.
And the response for a city like Washington clearly is not the same as a beach location, but with two rivers and folks being able to kayak and go hiking within close proximity to Washington and the region as a whole, we’ve been able to market and promote how you can socially distance and have a good experience in Washington, DC. And equally as much, if you want to go to theater, what protocols in place to make sure that you’re safe as you’re going into different different venues.
Angie: Speaking of some of those protocols, are you expecting any winter restrictions, such as capacity constraints to be re-introduced or do you have, an outlook on when the last of those might lift? I know as well now where we’re sort of getting back into this conversation with public venues over whether they might consider shutdowns again, which seems, amazing to think about.
Elliott: I think the key thing is that no one wants to shut down again. We don’t want it. I know our elected officials don’t want it, but we do want to make sure that we focus on safety and something you said earlier that has resonated with visitors is the fact that we have been very cautious and not every state in the United States or territory has the same protocol as it pertains to wearing masks. In Washington, our mayor lifted our mask protocol a few weeks back, but it’s back on as of tomorrow out of necessity. I think the key things would be to figure out how to successfully communicate or make sure that visitors or folks that are attending events, understand the importance of being vaccinated. I know if you’re traveling internationally to the US you don’t have a choice, you have to be vaccinated, but equally as much, we’ve got to make sure that testing is readily available to folks that are coming into the city, as well as folks that live here and that are here on a regular basis. So these things are all important as we’re looking at moving the needle in the right.
Angie: D.C. doesn’t have a vaccine passport, right?
Elliott: DC does not have a vaccine criteria. Now it is being discussed, but nothing is in place. Of course the federal government does, and we have a lot of federal employees here in Washington, DC. So there’s a lot of talk about what makes the most sense. We know other major cities, New York LA have those, those mandates in place. And I talked to my peers in those other cities as early as this morning. And we’re all trying to figure out what makes the most sense. And I think when you hear more about Omicron and other variants, people become more aware of the fact that they should get vaccinated, get that booster. The goal is to not having mandate because everyone is vaccinated, but we realized that’s not where we are.
So, we’ve got to figure out what makes the most sense to make sure that frontline employees and visitors alike are safe as they’re coming to the Nation’s capital.
Angie: There’s a real trade-off, isn’t it of consumer confidence of going to a public place versus the convenience of visitors and visitor experience of having to enforce.
Elliott: No, you’re absolutely right. And, here’s the thing. When you’re in the space of economic development, through tourism and you are dealing with the sensitivities of a pandemic, you want to be empathetic and communicate the right messaging. And that messaging is tied to ‘ we don’t want to shut down’. We want to remain open. We want you to feel safe coming to Washington and theUnited States. We want to make sure that employees are safe. If you’re coming here, so let’s by all means, focus on the protocol, get the vaccine, wear your mask.
Angie: To shift gears a little bit, I’ve heard you talk about the role of destination marketing in terms of heads and beds and butts and seats. How is that evolving as we come out of the pandemic and we have to jumpstart travel and tourism, and how that appeals to the consumer?
Elliott: I love heads in beds, butts in seats. You know, the bottom line is that no matter how we articulate our role, it’s always going to be tied to creating jobs through visitation and economic development, through visitation, visitors coming to the city and saying for three or four days, and then other people coming in.
The reality for us is that we have now morphed into an organization that has to communicate more about safety as it pertains to the virus. And as well as other aspects of safety coming into an urban environment, we recognize that, yes, we should talk about how amazing DC is as a destination, but we have a responsibility to make sure that individuals understand what safety protocol is in place and what’s expected.
And, quite frankly, that was probably not something on our radar. No one’s radar a few years, a few months back. And as well as keeping up to date with whatever is the latest information that visitors need to be aware of. As they’re coming into the city today, you don’t have to wear a mask. As of tomorrow, 6:00 AM, you must wear a mask. As we talked to the city about testing, we want more testing sites around the city open for visitors and for locals because the convenience makes a big difference in terms of people getting tested.
We’re now, the organization, our website and, that’s going to be responsible for communicating that message, especially to visitors. Our role continues to evolve. We never would have thought we would be this insightful on all things tied to a pandemic or coronavirus and out of necessity, not only are we listening to the information and paying attention, not taking the responsibility of being, we’re just the conduit. We hear the information from the community and for the medical community. And we share that information, but, but equally as important, we do have to share it and ask key questions that are important to visitors that are looking at coming to the US.
Angie: That’s that’s so interesting that it’s gone from destination marketing to really industry and visitor communications as well as promotion, both to the attraction and to the tourist.
Elliott: Yeah, you’re right. And, our members, their expectation of us is to share with them what’s expected by visitors. What folks from Oceana expect in terms of coming to the United States is different than from other parts of the world, you know, and I’ve said that for a long time, one size does not fit all. Your travel patterns are different. What’s expected in terms of information is different. And we have to be on top of that so that we can communicate the right messaging that, that everyone isn’t.
Angie: You keep in touch with a lot of other destination marketing and communications organizations around the world and around the US – what other strategies and challenges are you seeing at a domestic or even international level with your colleagues?
Elliott: I think it’s tied to finding individuals that want to return to work in hospitality. We have a labor shortage right now, and that’s nationwide and in some cases globally. That is a big concern, of course, as we’re looking at meetings, get coming back on track. The question is, you know, who pays for the hybrid? How much is it and how do we make sure that we are communicating to meeting planners because there are expectations that did not exist before. So, you know, it’s, it’s really tied to those are the, the major concerns, of course lift, because a lot of airlines have opted to stop nonstop flights in certain markets, which remains a concern.
And, just the economics tied to what we do. We did see light at the end of the tunnel. As we looked at the vaccine being introduced late last year. But where we are now is that uncertain area of what’s next? The concern that I have is the fact that the moment we hear that, one aspect of events be it sports events or theater shuts down, then there’s a ripple effect.
And I don’t know whether or not in this environment where people are testing and more people are vaccinated that we have to shut down. And that is the key thing in which we’re talking about internally. How do we make sure we’re articulating messaging? That’s important to those that plan events and meetings so that they can still go do those events and meetings successfully.
Angie: You’ve spoken a little bit about the conference market and events in terms of things that will be on your horizon like cherry blossom next year. What about the longterm outlook for business travel, especially in the age of zoom, is that forever changed?
Elliott: You know, I think it’s it’s for those who did not think that zoom or WebEx was an option, they now realize that it is an option. But another part of that is recognizing the fact that there’s nothing more important than person to person interactivity and interaction. In terms of building relationships, a couple of things are going to happen. Angie, if my company sells a product and I know that my competitor is going to meet with a potential vendor in person, am I going to want my sales team to talk to that same vendor on zoom? When my competition is beating them in person. And the answer is no. I think that one we’ve learned as an industry and we continue to articulate to the industry as a whole, is the importance of meeting in person.
We’ve learned that zoom is a conduit and can be very helpful, but let’s just face it. Everybody multitasks when they are on zoom, they’re not paying a hundred percent attention. So therefore you’re not getting the full scope and capacity of the audience simply because they are multitasking.
The answer is, the studies that the experts share with us suggest that the meetings market will return. The caveat might be that instead of having 10,000 people in person, you might have 10,000 people in person, but an additional 3,000 on zoom or on a hybrid simply because now that’s an option that, that organization may not have offered before.
Absolutely remaining optimistic, recognizing human behavior is tied to human interaction. Just look at the grade schools and how kids suffered emotionally and physically and their grades suffered simply because they weren’t meeting face to face that same data can be shared in terms of what happens when you need accreditation or you need training or certification on a certain process. Do you want your cardiologist to have learned a new process on a zoom call versus versus being in person and learning that process in person? So they can ask questions that more.
I think we all know the answer there. And I think that there’s, there’s something to be said about in-person meetings and the same with leisure travel. During COVID we had no choice. So we relied heavily on social media to tell stories about what’s happening in the Smithsonian, what things are happening in DC.
But that was a stop gap so that people can write those things down and say, well, when we start to travel again, I want to come to Washington because I want you to see these things in person, the new World War One Memorial, the new Eisenhower Memorial, or the new Planet Word Museum or, or the Children’s Museum.
So these are things in which we whet people’s appetites in terms of what’s happening in Washington, DC, with the hopes that they’ll want to come in person once they’re able to do.
Angie: That’s a good last demographic or group for us to cover, those school and tour groups, particularly in DC, they make up such a huge proportion of visitation. What’s your prediction on how those elements will recover?
Elliott: Yes, school groups. That’s always a very touchy subject, because as I tell parents, when they call and say, ‘Hey, we heard about a something that happened in Paris, is DC safe?’, my response is always going to be the same, in most cases, the school groups, usually the first rite of passage for a kid is that eighth grade trip in America, mostly to Washington DC.
And we want them to come and we want them to feel safe. But as I say to parents, you’ve got to dictate and decide on your own, whether or not you feel comfortable with your child traveling without you. I cannot tell you that they will, I cannot guarantee to you in any capacity and if you have any concerns, be it coming to Washington or stay over at a friend’s house, then you’ve got to make that decision. The destination cannot. But what we focus on, the, the inverse of that messaging. Washington has well over 20 security policing organizations. So it’s arguably one of the safest cities in America. We’re a compact destination. So you have so many attractions that are so close together.
So use the common sense that the organizations that are traditionally responsible for kids groups coming in, use the information that they share with you in terms of safety and safety protocols for your kids coming. That should at least alleviate some of those concerns or fears about them traveling.
Angie: And what does the future hold for DC, you’ve got a few new museums on the horizon?
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. We continue to focus on the fact that between our nightlife and theater and sporting events and world-class cuisine and the two rivers and events and activities that take place there and sports. And of course memorials and museums. There will continue to be a large influx of individuals that want to either come to the Nation’s capital for the first time, or because they’ve not come in a few years. And there are new museums that opened, new attractions or new memorials or new exhibits and museums that they’ve attended before.
They’ll want to come back and enjoy a baseball game on one day and then go to the Kennedy Center or Arena Stage on the next night for a performance and of course eat world-class cuisine. And that’s our responsibility is, to share with those potential travelers, how unique and diverse Washington is.
And the key thing is that I love the most is that a lot of those things you do for free. So if you’re spending the whole day enjoying Washington as a destination and spending no money, then that gives you more to spend on shopping or perhaps upgrade your hotel room or go to a Broadway show or a show here in Washington, DC, that perhaps was not on your radar.
So that’s our responsibility. And that I feel that there’s going to continue to be a demand to come to Washington DC because of that great mix of things in which people can see and do it.
Angie: Thank you so much, Elliott, it’s such an important role that destination organizations are playing in the future for recovery and at a time that is still a little up and down in terms of what’s happening out there in the world. Thank you so much for sharing all of that with us.
Elliott: You’re absolutely welcome. It’s my pleasure. And I look forward to. Welcoming, any guests that are looking at coming to the US, to Washington, go to to learn more about what’s happening in Washington, DC as you’re looking at perhaps your next trip to the US.
Angie: I can’t wait to get back there myself.
There is nothing like that drive from Ronald Reagan over the bridge, seeing the lights of the iconic DC skyline. It’s my favorite.
Elliott: I totally agree. Angie – we look forward to having you back. All right. Take care.

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United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum

United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum

The number one operational change we made through our first summer season was to open earlier – based on our booking demand, entry timings and capacity flow. In Colorado, ours is a crowd that rise early and get out and do things; we saw that in our data and had to respond. It made a significant difference for us in our operation.
Robert Bready
- VP Museum Operations,
U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Creating a gold standard experience

How Dexibit’s analytics enhanced the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum’s data journey.

It’s no surprise that Architectural Digest named the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum (USOPM) one of the most anticipated buildings globally in 2020. With visitor intelligence at the heart of its design, the USOPM has continued to put its community first in its mission of honoring the Olympic and Paralympic ideals and sharing its achievements with the world.

Built in collaboration with Gallagher & Associates, an internationally recognized museum planning and design firm, the USOPM is a 60,000 square foot museum located at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs. The museum was designed to welcome 350,000 visitors annually.

Initially built to be completed in time for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the museum is only 2.4 miles away from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. It is at this flagship training center that dreams are turned into reality for many Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. Here athletes dedicate themselves to their sport, pushing the bounds of human potential to the next level.

United States Olympic and Paralympic Building Design
United States Olympic and Paralympic Building Design

In that vein of boundary-pushing innovation, the intelligent design of the building has been inspired by contrapposto – an Italian term meaning “counterpose,” a stance in which a figure stands with their entire body weight supported over one straight leg and lets their arms fall in opposite directions.

In an unforeseen turn of events, the agility and philosophy of “counterposing” enabled the USOPM and Gallagher & Associates to get their project over the line during a pandemic. Their foresight to invest in industry-leading technology positioned the USOPM uniquely to tackle the unprecedented challenges of
opening amidst a pandemic. This included comprehensive location-based experiences using a technology called radio frequency identification (RFID), to provide visitor benefit while inspiring and informing decisions for the museum’s team.

Optimizing visitor flow, reducing bottlenecks and increasing visitation

The museum quickly discovered its local and tourist audiences are early risers, facing the challenges of capacity restrictions, queues and bottlenecks at the beginning of the day. These impacted visitor flow, requiring wait times and extra handling by visitor services. Through its data, the USOPM team isolated this problem to its previous opening time at 10.00 AM. Quick to respond to this insight, the museum moved to test opening an hour earlier – with great success. Now, the Museum sees approximately 10% of its visitation at the earlier opening time – spreading demand across the morning crowd.

Path analysis reveals visitor behavior

Via RFID, but with anonymized data to protect visitor privacy, the USOPM conducted heatmap, dwell time and path analysis for its building and various spaces within – testing their visitor experience design’s path hypothesis with actual visitor movement. This gave the team the ability to understand where visitors were engaging and how, remotely observing sometimes unexpected visitor behaviors and tweaking the visitor experience.

USOPM’s data sources include: ticketing, membership, RFID, footfall, WiFi, website, social, events calendar and weather.
Intelligent design through RFID

RFID works via smart tags which are tracked by a reader. For the USOPM, these form factors are a credential incorporated within the lanyard given to visitors to serve as their ticket. This is also linked to the visitor’s customer record. These tags are picked up when the visitor is nearby, by a series of sensors at points of interest throughout the museum’s galleries and other spaces (including on each of its digital interactives), helping to personalize the visitor’s experience while providing comprehensive visitor behavior data for insight. Via the Museum’s ‘Digital Locker’, visitors create avatars, inputting sports they are most interested in and are then recommended specific activities and content. 

RFID and visitation data informed insights at the museum ranging from general attendance monitoring to comprehensive capacity control and visitor heat map, trail route and dwell time analysis, helping the museum team and its partners at Gallagher & Associates to see their visitor experience designs come to life, while tweaking the museum’s operations – especially in response to COVID-19 restrictions.

Optimizing visitor flows via dwell time analysis

Particularly beneficial during the pandemic for tightly optimizing capacity and flow, the USOPM had real-time data on dwell time through the venue and its galleries, to analyze the amount of time visitors spend onsite and where. Dwell time tracking highlighted that on busier days, particularly weekends, dwell time was lower – prompting the museum team to investigate the impact of occupancy on the visitor experience.

One for the books

In their mission to become one of the most accessible museums in the United States, the USOPM and Gallagher & Associates can celebrate designing a venue with purpose and innovation at its forefront – one which has been resilient in the face of challenging circumstances. This museum deserves a gold medal for visitor experience and intelligence.

Download the USOPM data story pdf.

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WTF are NFTs?

WTF are NFTs?

Murray Thom, Cofounder of NFT start up Glorious and James Blackie, Director of Art, give us the download on everything we need to know about Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and their potential for visitor attractions – from art museums to stadiums. Combining their respective careers in music producing and art dealership, along with a who’s who leadership team, Glorious have burst onto the scene to create authentic digital masterpieces. Learn about the potential for brand, engagement, revenue, loyalty, access and more that this latest tech trend represents and what to watch out for in terms of security, equity and environmental impact.. 

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Angie: Hello and welcome to the Data Diaries, I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit. Today, we’ve got something a bit different, a bit special, a bit… glorious. We’re talking about NFTs or non fungible tokens, a name that sheds no light for those of us that are new to this… but digital assets of sorts, which exists in the digital universe, holding value and investment. They’re simultaneously a form of cryptocurrency and a form of art or collectibles, which is all… clear as mud. If you ask me, they are the latest – dare I say it – ‘hype in the digital world. Here today to give us the download and what it all means for the visitor attraction sector is NFT startup ‘Glorious’. We have the great Murray Thom and James Blackie. Welcome to the show!

Murray: It’s great to be here.

Angie: So let’s get the most important thing out of the way. First, is it cooler to say NFT or ‘nifties’?

Murray: Um, well, no! Nifty, of course, I believe is a trademark for another company. We call ourselves Glorious and we’re in the NFT business. So it’s way cooler for us if we go NFT!

Angie: I will stick to that one then. I’m going to level with you both. When I first heard about in NFTs, I had a bit of an eye roll moment. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to admit this publicly, but unlike Paris Hilton and Tiger Woods and whoever, I just haven’t been able to get into this whole blockchain and crypto thing.

And maybe it’s a bit of cynicism leftover from the GFC or I’m old fashioned, or there was a few sort of early misfires in the art world… I’m thinking, of course of Beeple, the artist that went from what, $100 to $69 million with a collection of digital art that was pretty crass and homophobic and racist. So when I saw the story about Glorious, it really caught my eye because of who was behind it. Not only as your team, as we would say here, world famous in New Zealand, but one of your co founders, rugby star Dan Carter is just plain old world world famous. And the superstar lineup of names you’ve got signed from Neil Finn to Lisa Reihanna, it’s beyond impressive. So what was the trigger for you all to come together in this new

Murray: I think we would all agree a hundred percent. And it was my friend Scott McCleaver, who was just an amazing guy. He’s global lead for digital innovation for PWC. He’s an absolute heavyweight, but to reinforce part of your introduction, he sent me a text and he goes, mate, what do you know about non fungible tokens?

And I’m reading this text, and I’m thinking I have no idea what your predictive [SMS] meant to say, but I’m sure it doesn’t mean to say that. And of course that was only back in February or March, which is probably a lifetime ago in the tech world, but my interest could not have been less. And to again, reinforce what you’re saying. When I looked at the world of NFTs, I think what I saw was that they all had in common was that they were overpriced and uninspiring. They had all that in common and my interest was close to zero in anything to do with it.

The moment of change came for me when I understood… a traditional artist, a painter, , of something that you’d hang on your wall, would take their work to a gallery. And let’s say, sell the work for $50,000 and they would get a portion and the gallery would get a portion. And then let’s say, let’s say that it on sold for a $100k and then it on sold for $200k, the artist only, ever profited from the very first sale.

When I appreciated that digital art, on the blockchain, was a continuing revenue source for the artists for every recurring sale… That moment, Angie, I thought, okay, there’s something really quite a significant going on here. And that was my way into the business. And that remains as it were, you know, really what I’m all about.

I was the person that named the company, ‘Glorious’, because it said everything about who we were, who we were going to partner with and our hopes for the future. And our byline, I’ll just finish with this, is ‘authentic digital masterpieces’. In a world of, or on a platform of hype, if we were world class content, that would always endure and it would always have value.

Angie: James, I think I’m going to have to ask maybe if we can back the truck up a bit… WTF is a NFT? Can you explain it to me like you would with your grandma, and tell me about what’s different about Glorious’ offering?

James: Well, to explain it to a more octogenarian audience, is that if an artwork is magnificent enough that the public wants a memory of it, if you go and visit a museum and you see it, and you want to remember it at home, you buy a poster print, right? And you take that home and you might frame it. And that creates for you a visual memory of that original, in your home. And the poster’s role is to up the ‘mana’ [life force] of the original artwork.

Now, as an aside, the sale of those poster prints, they create an income stream for the artist or the institution that licensed it. But the problem with poster prints is the quality is low, right? The, the ink will fade, the paper’s full of acid and they’re valueless. As soon as you’ve taken them out of the shop, they’re pretty much valueless.

So NFT s are an invention that has allowed digital images of masterpieces or an artist’s original work to be properly controlled, editioned, authenticated. And that means the replication can not only become digital and therefore globally accessible, it doesn’t matter where the artist is geographically… they can also make it scarce by limiting the addition of the digital copies. And therefore that can carry value. Right? So if the digital copy has author authenticity and provenance, then it can carry value. With the poster print, and any other digital copy of an artwork like Google images or wherever you find it, it can’t. So it makes the possibilities for NFTs endless for major institutions around the world. A lot of them have been closed because of COVID and if they’re selling NFTs of artworks, they’re creating an income stream. But the potential is huge for educational tools, or for people who can’t travel, or people who want to have the experience of standing in front of an artwork and can’t get it.

Angie: I quite like this comparison to the poster print, because merch is something we can all relate to in the sector. And I’ve always loved the idea that it’s a way of making the experience accessible and allowing visitors to take a bit of the visit home with them. So thinking about this visitor attractions world, the applications, it seems for digital are fairly straightforward for art museums.

I know one of our customers, ICA Miami, just made their first acquisition. The British Museum’s selling a couple of hundred Hokusai works in tandem with an exhibition and complete ironically, with a physical pop-up store. But I take it that there’s more than just art in this industry here. I’m thinking of zoos and the Bored Ape Yacht Club or aquariums and the Pudgy Penguins NFTs and then there’s theme parks and film studios and halls of fame and the sports stadiums. What is the potential here for wider visitor attractions?

James: I think the thing that NFTs really provide for anything – for a zoo, an aquarium, a library, is – it’s about connection. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Glorious artwork.

But the thing that really differentiates Glorious from a lot of other NFT platforms is that everything that we are going to make will be a Glorious artwork on a screen. It will look stunning. NFT is actually a term that relates to the smart contract behind these entities that allows amazing things to happen. You can authenticate and you can limit the addition, but you can also open connections between your fans… and connectivity is massive. And that’s where I think potentially the majority of the power of NFTs lies. That if you have a zoo or an aquarium or a stadium if you have an NFT of a stadium, you might be able to enable first tickets of any concert that’s going on show there or sporting fixture. If it’s a zoo, you might invite in people who hold your NFT to see an unveiling of a new animal. A lot of people contribute to these local institutions. People donate money to keep their local zoo alive. But if you are creating an NFT, then you have that connection.

You’re still providing the fiscal support. And you know that money has gone straight to them, but they then have a direct conduit of communication back to you to make you feel properly connected to the institution that you’re trying to support. And that’s incredibly powerful.

Murray: And just adding to that, what James is saying, you know, like take a zoo, you know, if I’ve got an NFT for a zoo, James was right, I’m supporting the institution financially. But maybe your NFT holders can get in half an hour earlier or stay half an hour later. In other words, there’s all manner of rights and privileges that can be added or sold with the NFT. Even take a work of art you might buy a digital work about and then find that you can go to a gallery and you’ll have a professor speaking on the subject. I love all the rights that go in and around the NFT, in addition to the actual digital assets.

Angie: I love this connection to membership and loyalty because that’s a real focus for so much of our industry. Right now it’s recurring revenue, it’s support from membership, which has held so many venues through closure when their revenue otherwise disappeared. And so I can understand it from the visitor’s perspective of the member’s perspective.

Murray, in a world where anyone can download or copy digital assets. What is the point of ownership? Is it just flex?

Murray: I think there’s an element of flex. There’s no two ways about that, but I think that if you take a work about that’s near and dear to you, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you know, I’ve already got my eye on two or three editions that Glorious is going to be coming out with. I’ve got physical art all over my walls at home. I haven’t got room for another piece of art. What I love about the digital art is that it’s going to go on a screen.

If you think about our screens all around the world, we’ve got black television screens lying dormant in the corner, right until TV comes on and what digital art does, it now it enables you to put something compelling in some way that you’ve never had it before. And not only can I have a piece of digital art, but then the following day, I can change it to another piece of digital art that I own, as opposed to knocking holes in walls and trying to shift my art. James has probably spent his whole life doing that also. I’ve got something, as James said before, that is actually authenticated by the artist, it’s on the blockchain. Really the blockchain is all about a digital ledger. It’s as simple as that. For my part, I’m very keen to purchase something that is an original, if you will. And own it. We’ve all got different tastes. People might buy this and sell it. I don’t know that I’ve ever sold a piece of art in my entire life. So I’m probably unlikely to sell my digital art, which probably isn’t good for the Glorious business model, but I’m very energized about this.

Angie: And James, can you connect an NFT to a real world object? And what does that mean? If that object is held and the permanent collection of say a museum, and it’s not going anywhere?

James: That is happening all around the world. In the last month – the Uffizi in Florence, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the British Museum, as you said, all releasing NFTs of their masterpieces and those masterpieces aren’t leaving the walls. And in fact, in some cases like the Hermitage did a DaVinci, Giorgione, Kandinsky, van Gogh. And they released those five NFTs, but they actually released them as an edition of two and the Hermitage retained the second edition.

So they’re keeping the original artwork on the wall and there’s one NFT sold and one edition kept in the museum, but as you said, the Hokusais and the British Museum, they might do an edition of 1,000 or 10,000. So you can absolutely collect an NFT of an original artwork and you’re not buying the artwork and it’s very different.

In the bricks and mortar art world, there’s, there’s the ability to fractionalize paintings. And it means you can buy like, a square millimeter of a Picasso or a Jean Michel Basquiat. You know that you own a square millimeter, but you’re never going to get your hands on the painting because you only own that small amount. That painting is kept on a store in the dark somewhere in New York, in a secure warehouse, and then five years down the track, they sell it and you make your money because the value of artwork’s gone up. Now to me that’s base kind of speculation. That’s not, it’s not particularly attractive. It doesn’t have the beauty and wonder that comes with collecting art. But if you buy an NFT of a masterpiece, you have that NFT and an authenticated copy on your screen at home that you get to enjoy. And you know, that the purchase of that NFT has gone to support the museum that houses the original.

And then as, as Murray was saying before, you can have all these kickbacks from the museum, you might get in an hour earlier and an hour of private time in a major museum like that is priceless to people who want to own an original Rembrandt or a NFT or DaVinci.

Angie: So it’s not just the original that ownership applies to, you can create editions too? What are the ethical or legal aspects to think about around that?

James: I think some of the big ones are things like royalties, whether the royalty still applies, if the artist is still alive or has recently died, then royalties last, depending on your country, around the 50 year mark. For a lot of the artists that we are representing through Glorious that are still practicing artists, they will retain the copyright themselves.

And as Murray said, every time it sells, they’ll get the money back on the secondary market artists, resale royalty type scheme. But when it comes to an institution, then you want to know whether the copy, the NFT that you have of their masterpiece is authenticated properly by the institution that houses that masterpiece.

And so it’s up to you as a collector to go and make sure that if you’re looking at buying a DaVinci NFT to make sure that it’s actually come from a reputable place. If it’s coming from the Uffizi and the contract that you’re buying says Uffizi gallery and you know therefore it’s the right one because everywhere in the art world, there’s the opportunity to fall into the pitfalls of it. And you still have to have your wits about you. But the authentication system of it means they can’t be forged or faked. It’s just making sure you know what you’re buying and you buy from a reputable platform. Part of what Glorious is, is the, is the promise of quality and that, you know, that if you’re buying anything through Glorious through our app or through our platform or by any of our represented artists or content creators, then you’re getting quality and that NFT will retain value. It’s obviously unknown what the valuable will be. And particularly with the examples we’ve seen around the world of crypto punks skyrocketing, that’s an unknown and that’s to be found down the track, but it’s on the head of the buyer to make sure that what you’re buying in and buy from an authentic and valued platform.

Angie: To come back to your point around copyright and your original parallel around merch, it’s not dissimilar to an art museum creating kitchen towels off an art work or the poster to take home. What would selling these rights, give to this owner for something that’s say held by a museum? What are the sorts of ramifications that should be thought through?

James: Well they’re not selling reproduction rights? As an NFT holder, you generally have the right to enjoy, view, display your NFT. And that’s pretty much it. Just like in the bricks and mortar art world, if you replicate something, if you buy a painting, you generally don’t own the copyright, 99% of the time, you don’t buy the copyright with the artwork that you’ve purchased.

So if you replicate it with a digital camera and turn it into a very high risk poster print, and start selling them, then your heads on the block. That’s a breach of copyright and it’s the same with NFTs. You are entitled to view them and enjoy them, but you’re not allowed to replicate them.

And they’re not the easiest things to replicate because those smart contracts are unbeatable when it comes to sell. Like a lot of people have said to me, well, why would I have an NFT? If I could just find a, a high res image of the same painting and just put that on my screen. And that’s fine. And I hope you do, because if I own the NFT and you’ve got a Google image of that on your screen, then you’re elevating the ‘mana’ [power] of the NFT and the original. So you’re helping with the whole fame generation of the originals of the authenticated copies. And at the time that you and I come to sell, if I own the NFT and you have a Google image, then that’s when you find out one is valuable and one is not.

Angie: We’ve touched a little on this already from a loyalty perspective, but what’s the benefits for the visitor attraction? Is it purely revenue or are there other business benefits or even academic benefits? I’m thinking particularly here for our cultural institutions. Should we be thinking about things like brand innovation or collections, accessibility, social media engagement, connecting with non-traditional audiences? What does that big picture look like?

Murray: Actually, everything you just said there, Angie. Whilst it’s got a fantastic, potentially tremendous revenue streams from the NFTs… The engagement with members and fans is extraordinary because you can add as many.

You mentioned Dan Carter back in your intro, Angie, you know, the famous All Black [New Zealand national rugby team]. Some NFT holders might be able to go to a kicking session with them. That in itself is priceless. So there’s all manner of fan engagement that can actually be part of the NFT. Having access to the artists, having the artists maybe be able to communicate with, let’s say, 100 NFT holders or a 1,000 NFT holders, you’re really part of a community. Not a Facebook community, which is endless, or an Instagram community, but a community that the artist is actually engaging with. I think that’s actually phenomenal.

James: And just to add to that, there’s a whole new generation that’s coming through in the way of audiences. Most of my examples are art because I’m an art dealer, but museums are finding that their audience is aging. The average age is going up and NFTs are a way to create a new audience globally that aren’t actually walking through the doors of the institution and standing in front of paintings, but they do want to be involved. And to extrapolate that out, then it might not be that people want to go and visit a zoo. I might want to own a New York Zoo NFT, but I can’t visit the New York Zoo. Not at least because of COVID, but because there’s a fair amount of water between me and there. But I have that connection and I might want to buy an NFT of an animal there. And you’re creating a support network around the world of a youthful audience that’s coming through, that the institution might not be getting physically.

Murray: In addition to that Angie, we’re dealing with… I’ve been in the music industry my entire career and we’re dealing with a lot of artists. And you might buy their NFT, you might have the opportunity to go to a rehearsal. These things are so priceless.

You know, I’ve been to many rehearsals over my career. All of them are fascinating. That’s never been able to happen before. That was always… if you’re going to go to rehearsal, it was free. You might have, back in the eighties, won a radio promo or something like that. But this is now part of the many benefits that you’ll get as being an NFT holder for that particular artist.

Angie: And I like, to that point, that you were making. In the age where we can’t travel so readily, of connecting audiences that are outside local demographics. So say I’m a visitor attraction and I’ve decided to go ahead and do this. What would I need to think about and do in order to pull off an NFT offering? And what kind of money are we talking about?

Murray: Glorious Digital, which is the company that we represent, we’re saying you won’t need any money. We’ll take care of that for you. We are an end to end NFT organization. From playing in the creative, we will help your people actually plan their creative for starters. So people don’t feel that they have to come up with that. We’ve got a whole team of really clever people that would be happy to take the brief and then engage with the customer to come up with something completely compelling so that it’s not a cost thing. But then it’s a matter of what benefits would you like to add to this. Take the example of the zoo, maybe I could take my kids to actually get into the enclosure and feed some animals, all that sort of thing. So to answer your question specifically, anybody that’s got a public property, Glorious Digital can help them come up with their NFT offering..

Angie: And what’s the sort of income potential that we’re talking about?

Murray: That is completely impossible to answer. You mentioned Beeple in your introduction was $69 million, but you might find that, that somebody wants to do in an NFT and they want to charge $5 for it. And they want to sell 20,000 or 100,000. There’s all these levels with NFTs. In other words, you might take the old gold, silver and platinum. Your platinum NFT might be 100, the gold NFT, that might be 1,000, but the silver, there might be 10,000. Each one will have different benefits to go with them. So that’s actually monetizing. It is actually quite exciting when you look at that.

Angie: I was really curious when I was thinking back to when VR/AR came along in the market, there were a few cases of private companies, profiteering or operating in an unendorsed way from cultural institutions. They were selling third party tours, on a museum without actually the museum’s permission or, or engagement in that. I can think of one in particular, in Boston. Is there a risk that somebody might try create something on top of a museum’s collection and then start trading without the institution’s permission?

James: Yes.

Murray: Yeah. I think piracy is always going to be with us in any industry, but as James said before, it all comes back to provenance, that’s the advantage that the blockchain and the smart contract has. You can track it, exactly who has given permission for this work. Blockchain gives far more security from a policy point of view than we’ve ever seen through any other platform.

James: That’s absolutely right. There have been instances where a famous public figure has walked past somebody with a high spec digital camera in a crowd and they’ve taken a photo and then they’ve looked to create an NFT saying that it’s an NFT of that character. And it is because that person was out in public, the photograph was taken, all of that’s perfectly legal. And they’ve said that it is an NFT of that personality, but it’s not endorsed by that.

So you still need to go in and check out when you’re buying, where you’re buying it from and who’s selling it. And all of those things are made crystal clear – the blockchain is pretty much unforgeable. And that’s why $2.38 trillion now trades on the blockchain because it’s a very difficult authentication device.

Murray: And also the thing is with Glorious, we know what business we’re in. It’s very clear to us, authentic digital masterpieces. We are going to create quality content with quality partners. So the place that we sit in this new environment is a very safe place for us. We’re going to be continuing to deal with the world’s very best content

Angie: It’s one of those things, isn’t it? Where you’ve sort of got to be and to have your authentic assets represented. Otherwise the world gets away on us all.

Murray: But, Angie, what an incredible opportunity this is for opening up a revenue for opening up assets, which haven’t been seen widely. It’s actually mind blowing the opportunities that are coming out of this. It’s just incredibly exciting.

Angie: James, maybe this is a question for you. Does digital art really exist forever? I’ve got CDs that I can’t play in my house. Maybe even a mixed tape too, if I’m being honest and there’s some file formats from even a few years back that I can’t open up on my computer.

James: This is a really cool one. I think any artwork that’s ever created, it starts deteriorating immediately. There’s all sorts of factors that apply. If it’s a tangible piece of art, you’ve got UV problems or the way moisture might affect it. If you’re hanging on your wall, then you should obviously immediately install a sprinkler system so that it can’t possibly get hurt in a fire, except that the sprinkler will probably ruin it.

So, what does last forever? I think with digital artworks, to compare it to your CDs, the really exciting thing about NFT is as the biggest problem you’re going to have is your TV screen or your device that you’re viewing it on. It’s going to have that sort of inbuilt essence that makes it die. But the NFT won’t. To the extent that you can… we had an example where we were looking at an NFT…. that could be that all our NFTs are looking at being made at 8K. And so it’s all Glorious NFTs so that the quality is staggering. But what if we could only get one made at 2K? You could potentially, although we won’t do it this, but you could release it and then allow an upgrade. And so if you’re NFT pops up in your digital library, you can have an upgrade option. And when it’s really at 4K or 8K, then it could upgrade. So equally, if there was anything that ever went wrong, you can have an update function for the digital entity that makes it about as safe as any artwork’s ever been, because you’re not susceptible to any climactic factors you’re susceptible to. It’s your digital wallet and it’s cloud based, it’s pretty safe.

Angie: Speaking of safety, there has been a few stories and the news of crypto heists lately, is there any security risk within this?

James: These are a digital asset that when you download them, they appear in your wallet essentially. Now those things are, again, they’re as safe as can be imagined by being authenticated on the blockchain. There have certainly been cases of crypto heists and they still haven’t been explained, which is concerning, but it’s still considerably more rare than money being stolen. There’s always going to be some risk to anything that’s ever traded, but NFTs are digital assets that are kept in your wallet. As long as you keep your wallet safe as you would with your cash and your own wallet, don’t let it out of your sight. Don’t let anyone else into it. Then you’re in a pretty safe world.

Angie: What about diversity, equity and inclusion? This has been a huge focus for our sector, particularly in the past few years. What’s your take on this both from a buyer’s and a seller’s perspective, is it going to improve DEI initiatives or do the opposite? What sorts of things should we be careful with around that?

James: I’m really excited about this angle. We’re in New Zealand, New Zealand is in a far-flung corner of the world and we’re a long way from being connected with a lot of what is going on around the world with these voices that you hear through news filters and NFTs are an opportunity for a content to create something that they firmly believe in to put it out to the world.

And there can be followers on the other side of the globe and it allows those voices to be heard instantly, clearly. They can be directly supported by this fan base. And it has a chance for diversity equity and inclusion, to be much more widely considered around the world.

Some of our artists are creating some amazing statements in their artworks. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the audiences are going to pop up, because I’ve always been slightly frustrated being an art dealer in an island nation and watching how the art world operates in Europe, where border borders almost dissolve. Because collectors are quite happy to drive a couple of hours from France to Switzerland to see a new artist’s work, but it’s a bit hard to drive from Australia to New Zealand. And so they help the shrinking of the world to get those messages more clearly delivered directly from the artist and for those audiences to be created.

Angie: The last one for you, what is the stance on the environmental issues of crypto? Is it all fun and games until you check your cabin footprint?

Murray: We’ve all done a bit of a masterclass on this over the last few months. Bitcoin, people talk about that, a Bitcoin is the same as keeping the Switzerland lights on for a weekend, what I’ve learned.

And what is the truth is that there’s two things. One is proof of work and one is proof of stake. So Bitcoin has proof of work, very highly in energy inefficient. We are proof of stake. So the Glorious NFTs are proof of stake. I believe it’s pretty much the same as streaming a song on Spotify. It’s almost like neither here nor there from a power usage point of view.

So, proof of work and proof of stake are the two things that I believe that you really need to know about to have this conversation. And, and we believe that Glorious Digital is very energy efficient.

Angie: Wow. So I think I finally understand this whole space and I’ve got you both to thank for it.

Thank you so much, Murray and James, for today, it has been, in a word, glorious.

Murray: Thanks for having us.

James: Thank you very much.

Creating Successful Exhibitions and Events

Creating Successful Exhibitions and Events

Ensure your strategic planning leads to a successful launch and delivery

Based on the successful tactics of our customers, this playbook contains winning strategies for fulfilling programs. 

Explore key metrics to measure exhibitions and events. Continuously plan, execute and evaluate for engaging and meaningful programs for your visitors.

What's inside:

With this playbook, lead your team to:

  • Develop a best practice model for tracking exhibition or event timeline
  • Align with your visitors’ attendance behavior pattern to meet them where they are in the cycle
  • Uncover what leads to optimizing visitation uplift  
  • Target improvements for enhanced exhibitions outcomes

Discover how to optimize your exhibitions and events:

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Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) di…

The ammunition for blockbuster exhibitions

The argument against special exhibitions draws upon figures from limited studies taken out…

Want to learn more about Dexibit?

Talk to one of our team to hear more about predicting and analyzing visitor behavior for retail revenue

Field Museum

Field Museum

Field Museum was established in 1921 and is located on Chicago's iconic Lake Michigan shore.

Since opening the Museum in 1894, their collection has grown to nearly 40 million artifacts and specimens. The breadth of their mission has expanded, too. They continue to research the objects in our collections, as well as document previously unknown species, conserve ecosystems in their backyard and across the globe, educate budding scientists, invite cross-cultural conversation, and more—all to ensure that our planet thrives for generations to come. Field Museum sees over 1.35 million visitors a year.

Dexibit continues to impress us with their hunger to understand our business and our data so that we can make the best, data informed, decisions. The constant development of new, and iteration of reports, visualizations, dashboards and insights have enabled us to make information more widely and, importantly, easily available to our teams leading to more inclusive discussion and better decisions.
Rob Zschernitz
- Chief Technology Officer,
The Field Museum

Want to learn more about Dexibit?

Talk to one of our team to hear more about bringing big data analytics to your visitor attraction

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Discover industry leading resources for visitor attractions professionals

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Platforms for visitor superpowers with Sebastian Chan

Platforms for visitor superpowers with Sebastian Chan

Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) discusses the evolution of how we think about visitor experience in experiential spaces, going beyond traditional engagement to cross creative and infrastructural elements. Seb covers ACMI’s redevelopment, a unique approach to staff restructure, establishing the museum as a platform and its technologies including the Experience Operating System (xOS) and the Lens: the ingredients which set the ACMI team to make the most of a terrible opportunity in coping with the pandemic.

Show notes

For more on the Lens, visit

A pavlova recipe courtesy Seb’s Mum 

Watch for more on The Lens at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) that Seb discusses in this episode.


Angie: Hello, and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit and here with us today, we have Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Center for the Moving Image, a big welcome to Seb.

But before we start, I’m going to get this out there. You could be forgiven for assuming that Seb is Australian: he’s based in Melbourne, he serves as the Adjunct Professor at the School of Media and Communications at the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT plus he’s on the board of the National Communications Museum in Melbourne and is the national president of the Australian Museums and Galleries Association. And I should add outside of Australia, also an advisory board member of Art Science Museum in Singapore, too.

And many of our listeners will be familiar with Seb’s earlier digital transformation work at the Powerhouse in Sydney. And of course, between Sydney and Melbourne, he then jetted to New York to lead the digital renewal and transformation of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, including the very well known ‘pen’ experience. But Seb is actually a kiwi like me from New Zealand and we New Zealanders are very sensitive about things that are mistakenly claimed as Australian, like Crowded House and Russell Crowe and Pavlova. So I just needed to get the record on that straight first.

So Seb, you pretty much invented the Chief Experience Officer or the CXO role for visitor attractions. And so many people have now followed in your footsteps, especially in this era of the experience economy. What trends in the sector brought about that need on the leadership team and how has the role evolved for you in the years?

Seb: Yeah, it’s interesting. When my role was called the CXO role, it was really an acknowledgement that museums and galleries were primarily experiential spaces. That now sounds ridiculous that we didn’t think they were before, but there was a moment I think when we were a little bit less sure about that, strangely enough.

And I think that sort of mid the early 2010s and certainly subsequent to 2015, it’s very rare to find senior museum people or boards that don’t feel that museum and gallery experiences are fully experiential things. Obviously we’ve got a long way to go with that in what that actually means in the production and the processes and your end curation.

But I think we were pretty clear. We operate as part of an experience economy and we don’t just need to follow in that sense too. The other thing that’s changed perhaps in my role, particularly, we did a restructure here in 2019 as a part of preparing to reopen, this was pre COVID. And that, restructure was a ground up restructure where the staff designed and voted for a new organizational structure. And it was interesting in that my role now pulls in a lot more teams than it did previously in that experiencing engagement division of the museum is one of the major divisions of the museum now.

And that means, the CXO role touches more of that visitor journey and more of the interactions visitors have, and also staff have with each other. And so that experience extends beyond the outward facing, but actually more seriously acknowledges the inward facing and the new opportunities that that brings. And that’s interaction, perhaps the more obvious end of things, around brand and communications.

Angie: I’m interested in coming back to this restructure a little bit later in our conversation, because it’s a fascinating thing what you’re doing with the team there, but I’ve never really thought about it like that, how you talk about this new age of the experience experiential space. I’ve certainly heard the argument played out: ‘are we here first for the collection or the visitor’, but I’ve never really had that takeaway that you’ve shone a light on for me about this shift and in the leadership space of visitor attractions and museums of there being a time when, regardless of which one of those things comes first, we even didn’t consider the experience of the space.

Seb: Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it? I think part of the sort of realization and the way particularly museums and galleries have seen themselves as part of cities and have had stronger relationships with city governments, and then other, other levels of government too, and planning and urban planning and that sort of thing. Being part of the revitalization of cities, the whole ‘Bilbao effect’ and all of that was happening for years, decades, in fact. The experience economy phrase comes out of the 1990s, but at some point that that flipped over into the way museums work with curation and collections to, and perhaps it dates back to the period when there was that switch from visitors not being allowed to take photos in museums, and then suddenly they are, maybe it does date to really the birth of mobile and smartphones in museums that really seals the deal. I often also think in other media, the way that fan cultures and audience participation is now built into the way major film, feature, feature films, and other ‘IP properties’, for want of a better word, are designed and made now. So, you can sort of draw a line, I guess, between the pre fan designed media and the post fan designed media. If we think about Marvel films, the way that they’re almost structured to engage fans beyond the moment, you’re actually watching the film itself, the content of the film is a small part of your engagement with that, in their world, the Marvel cinematic universe, which includes all that stuff around the fans and the stories fans tell to each other and share and all of those things. That was kind of not a thing, but it’s hard to imagine that, it’s a bit like it’s very hard to imagine the world before Wikipedia or the world before Google, or even sadly, a world without capitalism.

Angie: And I know this sort of cultural equivalent of fandom and how the experience plays into that, before, during, and after the visit to a physical venue, plays a really big into your philosophy around what it means to have an experience in a museum. But I’m glad you mentioned this trigger around digital and smartphones for this change of where we are now.

How do you actually see the CXO role itself fitting with the CDO or the Chief Digital Officer role we saw so much attention to emerging in the years prior?

Seb: Yeah. It’s interesting question. I think the CDO and the CXO in many ways merged, because digital is no longer as a separate thing, digital is part of experience and it’s part of the mission and purpose. I think the fading out of the CDO role that sort of occurred around, I guess, between 2013 to 2017, was really an acknowledgement that there isn’t a museum experience, there isn’t a museum, without digital, in any way. And you know, in my group, we have the ICT and the infrastructure side of things in my remit as well.

It’s interesting, the different ways we have discussions inside the institution and outside the institution in the CEO digital mentoring program that we’re running in Australia, this sort of sense around digital having an infrastructural element to it, but also a creative capacity element to it as well, alongside the notions of digital literacy and digital fluency. The infrastructural side, much as the, the materiality of IT, hasn’t gone away. There’s still rare earth metals. There are still, you know, the cloud as a series of server farms in warehouses in cheap real estate parts of the world. You know, it’s all that sort of stuff. There are pipes, there are cables, there are physical things that materiality, I think it’s starting to come back and we’re starting to think about the interplay between what museums and galleries and make possible as being constrained a little by that material. And needing staff, technically savvy staff who are aware of what that materiality means infrastructurally, but also then also staff who can see it in terms of capability and possibility in terms of experience.

And that that’s something that the CDO role, I guess, as emerging out of a CIO, role: the CIO was all the info, the hard IT side of things. The CDO was sort of a softer version of that. The CXO tries to marry those two. Often I do see a lot of CXO roles, newish CXO roles, sort of foregoing that in that infrastructural side, even though it probably plays a more significant part now than ever before. And certainly technical literacies haven’t gone away. They’re very important, even more so now with machine learning, actually understanding the technologies is a key part of being competent in the emerging world.

Angie: I was going to ask this question a little bit later on, but we keep on coming back to the cross-functional nature of your team and the necessity of that for the CXO role to be successful. And I know at ACMI, in addition to going through a redevelopment these past few years, it also underwent a simultaneous, bottom up staff led restructure that the staff themselves had voted for, which sounds very unique. And essentially from what I understand adopting this notion of cross-functional teams. So what has that been like?

Seb: Yeah, it was exciting and challenging. Katrina Sedgwick, our CEO and Director instigated that change. It was really, I think her way of acknowledging that the institution before redevelopment and after reopening were going to be different. And the staff led restructure was a way of signalling that and buying in ownership amongst the staff of ‘this is a new institution now, how do we need to operate it?’ So staff formed groups and came up with different models for executives and teams, and the like, and then proposed a series that were then voted on. And then that was taken to the executive and the board and with some tweaks, implemented. But it was really a way of signaling change and signaling that, we’d been through physical change and for some of us, programmatic changes for the curatorial staff, and those who work deep deeply with the renewal project, this programmatic change. And obviously alongside that, the technological shifts too. But then opening the building was bringing out the lived reality to all the stuff. That it was going to be a different museum. And it wasn’t a different museum that was static, but it was a museum that was starting with new opportunities to do different things that people who worked on the renewal hadn’t imagined, but we’re setting the stage for that to be possible.

If that makes sense. So it was sort of like birthing a new world. And then rather than that being seen as a static thing; as some something that needed people to buy into and then further develop. Which I think was really exciting and it has been really exciting. It’s helped a lot of the subsequent process change changes that we’re still working through since launch, with some of the old practices, systems and processes, ways of doing things, have become clear that they’ve needed to adjust both as a result of the new building and new opportunities that brings and the more diverse audiences we were attracting and the different needs they bring.

But also then also with COVID, we’ve been able to use this moment of change to work comparatively well with the challenges of the pandemic. But I think for us, we’re in a rather privileged and unique base where we’re already going through that change process anyway. We were already closed. And so it was about adjusting and making the most of a terrible opportunity.

Angie: We’ve certainly noticed ourselves an almost organic move to more agility, more urgency, in the way that a lot of cultural institutions in particular working at the moment. You mentioned changes to your practices and processes in there. How has that cross-functional nature in adopting agile and so forth changed the practicalities of how the ACMI team approached things like a new exhibition versus what you would see a traditional museum doing?

Seb: Well, we haven’t adopted it across everything. I would make clear that we have, we still have a mix of different practices and processes. We have a new project management framework that has really only just begun. We’ve been working on this for quite a while with one of our university partners, which again, you know, it was about understanding that not everything can change at once, but sometimes what you arrive at requires further change and more things come into play there. Certainly as we’ve come to learn the building and its affordances, that’s become more clear. I guess the other, you know, we have a lot of legacy systems, I’m talking, talking about collections management, I’m talking about ticketing systems, those systems take a long time to change. And in many cases, it’s about how you work with them rather than what the systems actually are. So again, it’s been about shifting to a model. And I think the new organizational structure, it’s not really new since 2019, but the 2019 to now structure has more transparency across processes.

So the cross functional piece of the institution requires cross functional workings to be visible to all. And so, so certainly transparency has been key in that. And, you know, we used Slack and Trello and Confluence to show more things to more teams, if they’re curious, and certainly across the experience in engagement group, which is now really large, there’s lots of staff and lots of managers in that group, the cross-functional nature is supported by our systems rather than the systems getting in the way of that.

Angie: For our listeners out there, ACMI is about film games, TV, digital culture, and you’ve been undergoing a massive redevelopment in these past few years. The museum shut its doors in 2019 and reopened in 2021, really fortunate timing and in a way, given what the world was going through in 2020, albeit that we’re sadly still in lockdown in Australia with the Delta outbreak. How has the essence of the visitor experience atACMI shifted with both the redevelopment and then the pandemic, on top?

Seb: We were designing from the very beginning in the very early stage of the master planning for that redevelopment project, $40 million redevelopment: architectural, technological, and programmatic slash curatorial that, it was very much about creating the tools and the opportunities for a museum that does things, particularly film, TV, games, digital culture – we now say screen culture. Those are all screens. Screen culture is a field that is not exclusive to the museum, like in that the visitors b ring a lot of their own knowledge and have a lot of opportunities to both create and consume and participate in screen culture when they go home, which is quite different to a museum of fine arts.

Obviously it has things that you can’t experience at home. We have a museum of everything that you can and do experience at home. And in many ways, the purpose of the visit is to expose you to other things. And other ways of looking at, listening, watching, and playing things you are familiar with and perhaps things you are not familiar with.

So it’s that sort of sense of change, changing people’s perception that they then take away with them as well. So, in the technological side of the visitor experience, this was about building tools for that in a gallery experience, to extend into people’s homes. People get this thing, we call the Lens: a recyclable, take home device that they can go around their galleries and collect things as they move through. And then take home to watch at home later on various streaming platforms or on their PlayStation or other gaming platforms as well. Super exciting. And that in some ways creates a visitor experience, that’s quite interesting, but it also creates a curatorial experience that’s that’s interesting too, because allows the curators to connect the things that they have access to through our collection or through loans in our galleries to things that they don’t have, that they can point people to when they get home- they can connect TV and films and games to other things that the museum would never ever show, but has an interest in. In the early days, I would often talk about it gives the museum the opportunity to curate the world of screen culture, which I think is really interesting and exciting as an opportunity to do.

The second side of that was with the pandemic, obviously our reopening was delayed. We opened in February 2021 with the gallery experience and all of this. But before that, we launched a reboot of the main themes of the major ongoing exhibition we have, ‘Story of the Moving Image’, as a digital magazine experience with videos embedded and all sorts of stuff that really zoom down on the major curatorial stories of the exhibitions and programming.

We also launched Gallery Five, which is a web gallery for net art, which are new commissions predominantly that we’re doing now as well. And a thing called Cinema Three. So we have two physical cinema in our building, but Cinema Three is an online pay per view, rental streaming service, which is great too. And that’s allowed not only us to continue our programming, but also because the museum hosts film festivals for various other community groups and others, from human rights film festival, the environmental, the queer film festival, to the Japanese film festival and many, many others, that Cinema Three platform is offered to those festival clients for them to use, which again, allows them to do things that they couldn’t do if they were just using our physical cinema. So that allows them to have a film festival on our platform that actually reaches all of Australia potentially, which is very, very different when you’re thinking about that from a programming perspective, a festival within a building, within Melbourne itself, where the audience is primarily Melbourne, Melbourne people. So again, using the opportunities of the museum to end the infrastructure of the museum as a community platform.

That’s been really exciting, continuing to grow in ways I don’t think we had suspected we would do as quickly prior to COVID.

Angie: I certainly enjoyed a lot of screen culture during my lockdown. I’m going to have to check out this Cinema Three to get me through the last bit, but this is a really fascinating thing to me that as a cultural institution, this isn’t just a program, this is a platform that you’re enabling these partners to deliver new experiences to their communities.

Seb: I think that is the role of infrastructure projects. That was always the role with the redevelopment of the museum was to use that capital investment to create new opportunities, not just for ourselves, but for others, to our communities that we work and serve, artists that we work with and other creative, practitioners too, but also in a digital sense that we can provide other supports. We are a museum of screen culture. We have skin in the game and we have stakes in that too. And so we need to be, to think beyond just the venue as both the physical and digital space. What does that enable? It creates an enabling museum, which I think is very important, particularly in increasingly fractious times.

Right back to the very early days of the master planning, which we did with David Hebblethwaite, a New Zealand based museum designer. David had this beautiful phrase of ‘visitor chemistry’ and he would describe that as really great museum experiences where visitor chemistry is created and that allows people from different families or cultural groups visiting a museum to talk to each other when they don’t know each other. And I just felt that that really encapsulated what a public museum should should be doing is creating those spaces where people talk to each other. That’s something, in these difficult political times, and economic times, we need more spaces where that’s possible, and they need to be designed to enable that rather than designed without trying to do that.

Angie: And speaking of that early advice, I really enjoyed one of your recent blog articles. You mentioned some words from, was it Elaine Gurian, on operating models for new or refurbished venues, which was ‘always design for three levels of visitation: extremely busy, busy, and almost empty’. You referred to that as ‘fallow periods that are part of every cultural institutions operating reality’. How did you achieve that? And how has that come to fruition in these days of lockdowns and reopenings?

Seb: Elaine said that to me when I was still at the Powerhouse Museum. Elaine spent most of her career building and reopening and launching museums. She had done the NMAI for the Smithsonian the Native American museum there. It’s been such an important voice in the museum community. I always thought it was really interesting, this sort of challenge of designing for the very busy days, but then the reality that a lot of days there’s no one there. There’s always a time, maybe it’s Tuesday at 10:00 AM, when the galleries are super quiet and if they don’t work well, then it’s not a success. Similarly, if a visitor visits when it’s really busy, how are you going to manage that?

For us, we’ve been fortunate. We’ve had some really, really busy days when we’ve been able to be open, but we’ve also realized that, since COVID, the visiting pattern to the city and people’s leisure time have quite significantly changed. And certainly without, for many months, domestic and international national tourism in Australia and in Melbourne, border closures and other things. The weekdays have been very quiet for us, but the weekends have been enormously busy well beyond what we’re expected. And that’s created this very lived reality of that. We actually changed out our hours to cope with that. So we now open from 12 o’clock to five during the week. And from 10 o’clock to six on weekends, but for school visits, we opened from 9 o’clock to 12 during the week for booked school visits, which is something we didn’t previously do. In the before times school visitors would be going through the galleries in the mornings during the week at the same time as tourists and other visitors would. And there would be that tension that is created between groups of school kids, and tourists coming in wanting to have a quieter gallery experience. And it’s been interesting that by adjusting with COVID realities, we’ve been able to cater for both groups. And our visitor experience staff too. They really do prioritize a great visitor experience for all, but the operating model now supports that better. And I guess, linked to that too, the sense that we were able to be more nuanced around how we sort of support visitors with different kinds of needs. So we have low sensory times slots as well for visitors with sensory requirements, where we have the lighting up higher, and we have less sound and all of this.

The pandemic coupled with our redevelopment, coupled with the organizational shift around thinking, and the prioritization of that visitor experience has allowed us to achieve some of those things that I think we always wanted to achieve, but the building and the operating model got in the way.

Angie: I’ve seen so many attractions change their opening hours to the post COVID world, that being one of the most impactful changes that they’ve made in reopening… but that’s genius to bring in the schools separately because it really helps the experience of both the kids and the other visitors, neither of which sometimes do well at the same time.

Seb: Also for, for teachers too, they really love this sense that the schools get a special experience too, and also in a COVID world it makes it easier for parents to feel that their kids are safe and they won’t be with anyone else who isn’t part of the school community.

Angie: Behind the scenes, I’ve heard a few whispers of what your team have been building out, what you’ve dubbed as an ‘experience operating system’ or xOS. What is the vision for that?

Seb: Yeah, the xOS is something that came from when Greg Turner was working as our CTO on the renewal. And it was really about giving a name to quite a disparate set of middleware, the different back of house systems to connect to each other. So a lot of legacy systems systems in terms of collection management and ticketing, particularly, but also legacy websites and the xOS now connects those systems to each other, but also to all the new gallery infrastructure. And has spun out some things around temperature and condition monitoring, IP and license management, all sorts of things that were never in the original scope, but became necessary as part of that. If everything is connected up in a lightweight way, there are all these other benefits if you connect these other adjacent things up.

The xOS continues to grow, but it’s a network of interconnecting bricks to connect other Lego blocks together. And it’s, you know, relatively unique to us in that we couldn’t just give xOS to another museum, it’s more a philosophical approach.

There are of course productized units of that. So the temperature and condition management suite is available for other museums to use and similarly, some of the connectors to proprietary systems. And also of course the infrastructure that sits around the Lens. So the way the lens works, as NFC device has a series of readers, which are physical microcomputers with software running on them. Those are also productizable as well. So it’s a mix. The xOS has sort of a a brand umbrella to cover a complex network of little things.

Angie: Seb, you mentioned the Lens earlier, this physical disc shaped souvenir that deliberately looks like a ViewMaster slide, that visitors receive when they come to the museum and they then tap to collect these things that they’re enjoying to take ACMI home with them, maybe pin it on their fridge and come back to what they enjoyed later and share. What lessons did you take from the ‘Pen’ at Cooper Hewitt and your strategy forward for the Lens and ACMI?

Seb: The ‘Pen’ at Cooper Hewitt was constrained by the technical realities and production realities of that period of time. And the specific context of Cooper Hewitt, very early on in that, that we did originally want to give visitors a pen to take home with them. But of course the manufacture, the physical reality of that costs, the manufacturing and all the other things meant that was never going to be possible. But it was always the idea, that if you could give something to someone that they took home, that would be much, much better than giving them something to borrow that then they took a proxy home, like a code on a ticket for. And so when we did the one that could have a travelling exhibition, to New Zealand, to Te Papa (the National Museum of New Zealand) to Art Science in Singapore as well, a local design and art company came up with a thing called the map, which we used in that exhibition. It was a take home folding piece of paper that did magical things with technology. And we found that that worked really well. And visitors really excited about getting this souvenir-able thing, and the Lens then evolved from a much more optical device as was originally in the master planning in 2016, 2017 to this ViewMaster style souvenir piece. It’s really the size of a compact disc or a DVD. And there’s that Blue-Ray disc, I guess now even physical media is a bit weird, but yeah, this points to the physicality of visual of screen screen culture too. So it’s got nice messages built into it.

It’s a beautiful thing, but it works similar to the ‘Pen’, except it doesn’t have batteries. So the battery, the power is in the walls. Something we couldn’t do at Cooper Hewitt rather (the power was independent at Cooper Hewitt). So it really extends that. And I think the other thing that we’ve done that the experience of doing Cooper Hewitt definitely attuned me to, the production realities that manufacturing physical products is really hard, particularly in any sense of scale. And that was something in the early days of Cooper Hewitt, we were working with Local Projects and we were all at that moment, you know, we’re talking 2012, there was that big boom on Kickstarter where everybody was doing physical, small round manual manufacturing projects, lots of artists, a lot of designers, a lot of creative people were like, ‘wow, we can actually do physical menu manufacturing now’. And 3D printing was hype and all of this sort of stuff, but actually it turns out that making things and shipping them to people as physical things is really, really hard. And we saw through 2013, 14, and 15, that a lot of those Kickstarter projects blew out or didn’t ship at all. You know, manufacturing is really hard, but the Cooper Hewitt experience, my team there and working with all our collaborators there it was such a great experience in understanding or beginning to understand the challenges and the opportunities of bespoke manufacturing in the museum space.

Also the absolute criticality of on boarding and the visitor experience in integration around bringing something new in to a museum experience. That sense that a museum visitor arrives at a museum, not expecting to be given a pen or map or lens, they don’t expect that to be a key part of what they do nor do they necessarily get how it works.

And so certainly the importance of designing user journey around that product, it’s super important. And that’s something we worked really hard on with the teams that at here with the Lens and Lucy Patterson’s team has done a huge amount of evolution around that and thinking around ‘How does that work? How do we communicate that to visitors? What a visitors doing with it?’. What we learned from Cooper Hewitt, the effort pays off many times over because people remember it. And even when it only partially works they’re are excited about ‘this is different from other museums’.

I got a lovely message from a museum colleague who works at AMNH New York, the natural history across the road from Cooper Hewitt, who had been doing some visitor research and was speaking to some teenagers in New York last year. Some of them actually mentioned, ‘I went to this amazing museum where you got this pen thing and it did all this stuff, it was so cool’. And I was like, wow, that is success because that is the thing the kid remember remembers and associates with that museum experience. And it’s something that if we’re going to diversify who visits museums and who is inspired by your museums, we need to make museums feel special and different from each other. And it isn’t just what’s in the museum, it is the experience of them. Part of the museum also has got to be unique and useful and usable.

So the Lens really leans in on that and pushes hard around this sort of sense of you’re in a museum of screen culture, you should be able to take things home to watch. Of course you should, you’re at a museum of film, TV and games. If you come to the museum, you should expect that you are going to go home and watch or play more things on screens. That’s the point. And I think the Lens does that pretty well, you know? It’s evolved a lot from the complexity of the ‘Pen’ and it’s very simple and works very well.

Greg Turner and the team did a huge amount of work on getting the feedback when you touch the Lens to a label, to be very snappy. We’re talking shaving microseconds off an interaction, but when you’re doing that 40 times in a day, those microseconds add up. And it’s been really interesting to see how that last 10% of design finesse pays off.

Angie: It is the ultimate challenge, isn’t it? This new CXO era, when faced with these new generations coming through of bringing these two things together, the hybrid: the physical visit and the digital experience, whether you’re having a digital experience during your physical visit or coming back to your physical visit through your digital connection.

Seb: The obvious thing everyone asks is ‘why isn’t it just on people’s phones’. And that was a question we were asked in New York, too. All of the time. ‘Why isn’t this just an app, can’t I do that with my phone?’. I’ve often come back to that question and I would always say, ‘but you do that on your phone, in the rest of your life’.

It is not special. The phone is no longer magical. And in fact, what we want to do is create experiences within museums when everything else is accessible and should be accessible, you want to create unique experiences within museums that are memorable and different from the outside world.

I was talking way back in 2016, again, during this master planning phase. There’s some drawings of some of the meetings that we had in those early days. And you know, this sort of sense of the museum as a magic circle and visitors attaining superpowers, when they come into the museum that they don’t have in the outside world. When you come to the museum, what is the special thing that gives you superpowers while you’re there that then changes your life when you leave… and just putting things on a phone , it doesn’t do that. That’s just like work or school or hanging out, like, that’s fine, but it’s not different. That really changes how people perceive the difference of the museum to the rest of their lives. That difference is important and that difference matters because that’s what helps museum visitors achieve, boost their curiosity or engage them with whatever the museums try and get to them.

Angie: I love that. It’s the ultimate bullet to the question of, ‘doesn’t digital take away from the fact that the visitor wants to visit?’. I love that giving them super powers is the thing that makes that visit special and not. What’s next for you and the team at Acme? Where to from here?.

Seb: I think COVID, it’s obviously changed a lot of the, the realities of the future. The other thing I should’ve mentioned in the redevelopment was the significant new focus on first nations storytelling and self representation. Telling local stories has been even more critical now. Those local stories and the nature of those stories and who gets to tell those stories has also accelerated during COVID and it’s brought out many of the social inequities in our society. And is very well-placed now with technologies. It’s new programming, for the affordances and the architectural affordances of the physical space itself and of our digital spaces in Gallery Five. It’s really well set up to continue to allow different and new and emerging things to be experimented with. Quicker and more cheaply than ever before.

And I think that’s really where we’re at now, where we’re taking stock of how things have been and how things are being used. And we are evolving those for all the future exhibitions and all the future programming. So you’ll see when Lens integration with all of the ex exhibitions we have coming in and we’re building ourselves over the next couple of years and also evolving. I’m doing a lot of work around accessibility: what are some of the accessibility affordances that the Lens brings, which was some stuff that was originally planned in the redevelopment.. But we did quicker solves for those, so automatic captioning and things like that. But what we can now offer again with the Lens, which needs further software development for a lot more synchronization to people’s own devices for accessibility reasons. And also this greater extension into what Katrina calls multi-platform museums. So the development of Gallery Five and Cinema Three, these initiatives that really sprung out of COVID and the need for us to deliver infrastructure and content and programming through purely digital channels. Those will continue. And of course the integration of that into how we program and how we think about things, is that multi-platform? This is now baked in. It’s still a little way to go, but when people are thinking about a talk series or commission or whatever it is, how is this going to work across the national regional international reach that – network delivered program brings but also deliver specifically within the building too. And it’s that hybridness that I think is interesting and is challenging. We know from the music world and music streaming and the infinite Zooms, we’re on every day still that there are different challenges there, and there are different levels of visitor tolerance.

If I’ve spent the day on Zoom as I have today, I’m not interested in going to a talk on Zoom at seven o’clock, but maybe that I can watch that talk on the weekend. That will be great. So, you know, there’s lots of new things emerging. I’ve talked for more than, more than a decade now about the time wallet visitors engaging with museums and anything really has. So a visitor leaves their house with a certain amount of time in their wallet. And it’s how they spend that time. That matters and the return that they as a visitor get on that time matters too. And I think that’s the same with these multi-platform experiences as well.

And trying to figure out the affordances and the boundaries of those. And of course, all of the other stuff, digital arts, going through a pretty exciting moment now. And there’s a lot of questions about how hard it is to get paid. And again, there’s a lot of questions and it’s difficult to imagine a different world at the moment, but we need to, because COVID is really the trial for climate change and climate crisis.

We need to get better at collectively working together and at a global scale, distributed and synchronously as well. There’s lots of stuff in there. And what does that mean for museums? They’ve got to play a huge part in that or contribute in some way.

Angie: It is the perfect charge for us to finish on and thank you much for that incredible walk through all the amazing things that you have accomplished with your team and the redevelopment and reopening and wishing you all the best for that secondary opening now and November.

Seb: It’s been great to chat. This has always been the work of large teams and many other people. None of this is my work, it’s always collective.

Angie: And I’m going to go and find your mother’s pavlova recipe.

Seb: Excellent!

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Connecting exhibitions and experiences through visitor services at Auckland Museum

Connecting exhibitions and experiences through visitor services at Auckland Museum

David Lew, Visitor Services Solutions Manager at Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira talks about how to connect exhibitions with visitor experience through the power of visitor services, including with He Kōrahi Māori, the Māori dimension (the indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand).

Show notes

David refers to several words in Te Reo Māori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa, New Zealand:
– Marae, Māori meeting grounds
– Iwi, tribe
– Pōwhiri, welcome ceremony
– Mana whenua, customary authority exercised by an iwi (tribe)
– Mahi toi, art or art work
– Kaitiaki, guardianship of the sky, sea and land
– Tanoa (Pacific), a large wooden bowl for kava ceremonies

Watch for more on Te Ao Mārama (the South Atrium) that David discusses in this episode.


Angie: Hello and welcome to the data diaries. I’m Angie judge from Dexibit. And here with us today we have David Lew, Visitor Services Solutions Manager at Auckland War Memorial Museum. Welcome David!

David: Thank you for having me.

Angie: Thanks for being here. And David, you’re joining us from your ‘bubble’ at home… because we’ve ended up, as we speak here in September 21, in yet another lockdown this pandemic after a local outbreak. That was a bit of a plot twist!

David: Absolutely! Yeah, I think now that we’ve had so many of these lockdowns, so the kids are kind of used to it and maybe even relieved that they don’t have to get up early.

Angie: Anyhow today, we’re going to talk all about exhibitions and visitor experiences and other activities as part of the public program.

So this is a conversation that I’ve been really looking forward to. Shall we start at the very beginning? David, can you shed some light for me… what exactly is a visitor services solutions manager?

David: Yeah, well, it’s an interesting role and it’s something I feel like I’m regularly learning more about this. So visitor services solutions manager, very generally, I support everything that our visitor services team does onsite. We have about 50 people that work as visitor hosts. We have another couple of people that work as bookings and sales coordinators on phones. And we have a leadership team that works along with all of these people as well. And so it’s my job to try to support everyone, identify opportunities for solutions and maybe new technical products, that kind of thing, anything that might help our team deliver better customer service, but it is an interesting role.

So originally I came on as the development manager, kind of the learning and development role for the team. I would do training analysis and instructional design and facilitate and coordinate all the training. Kind of a one-person training team. And when I first started about two years ago, one of the first problems that I identified was that the team felt really disconnected from a lot of the other teams around the museum.

So a lot of my work for the last couple of years has been almost like an internal relationship manager. I’ll go and meet the other teams and learn about what they do and how they can benefit from greater involvement with our visitor services. Often that’s making sure that we’re able to give insight into how different things will be, maybe how the visitors will impact or be impacted by the decisions that have been made in exhibition spaces… you know, where people are likely to be gathering and eating and which things need to be placed higher so that children can’t grab it and pull it down. Those types of insights that maybe don’t always come until you’ve had some advice from people that are out on the floor working with all the visitors. It’s a really cool way of working back with the rest of the museum team.

Angie: Cause I know it can otherwise sometimes be a bit of an after thought?

David: Yeah. Well, that’s definitely one of the struggles that happens too often. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s not uncommon for people to have maybe almost like, a purist view, or an intention about an exhibition. You’ve got this idea that we’re going to express all these concepts or convey all this. And in your mind as the designer of that exhibition or that space, you might think that everyone’s going to naturally go to the right and they’re going to follow this path and they’re going to read all these things and they’re going to have this experience.

And then when you add that perspective of learning about what visitors actually do when they come to these spaces, we can quite quickly say, ‘oh no, no one’s going to read that. Everyone’s going to walk over here and they’re all going to sit down and all these kids are gonna cluster up at this table and they’re all going to line up to do this thing’. Just with a little bit of a perspective we can help to correct some of those initial intentions and make sure that it’s a good visitor experience for everybody there.

Angie: I imagine that might be a line used frequently of ‘no one’s going to read that’.

David: Just in balance. So isn’t there cause it might be that we’ll have that perspective of ‘that’s going to get very little use’ or ‘no one’s going to read that label there’ and then you might still have that handful of people that do get a really meaningful exercise out of reading that one label and then it’s like, well, maybe it was worth it.

Angie: My husband is one of those people, him and I can not visit a museum simultaneously.

David: Does he read everything?

Angie: Oh yes. Every single word, every single exhibition, every single museum.

I understand you’ve come into the role from a background in nonprofit and government. What motivated you originally coming into the museum?

David: Yeah, well, so my background’s been training design and community development. I spent several years coordinating and facilitating a youth program in New Zealand and Australia in Papa New Guinea. And that was all about helping young people make good decisions and contribute to their neighborhoods.

And then I spent several years in my career and often that has been about mental health. I don’t know for whatever reason, that’s been the path that I’ve been on. So I’ve worked with some mental health providers and support lines in particular. And that’s been very interesting, very eye-opening. And I admire all the people that can do that with their careers and quite a good experience, very eye-opening in terms of what people are dealing with in terms of their mental health around the country and the ways that people support. And then I worked for Auckland Council for a bit as an instructional designer there with the customer services team.

When the opportunity came up to work at the museum, it just felt too appealing a prospect to turn down, I really wanted to grab the job. I mean, part of it is just that it’s so cool to work inside of the museum and to be around that environment. I guess for me, it wasn’t so much a challenge switching from social enterprises and not-for-profits and coming into a museum. I mean, it all kind of felt like it aligned to me. It’s all learning, it’s all improvement. It’s all helping the community to understand its history and the contemporary application of that history as well. It’s all fascinating to me. I also really enjoy the fact that because it’s a museum that does not only natural science exhibition and content and history and culture. And it means that I get to constantly learn from everyone and everything that’s going on in the building as well. So I really enjoy that aspect of working.

Angie: And you’ve come into the museum in the middle of its five-year strategic plan, which is currently in the transform phase. And as part of this, I see the museum has recently completed a really stunning refurbishment of its south atrium ‘Te Ao Mārama’, which itself has sort of reconceptualized the feeling of visiting the museum with such a huge project, including big transformation of where special exhibitions are hosted, a lot of changes to retail and hospitality around that experience of that whole area, especially when a big exhibition is on… what went into the thinking behind that? And what have you seen as a result?

David: So the museum itself is about, what, a hundred years old now. In 1929, this particular site opened up and the building at the time was very much the war memorial. That’s the Northern entrance with the great columns, European styles of architecture. Then around in the 1960s the Southern entrance in the semicircle was built there. At first, from my understanding, at the time, that was mainly meant to be offices and a staff entrance. What we now know as the atrium was just an open courtyard. Over the decades, after that, eventually it became covered up and it became a public entrance. You would walk in that Southern entrance and immediately hit an information desk. There was a smaller exhibition space behind it, then you would end up on the flanks of that, the atrium and entry entering into the museum.

What we’ve done with the Te Ao Mārama space is we’ve really indigenized that entrance experience. So now when you watch people walk in, there’s a couple of gates Mahi Toi (art works), which have some Kaitiaki (guardianship), guardians protecting the space there. That’s the first thing you see as you come in through that entrance. About the same time, you’ll be able to hear voices of the mana whenua (customary authority) of the local iwi (tribe) singing the songs about their arrival into Auckland. And so you’re going through steps that parallel a pōwhiri (welcoming) process when, when you’re visiting local Marae (meeting grounds) of local iwi in New Zealand, this is the process that you go through, you’re greeted and welcomed.

Once you’re through the gates and you’re listening to these songs and there’s a visualization of these different tribes as they entered the Auckland Harbor as well. And you’re underneath a giant, kava bowl, the Tanua that we have, it’s above you and it’s this massive circular shape it’s above you as you enter.

And you see people just kind of hit with that sense of awe when they’re walking in the space for the first time. And the whole kava bowl is supported by the legs of the bowl, which are also the elevator shafts in the building. And the they’re decorated with manuloa, which are this bright red pattern that’s made to look like birds. And it’s also a reminiscent of the lashings that would be used to fix ships together, on these voyages. And so what you’re getting from all of these different things, the symbolism of the space and the entryway and the kava bowl, this is all telling the story about arrival into New Zealand, arrival into Auckland and connections into the past of human voyages and expeditions across the Pacific. It’s this really powerful experience that we get to welcome visitors with as they come through that Southern entrance.

Angie: So beautiful as well to symbolize the role of Auckland as well and this heart of the Pacific being in many ways, the capital of the Pacific and the different peoples that have arrived into the city. It’s amazing to see that represented through the museum’s physical building. 

David: Underneath the Tanua there’s this projection that’s going on as well. It’s again telling these stories of arrival and talking with some of the exhibitions team, I remember when we first opened up in December and we were able to invite the public in to see what had come, I guess the fruits of the labor. So there’s one projection on the back wall, showing boats and these different stories of arrival and it’s kind of a seascape. And then on the floor underneath, is a different variety of images. So then we have things like, stingrays swimming around, and fish, boats. And what was really heartening was to see how children in particular will respond to this projection. This is simply a flat projection on the floor, but kids will jump on it and they’re crawling around and they ‘stand’ in the boat and they wait excitedly for the next projection to show. It’s really quite lovely, very encouraging.

Angie: I think there’s no age barrier for that as well, I saw a six month old baby having the time of its life the other day on that projection, simply because it was so accessible on the floor.

So I’m really curious about this one because the museum does such a spectacular job and has put so much emphasis and energy into it as well with a refurbishment. How do you incorporate Te Reo, our indigenous language and tikanga, our cultural practices into the visitor experience around these various exhibitions and the building itself?

David: As a museum, we promote a value that we call He Korahi Māori, which means the Maori dimension. And so we have individuals and teams around the museum dedicated to ensuring that everything that we’re doing is done with that Māori perspective as well. So in addition to our teams that focus on He Korahi Māori within the museum, our museum board also has a trustee board that we call Taumata-ā-Iwi and they act as representatives for the different Māori tribes around Auckland. So those tribes have decided on which people should be part of that board.

And then that board advisors the museum board. And so that’s for anything that might be to do with any indigenous history. We also have people that will do supporting literature. We try to make sure that everything we’re doing is done in a considered and deliberate approach. We don’t want to offend anyone, but more importantly than that, we need to make sure that we’re representing stories correctly. That we’re really providing that honoring way to tell these stories and to make sure that we’re doing things accurately with our visitor services team. One of the first courses that we go through in our team is to talk about the value of Manakitanga. Sometimes it’s translated as simply, hospitality, and I think that it doesn’t tell the whole story. The idea of Manakitanga is that it’s the actions that are giving Mana (energy and power) to others. And mana can be translated like, honor, or, maybe even, the respect or the status that a person has, depending on their manner.

So when we talk about Manakitanga, we’re talking about the need to make sure that our visitor hosts are treating people in a way that gives each of those visitors this mana, and in the context of a museum, that mana is shown by welcoming these visitors into not only your home or your workplace, but you’re also welcoming them into the lives and the stories of all the people that we represent in the museum.

So in my understanding of Māori tikanga and the way that you would do things the right way and Māori culture, every object or artifact that we have in the building, that obviously it was created by someone, someone used it for their lifetime and someone donated it. And so there’s, for any particular artifact, there might be dozens of people or scores of people that interacted with this item before it got to being in the museum case and being on display.

And so Manakitanga for the visitor services team means how are we going to make sure about all of these scores of people and the stories that led up to this day. And it’s not necessarily that we have that whole history of it, but more about that approach and making sure that everyone feels that almost that sense of reverence or awe as you’re looking into the history of these things.

And so that’s why from that indigenous perspective, it’s so much more than, ‘here’s a tool that someone used centuries ago’ or ‘here’s an item that we know was a weapon’. But it really is much more about considering the fact that this is something that was treasured. It’s still close to a lot of people. The identity of my ancestors for instance, might be attached to this item. And it’s important for me to treat that with a reverence that’s much more than just, here’s some things in a case.

Angie: So the museum has got quite a delicate balance though, because it’s free for Auckland, it is not for tourists and you’ve got ticketed admissions on top for a special exhibitions and other sorts of experiences and events. How does your team manage that dance for visitors that are coming into the atrium space and what sort of challenges do you see from that?

David: Well, it, it can be a little bit tricky, especially when it’s super busy in there, like, it’s not uncommon for us to have a couple hundred school children in at a time on a weekday, and they’re coming in to do their programs. And then it means that we’re also trying to manage that space and make sure that people can get to a ticketing desk. And yeah, we can have that discussion about whether or not they need to purchase a general admission ticket. And if they’re also looking to do the special exhibition that day, so it can be a little bit tricky.

One of the other things that we’ve found that further complicates it is that for us Aucklanders, they’ve always known that they can come to the museum for free. Because it’s for free, it means they don’t always remember that they do need to get a ticket still. So we do often have conversations of, we’ll have staff floating around in the hallways or around the atrium, and we’re encouraging people to come over to the ticketing desks and have that check-in experience. We do that also because, for our my museum cardholders, they can come to the ticketing desk. They can check in, we’ve got a little bit of data about their visits. And we can provide them with information about what might’ve changed since the last time they visited. We do also have a membership program, which also launched towards the end of last year. And what we’re finding there is that they, these members will love to come back. They bring their friends and family as well. They get unlimited re-entry into the special exhibitions. So they’re often taking advantage of that, but again, they still have to come to the ticketing desk and have that conversation with the team. The challenge will be on those days where it’s really busy and you’ve got people that are striding towards the very welcoming, bright hallways. Sometimes we have to catch people as they’re about to enter the galleries and remind them to come back to the ticketing desk. And so a lot of the time it just comes down to making sure our staff are really patient, really polite, very courteous and, and welcoming, but also letting people understand, this is the rules of admission and here’s how we do our ticketing over here. It’s a little bit easier in the north entrance when people come in and they’re straight to a ticketing desk and our staff can greet them that way at the museum.

Angie: You’ve got this mix of your permanent exhibitions, which have also been going through big modernization as part of this refurbishment over the last several years. And then you’ve got a number of special exhibitions each year. How does the museum strategy come together across the two?

David: That’s been really interesting to observe and I think we’ve still got some learning to go. So the permanent galleries there, that’s part of that same five-year plan that you were mentioning before. There’s an ongoing plan for a gallery renewal and on the ground floor, we’ve got some new galleries around the stories of Auckland,.Tāmaki Herenga Waka (the stories of Auckland). Those galleries tell stories over centuries of human occupation in Auckland, right up to modern times. And that was partly because we realized we didn’t have a lot of content on Auckland history before putting those galleries in.

The special exhibition, that is something that’s kind of new for us. We’ve had two special exhibitions in the new special exhibition hall already. One was ‘Brickman Awesome Epic Lego Creations’ and now with ‘Sea Monsters’. These exhibitions are very much family shows and we’re encouraging children and their families to come in and have a look at it and play with the content and be impressed by the size of the sea monsters and blown away by how large some of these Lego creations are.

In the coming months, we have ‘Secrets of Stonehenge’, which is coming from overseas. And we have exhibition called ‘Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors, and Heroes’, and that’s coming from the British Museum. And what I mean between the four of those exhibitions, you can see there’s very different topics and not necessarily the same audience. And that’s quite intentional when we’re trying to ensure that the museum special exhibitions appeal to the breadth of our potential visitors, anyone and everyone to feel that we’ll have content here for you and for you and your family to come and enjoy. It’s been quite lovely.

It’s been really interesting to watch how people will come in and they’ll explore our local history, but then also come and have fun with the Legos or see how large an Ichthyosaur was.

Angie: The ‘Sea Monsters’ exhibition. That’s coming from Australia right?

David: Yeah. The Australian Maritime.

Angie: It is fantastic. I love, it has these little wooden shapes that represent the different sea monsters that you can literally lie on and swim like a prehistoric monster. And it’s just so much fun seeing the kids adapting their bodies to these ocean going giant animals. It’s so gorgeous to watch.

David: Yeah, absolutely. It’s hilarious watching adults give it a go as well.

Angie: I know you’ve toured in several of those exhibitions from overseas. And it sounds like a few more on the way. What sort of logistic challenges are you running into at the moment with the borders closed and travel restrictions and whatnot?

David: Yeah. Yeah. That’s, that’s been quite interesting. So, I mean, obviously, you know that with a lot of these traveling exhibitions, normally there’s staff that travel with them as well. So that’s been a logistical challenge to make sure that people can get spots and manage isolation and be here to help install and mount some of these things. The initial schedule, we were going to have that ‘Ancient Greeks’ exhibition last year, that was going to be our first to open up the new space. But with, with all the pandemic rearrangements, then that the schedule changed. So, ‘Ancient Greeks’ went to Australia first and now they’ll have it now for another year, basically before we get to what middle of next year, I think we’re scheduled to have.

So it has been challenging. It’s meant that timelines, we’ll move around sometimes by a few weeks. And sometimes like in the case, the ‘Ancient Greeks’ than by a year and a half. One of the things we’re worried about now is that all the people that we had hoped would come to see the ‘Sea Monsters’ exhibition in August and September, now that’s all jeopardized. We don’t know when we’re going to be able to reopen it for people because it’s supposed to close at the end of October, so, coming up soon and they’re all at home at the moment.

Angie: What are the main goals behind those exhibitions? What does, pandemic aside, success look like?

David: Well, my understanding is that the main goal is as drivers of visitation – we want more people to come and see these different things. We want visitors from Auckland and New Zealand. Obviously we don’t have a lot of international tourism right now. But we want our visitors to know that we are a space that they can come and see these different shows. And there’s that challenge with your regular visitors that they want to know what’s new or what’s changed.

But then if you change any permanent galleries and they ask where the old one went, so we do want to keep people engaged. And part of the reason that we’re having this broad range of special exhibitions is to make sure that we are actually addressing the needs of the entire museum-going public. And it’s not just for certain individuals over others.

Angie: And so much of that visitor experiences is learning oriented. I’m curious about how you and your team think about that from design thinking all the way through to visitor evaluation?

David: Well, the exhibition’s team, I know they’ll, they’ll do a lot of that modeling based on the different personas of visitors and the different cultural segments that we’re trying to address. And they do a lot of that design thinking around what’s going to be the best way to engage the different populations from around the city. The visitor services team, I know our perspective is often ‘how can I make sure that this person that’s visiting is going to have the best possible experience that they’ll, with their limited amount of time with us today, that I’m going to help them find the right exhibition for them and their family or their group that they’re with today?’. A lot of that for our visitor services team just boils down to what kind of quality of interactions that we’re having with people, whether at the ticketing desk or on the floor or throughout. I know one of the little pleasures I have when I’m walking through the museum is to catch someone and ask, ‘ have you gone to see the birds over there?’. Or, often it’s just a chat with the children as I’m passing by. And they’ll point out things that they’re finding to be their favorites. Like the Haumanu tree that we’ve gotten installed recently, this towering tree that tells a beautiful story next to our new classrooms. I guess it’s finding those little moments, to connect people, it’s quite rewarding.

Angie: Have you trained your team specifically on that with their ongoing visitor services training, or particular enablement in the lead up to an exhibition, about how to have those coincidental water cooler moments with visitors around the museum?

David: Yeah. Well, that’s definitely something we stress. And we try to communicate one of the challenges I’ll frequently put to the team is that it’s really easy for a member of the public to mistake a visitor host for security guard. And, and we know that’s people’s conventional view of staff that are working in a gallery room. And so my challenge to the team is always ‘what are you going to do to make yourself different from a security guard, so that these visitors know that they can come to you with questions, or they know that they can have a different kind of interaction with you?’. And that’s not to put down the security guards of the world. Many of them are very lovely. But the point I’m trying to get across is that for our hosts, we very much encourage them to take that opportunity to find that magic moment that you can enhance that person’s day or visit. And it often doesn’t have to be something really extraordinary.

It’s just taking that time and giving someone that little bit of personalized attention, so they know that you see them and you recognize what they’re going through for the day, we cover that in our induction, we stress that in our conversations with the team, we try to model it, for everyone around the museum. So even in other departments, our IT manager loves to tell stories about how, when he’s walking through the building and then he has these little engagements with people and you’ll see him come into the office and he’ll very proudly tell our membership team that he’s been promoting their program to the public as he’s walking around.

Angie: You’ll have him on a retainer, soon. I love that, that the museum, it’s got its mission and vision and values that we’d see in most organizations. And then it has those principles that draw upon that cultural connection to bring that spirit right into the dNA of the museum’s purpose and its people. And you can really hear that penetrating every aspect of what you do.

David: It’s really important. And it’s really cool. It’s something that I really enjoy about the way that we that we offer. But one of the things that will regularly come up with new staff as they join the museum, and especially if they’ve come from different countries and maybe they don’t have a background in, in Māori culture and tikanga (cultural practices), there’s the concept of things being tapu (sacred and special) or noa (common or free from restriction). So there’s kind of a sacred aspect to these different things and one of the aspects of Māori tradition is that you wouldn’t have food around different things, for instance. Food is a very earthly thing. It’s not a very spiritual thing. So you have to keep your food separate from a lot of these different artifacts. We have routes that have been mapped out around the building, because we also have things like a cafe onsite and a bistro onsite, and we have private functions that need to be catered. These maps show you, okay, ‘I’m allowed to take food from this place to this lift and then up from that floor. And then I can go exactly this path.’ And so we have all these little maps. It’s one of those, those fun little things that, particularly new staff from overseas, they have to come to learn what those special routes are and how to maneuver things through the building in a way that’s still culturally respectful.

Angie: It’s truly beautiful. I think one of the things that really struck me when you go to so many history museums around the world, you have these colonial European settler history galleries, and then separate ones around indigenous artifacts and in Auckland Museum, the new Auckland galleries there’s an exhibition around people’s homes a hundred years ago. You can see the cultures of Auckland all represented in those homes all together. They’re not separate and it’s something so small and so simple, but so such a powerful message as well.

David: That’s a good point. And I know that the exhibition team were very deliberate that they wanted to have the gallery laid out in that way so that it wasn’t a separation, but really by combining everything and by not being constrained by timeframes, they’re able to compare those different lifestyles and those different artifacts simultaneously and I think that’s like you’re saying it’s quite a beautiful comparison.

Angie: And so David moving from there, how do you evaluate the visitor experience? How do you work out what an exhibition has achieved when you’re doing your retrospective on it?

David: So we have an in-house visitor market research team, and they’ll often conduct a different analysis for our different exhibitions. So not only would we have things like camera counts, people entering different spaces and we can get information about how long they’ve dwelled within an exhibition, but then we’ll also do occasional interviews and surveys with different people. We ask about, ‘ where did you visit today and what kind of things did you see?’. We have a range of different questions and survey questions we’ll go through and our team very diligently produces those types of retrospectives and reviews for us at the end of different shows. We’ll have consultation again with our team, we’ll provide some perspective about what we saw, what we observed from that visitor services , but it’ll generally be a cross section of different teams that have worked on or with different exhibition spaces. We’ll have those kinds of reflective discussions about what we learned and what do we want to do next. What do we need to change? That kind of thing, that might even boil down to which interactive seemed to be the most used or which screens were getting used the least.

Angie: Do you do that separately in your visitor services team and then again with the wider museum group, or is that a cross-functional effort?

David: It’s a bit of both because our team is so large, it’s not practical to get very many of them into one of those reflection sessions at a time. So we’ll probably have a focus group or a debrief from our team. And then we’ll have some of us represent that perspective when we meet with the other.

Angie: Very cool. Well, thank you, David, for a very fascinating look into the world of exhibitions and experience at Auckland Museum and fingers crossed for your next post lockdown reopening again, sometime soon. Hopefully it comes well in time to get the last few visitors through that ‘Sea Monsters’ exhibition!

David: Let’s hope so. Let’s hope we’re out of this sooner than later. And thank you again very much for having me.

Angie: Thank you.

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Designing for loyalty at the California Academy of Sciences with Melissa Felder

Over the course of the pandemic, many visitor attractions experienced wild changes in their membership and season pass customer base – moves which have forever changed consumer behaviors and how we strategically respond to these. Hear how Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer Melissa Felder thinks about loyalty at the California Academy of Sciences and how their mission is inspiring the next generation of supporters.

Show notes

Learn more about Melissa Felder.


Angie: Melissa Felder joins us today from the Bay Area’s number one cultural attraction, the California Academy of Sciences. It is an incredible organization at the heart of the golden gate park, complete with a natural history museum and aquarium, a planetarium, rainforest, and more. Melissa is the chief revenue and marketing officer and her brand of leadership and sales and marketing is strategically focused at the Academy. She is responsible for that and the exhibitions and earned revenue, spending admissions, membership stores, restaurants, rentals, photos, licensing, tourism programs, and even launched the Academy’s own digital magazine, which you can check out at Melissa, it is wonderful to have you here.
Melissa: Well, thank you for inviting me.
Angie: And today we’re talking about loyalty. So how you create it, grow it, retain it. And I know it’s been a really mixed bag and a bumpy ride in loyalty for many visitor attractions. Some have been very generously supported by their public, or have found other ways to create value for members online. When they’ve been closed, others have been hit really hard, right where it hurts, during an already difficult year in recurring revenue. So we’re very lucky Melissa, to benefit from your experience and leadership today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Melissa: Absolutely. I would say we experienced everything you just said, so it’s not an either or it’s an ‘all’.
Angie: So Melissa with that in your role leading revenue and marketing, how are you now integrating membership with the other revenue components of your business model at the academy?
Melissa: Well, it is a pretty – I don’t want to say completely seamless, but it becomes seamless in a way. And one of our goals, and this was a goal, even pre pandemic, but it’s become even more important as we move through and out of the pandemic, is to have all people that experience the Academy, whether they are a, a community follower or a community member, a ticketed visitor or a member or a donor, somebody that has visited us 10 years ago, or somebody who’s thinking about coming in the future: to have the mindset of a member feeling like they belong, or at least have the potential to belong to something. So yes, membership is a, a product, but we think of it a little bit more like a state of mind, an affinity state of mind.
Angie: That’s such a powerful message there that we’re sort of almost walking away from the term of visitors, which. I don’t know, a visitor to me is, is really quite a short relationship. It’s quite transactional into thinking about everybody is as loyal members and community around us. Can you talk a little bit more about your vision for how you think about loyalty across that visitor experience when it comes to things like programming, retail, online? What’s the vision there?
Melissa: All of those touch points are part of the experience needs to be completely on brand and it needs to do a couple of things for us. One of it, we really want each of those experiences to be clear about what we stand for as an organization, what our purpose is, our purpose is to regenerate the natural world.
And if you think about that, that’s not, place based, that’s not a museum. It’s what the museum stands for. So we want our experiences to be linked to our purpose and our mission. And then we also think about value and how we can create value for. Any of those constituencies, whether they’re literal members or visitors or community followers.
And what I mean by value, is that people are getting something, whether it’s a physical experience, is it digital content? It’s some idea of something that is special, related to what we stand for and also related to what they may have paid, if you will. And sometimes people pay dollars, but they’re also spending their time and their brain space with us.
So that’s sort of how I think about loyalty building.
Angie: And you mentioned touch points there through both mission and value. If we’re thinking about that funnel, if you like of converting public to audience, to visitors, to followers, to members, how do you start to nurture your community?
Melissa: Well, our community is pretty broad and I think of our digital community, our social community, and I believe we have one of the largest followings of any natural history museum in the world.
We have over 3 million followers. Many of them are global. And many of them have never set foot at, into our museum or even maybe been in, in San Francisco. And so we have to think about what we stand for and communicating it to a global audience. So that’s sort of the [00:05:00] biggest piece of the funnel, where the bottom part of the funnel the goal isn’t only to get somebody to visit and to buy something in our store, but to have them really understand what we stand for and how it relates to their life and provide some value for them there. So it can be the top of the funnel can be this broad global audience. It can also be an audience that’s a little bit more narrow, but that is place-based in Northern California.
So we keep our communication with our social communities, very robust. And we also do a full suite of typical marketing communications. And then on site, we have, of course our public experience for ticketed guests and for members and for donors. And after somebody visits, if they weren’t already part of our community, we invite them to be part of our community by asking them how their experience was and asking them how we can add more value for them.
And we keep up a cadence of communication. And in many cases, people become members after visiting, but sometimes they become members without visiting first or in order to visit. If that makes any sense, our members also will go on to support us beyond their memberships as, as donors. And, and then sometimes, you know, you could be a member and you can decide that you’re going to take a little bit of a break and you engage with us in other ways, such as consuming our digital content. And then may, you may come back later as a volunteer. So there’s, I described something that sounds linear, but it’s probably got many loops to it.
And I’m right now I’m drawing with my hands, but you can’t see them since this is a podcast.
Angie: That was a fascinating observation there that with that global audience, many of them have never visited and I take it may never visit. And that might not even be the goal there. And I imagine that’s true for quite a few attractions with a global mission like yours, but in your experience when it comes to those paid members, visitors or not, what are some of the key factors like origin and distance from the venue that influence loyalty in terms of member conversion and churn?
Melissa: So there are some practical factors. One of them is location or geography. Most of our, what we call physical or base or local members live in the Bay Area and even hyper-local to San Francisco in the Bay Area, that said, we do have digital only members. So this is a new opportunity for us to reach beyond the geography. So one factor is geography.
Another factor is where somebody is in terms of life, stage, or demographics. We have a lot of content that is very appealing for families with school-aged children, as well as adults. So those are sort of a bi-modal demographics, but I think the geography and the demographics as sort of secondary factors.
What I think our primary factors are somebody’s motivation and what they’re hoping to get out of their membership with us. And so we have two major types of members. They have overlap between them, but one is one they’re motivated by our mission that they want to support us because they believe in what we’re doing in the world. And then the other type are really about access and they derive most of their value from visiting and experiencing us physically and in person, the way that the mission members, if you will interact with us, some of it’s physically onsite, but some of it is digitally. And then the members that are, tend to be more transactional, the way they derive value is usage or utilization.
And we can see that members that visit those transactional or access members that visit more frequently, open their emails more, buy more things on our store, are much more likely to renew. I do really enjoy that separation of mission versus transactional members and how you start to spot those motivations and their behaviors.
Angie: That’s really interesting. So, and in your experience, when it comes to those, what does that magic equation of what makes a member sticky in either of those categories? What do you need to hit that makes that member less likely to churn?
Melissa: I think that if they – I called it utilization before, which sounds cold, maybe a good way to say it as engagement, higher levels of engagement, both physically onsite and digitally with content, the higher levels of engagement, the more sticky someone is- and sticky can be renewal, but it can also be the willingness to volunteer, be advocate in somebody’s community. And it can also mean willingness to give above and beyond a membership. So that utilization is one another one is understanding, standing, fundamentally understanding how their membership supports [00:10:00] everything that we do. So it isn’t a dollar in exchange for the ability to visit. If that dollar goes into global biodiversity and conservation programs, it goes into educating kids within the Bay Area. And then also in countries where we do do our work. And then I think the last piece around stickiness is having really special experiences and those can be onsite or they can be remote.
But when I think about onsite, I think about personally facilitated experiences, small groups, my family with an interpreter or program presenter, or an ability to go behind the scenes and see something special. So the three kind of sticky points to me are sort of usage or utilization of fundamental understanding about how my membership supports the mission.
And then the third one is these sort of special experiences or feeling of something that’s, you know, custom for me.
Angie: That’s a great equation. And I can imagine that your members are indeed very sticky with such an intentional strategy there. I love that exponential growth that you get with recurring revenue models. It’s so powerful when it comes to them, adding to that base. Do you find it easy to charge growth through growing net new members? Or do you focus more on growing member lifetime value through reducing churn or increasing average spend per member?
Melissa: Probably the, the order that we do it and we do all of it by the way, but the most efficient spend is reducing churn and we put dollars into not only reminding people to renew, but providing opportunities for them to, I kind of explained this a little bit a go, opportunities for them to use their memberships. So stewardship, during the course of their membership ends up reducing the churn.
We do drive new members every year. We feel that, I would say our spend is probably, two thirds in the stewardship and renewal and about one-third in sort of the acquisition and new. There is always a need to bring in new members and then, I would say in terms of increasing average lifetime and getting people to do more, we do constantly show people opportunities for them to upgrade.
If they will upgrade to a higher level or more robust benefit package or to buy additional things during their visit, that ends up being smaller than the first two buckets, smaller than sort of that renewal, if you will, or churn reduction and smaller than the new acquisition. I’m curious whether that’s typical, right? I don’t know if you have, can I ask you questions?
Angie: Sure. And yeah, I think we do see a mixture of, of focuses and I think it’s really interesting seeing what works, where. I think for a lot of places where their membership is very local, focus on getting people to visit more often. And therefore the incremental spend is more effective when that membership is further away from the venue and the propensity to, to renew as perhaps less linked to the visit and the propensity to visit is harder to move, than focusing that on things like other methods of churn reduction, like e-commerce discounts can be more effective. And so I think it really does depend on that overall vision that you talked about in the beginning, so it sounds like yours is very aligned with that.
You talked there about objectives, such as engagement and before in stewardship and the actions and behaviors that you’re managing for. What are the sort of key data points that you’re using in leading loyalty amongst the revenue picture?
Melissa: So the things that we track are, we do definitely track renewal rates, both in total and for first year versus multi-year, we keep track of average tenure, which is pretty important.
Where, I use, I said utilization before, so visitation frequency and party size, and we do that by type of member. Visitor satisfaction, including net promoter score, is really important for us to look at and then also additional spending or support. So a member might have a membership and our average membership prices, but those members may also donate to our end of year annual appeal.
And so keeping track of how much extra people are spending on things like donations and, you know, in the store and how they utilize discounts is also important for us to track. We have a bunch of digital engagement metrics we track as well.
So we look at engagement in terms of our social media. We look at our email opens and clicks. RSVPs for events and programs, both [00:15:00] online live stream, as well as in person and something we call a no show rate, which is becoming more and more important these days now that we do online reservations. So how many people say they intend to participate in something versus how many people do gives you an idea of their engagement routes and, and how behavior changes.
Angie: The attrition rate is I think one of the hottest topics in the industry at the moment, especially with a lot of members booking out free visits and taking up capacity, sadly.
Melissa: So there’s one thing, one measure that I didn’t mention and it’s because we don’t have the ability right now to track lifetime value on an individual member basis. We have it for total membership and we’re able to do it by sort of member large segments of members, but not by individual. And that’s more of a, a systems gap for us, something we hope to change in the future.
Angie: I was actually curious about this system’s picture and by the sounds of some of the things you’re talking about, say for example, between your CRM of managing your membership and then your email marketing of open rates, there’s, there is obviously some intelligence and integration behind that to achieve it. And then by the sounds of it, a couple of things around lifetime value that you’re aiming towards, what does that picture look like for you behind the scenes and is there a broader strategy at how you push that CRM ecosystem forward?
Melissa: Yes. So we are integrated with our email system, but it’s a, right now it’s a one-way integration. And on our roadmap for this year is a two-way integration. So right now we have to run our, let’s say email metrics out of the email system. We’d like to feed it back into the customer file, which will make segmentation much easier for us. And, oh, I know one of the other things we outsource our dining and retail, and because of that, we don’t have customer level spend. And so a lot of times we have to do approximations. It would be great to get that synced up, but that’s probably not my first priority. My first priority is to do the two-way integration between our email system and then also for our website and our social media platforms to get that behavioral, digital, behavioral data back into the CRM.
Instead of having to do, we do the analysis, we can do the analysis, that’s just not happening in the CRM. So it’s, it’s more work right now.
Angie: And you mentioned NPS. Is that just something you’re doing with visitors in general or, and differentiating out your members who visit, or do you do that direct to the member about their membership?
Melissa: Oh, well, that’s a good question. So we do continual visitor satisfaction monitoring on a daily basis and we are able to calculate it for ticketed visitors and members separately. So we can do a member net promoter score on an annual or biannual basis. We do a pretty in-depth survey of all of our members and donors to understand their motivations, their reasons for joining, reasons for renewal, whole bunch of other things. So we do sort of annual surveys of large numbers, and then daily, as people are using the online experience. Or not online, I’m sorry. Onsite experience.
Angie: And so within that big picture, what do you goal your team against the most?
Melissa: The most? They have revenue goals. So for new member revenue, renewal revenue, and then sort of per household or per capita revenue, we have households that we keep track of, attendance.
Angie: So Melissa, what insights have been pivotal for you and how you form your business strategy around loyalties and members, how you put out products, promotions, what are the really key points that have helped shape? How you think about how your membership is performing and what initiatives or improvements you’re taking that forward?
Melissa: I like to think about sort of forward progress and, uh, against a large goal. And so I’ll tell you a large goal that we have is for us to grow our member base significantly outside our local geography over the course of the next five years. And so in order to get there, I need to create plans that can deliver small amounts of growth each successive year.
So that’s what I mean by forward progress. So biting off a little bit at a time. So we can kind of, I don’t know if that makes sense, to earn our way into it. And so part of what we’re exploring right now is the levels of satisfaction with our onsite experience and with our digital content and what gaps we have and what member needs we can [00:20:00] fulfill. So we have some research steps we need to do to be able to achieve that longer-term goal of growth outside our local geography. Cause that’s really the next place for us to, to grow. We’re not completely saturated and penetrated, but I think we have the highest member penetration in the Bay Area.
And so as we ask ourself, what’s next. So it’s understanding how well are we meeting the local audience and the new potential audience needs. What they value and can we create a sort of a product offering and how to describe it and get incremental growth every year.
Angie: This is some impressive results too.
Melissa: Well, that’s what we want to achieve. Let’s check back in a year, but we have, we’ve over the last several years pre pandemic, we were growing revenue at a pretty sizable rate, faster frankly, than we were growing the household base. Our strategy was around sort of depth of engagement and growing, growing revenue. And now, as we think about growing households, hopefully not at the expense of revenue, we have to find out, you know, sort of new territory to go into.
Angie: With those kinds of aspirations, how do you forecast and plan forward for things like your member numbers and your revenue?
Melissa: Yeah, that’s a really good point. We’ve had some pretty good and consistent forecasting models and you saw both a top-down and a bottom up method. And that has worked pretty well for us in the past, because things have been pretty predictable. We had pretty predictable, let’s say renewal rates and responsiveness to marketing spend.
So our ROIs were really consistent and we were really dialing that in and we’re pretty, pretty efficient. We also had pretty consistent conversion in our various sales channels. So by that, I mean at our box office, our contact center and over web, the world is changing. So not only do we have aspirations to grow outside our geography, which where we will have probably different dynamics, um, no doubt, but the world is changing now, post pandemic, most of our transactions are happening online. And so our web channel conversion is becoming more and more important. So we’re really dialing that in. So I think on what we’ve had as a very predictable model forecasting model in the past, we’re having to really think about it again and sort of imagine in how it might need to change.
So things like that we didn’t really measure before, or really included in our model brand awareness, because we were pretty ubiquitous within our geography. It just, wasn’t, you know, everybody knew about us, so we didn’t really need to measure it. As you imagine, if we go outside our geography, our brand development and brand awareness will probably be a factor and we’ll probably see different acquisition costs and ROIs.
So we’re going to have to kind of ease into it. We’ll have to make some assumptions and see how we do against the assumptions, sort of rebuild the model.
Angie: You’ve mentioned quite a few different areas of the organization. You’ve got your member products team by the sounds of it and sales and even donors involved there, potentially visitor services, if it’s about the visit you mentioned. You’ve got some external partners around things like dining and then coming into potentially exhibitions. I imagine retail, et cetera. How do you get all of those people and all of those different teams to collaborate around those goals and that strategy?
Melissa: I love to say that it’s, it’s perfect and seamless and it all works perfectly, but we find that, that we have a very passionate mission aligned organization. And this has improved over time where people really understand that earned revenue drives our mission delivery as well. And so while many of the areas you mentioned report to me and I have probably more influence over it, not all of them.
But I have not found it difficult to get people to come to the table to talk about our ultimate goals. And they’ve been very, very responsive about how can we, for example, create a membership product that is consistent with what we do and delivers value for our members. And if that means we need some custom experiences developed that other people have to, other parts of the organization have to deliver on, they’ve been very responsive.
I think a lot of times, if you start something out as a pilot, and see how it goes. If it goes well, then you can expand it. And if it doesn’t, you have a culture that says, okay, we tried it, didn’t work, onto the next.
Angie: So last question, Melissa, I’m curious about what the post COVID world is unfolding to be at the Academy in this area? What changes have you seen?
Melissa: Oh, well, I [00:25:00] nodded to, or mentioned before and that’s how people, how people are transacting were requiring online reservations, as many places are. So we’re seeing things really change from, you know, 80% of pre pandemic would just sort of show up and buy a ticket or buy a membership. And it was a lot more spontaneous. Now, 80% are buying ahead of time and we have a lot better visibility, which helps us do sort of mundane things like staffing, but it also helps us communicate with our visitors and members ahead of time and allows us to talk about them, their visited and their experience and continue the relationship afterwards.
So that’s a really positive change that we’re seeing. We were really fairly surprised and I think really happy that while we were closed for almost a whole year, we had 50% of our members stayed members and gave us additional money. During that time they believed we would come back and wanted to make sure that we had the wherewithal to do it so that Goodwill, we want to continue to carry forward.
And we provided a lot of really interesting digital content for them. And we are continuing that while we talked about it at the time as a pivot, it’s a permanent pivot, which does require additional investment, but that digital content has been really well received. We’ve had really good engagement rates.
And even after we’ve re reopened, we’ve seen an appetite for that. So that’s another change that’ll continue into the next. It’s so heartwarming to hear, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard it either of how well the public has stepped up to support its cultural institutions at a difficult time for so many.
Angie: And here’s hoping the world’s visitors, keep up that habit of advanced booking, even once the pandemic is over, it makes all of our lives so much easier.
Melissa: Yeah, it does. We are thinking about whether different different audience types have different abilities to preplan or different freedoms, not to preplan. So we’re, you know, thinking how do you position some of that pre-planning as in the visit, or a members’ best interests, right? You, if, you know, reserve this time, because you can have sort of an exclusive quieter experience or something like that. So I think there’ll be a lot of continued experimentation going forward. That is really good for the good for the industry. And I think you’re probably hearing this from other folks, but we’ve also had been very gratified by how fast things have come back and that we are a valued part of the community and cultural experiences are thriving.
And maybe in some cases as much as they were in 2018 and 19, which is great, hopefully that doesn’t, you know, fizzle out. I don’t think it will.
Angie: That’s a great note to finish on, rapid growth and quick innovation being what we need as an industry to thrive. Thank you so much, Melissa, for sharing such amazing insights with us today, I really admire the way that you lead with purpose that relates to your mission and trickle that through the loyalty experience at the Academy. And thank you for joining.
Melissa: Absolutely. It was my pleasure. Take care.

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