Who counts? Why measuring visitation isn’t as simple as it appears

For most visitor attractions, visitation is the metric that matters most. It’s the one number that everyone in the organization can understand, it directly links to commercial outcomes, can be used to demonstrate societal value, used for strategic goal setting, operational decision making and day to day planning. Oftentimes, it’s a number that is proudly displayed on industry leaderboards in the cultural sector and market share analyses in the commercial sector. 

Counting visitation appears simple and clearcut, a black and white depiction of popularity, success and accessibility. In reality, it is anything but.

In fact, there are a handful of examples that show how complicated measuring visitation can be, and how getting it wrong can have devastating effects. In 2018, the National Portrait Gallery in London reported undercounting its visitors after identifying a faulty infrared and optical sensor at its main entrance, leading to negative publicity and impacting its reputation. Most recently in September, the British Museum discovered the same issue with a faulty light bulb that prevented its system from spotting all of its visitors – a miscount that displaced the museum as Britain’s most visited attraction before the error was found.


Visits vs visitors

Some of the questions visitor attractions grapple with relate to the nuance between a visit and a visitor. If a visitor leaves and comes back in a single day, is that one visit or two? What about if they use a two or three day pass? If a visitor walks through the door, uses the restroom and then leaves, is that a visit? Is someone walking through the garden on their way home a visitor? What about someone using the cafe or going to the gift shop, but not entering any other part of the site? If a visitor is a volunteer or docent, do they count? Do attendees at special events like yoga or weddings or conferences count?

These questions are endless and there are no right answers. For organizations that want clarity on their visitation, what matters is that everyone involved has a clear understanding of the provenance of the data and the rules being applied. Whether using footfall counters or admission data, there will be a series of decisions made that relate to each.

Read more: How to win over your board when presenting data


Making sense of your visitation count

As a starting point, here is Dexibit’s three step guide to help you make sense of your visitation count. 

1. Which sources of data will you use for reporting on visitation?

    • Footfall counts, measured either by manual clicker counts or some automatic system such as infrared beams, thermal imaging or video.
    • Admission data from ticketing.
    • Member visits, measured through CRM records.
    • A hybrid of the above methods.

2. If counters;

    • Which counters are included – do you have counter data for every entrance that visitors walk through?
    • Do you accept the count as is, or do you apply a scaling factor to either the total count or the individual counter mitigate for staff or degraded hardware?
    • Do you limit the count to standard opening hours, or accept all hours?

3. If admission data;

    • Which ticket products count? Do you only include general admission, or are there other tickets that you need to include?
    • Which ticket types count and is there a multiplier on these? Some venues choose to exclude members or group tickets from their visitation. Some venues count a single ticket regardless of the number of people admitted by that ticket, others will apply a pax count such as ‘family’ = 4.
    • When do they count? When a ticket is sold? When the visitor is scheduled or booked to attend? Or when the ticket is redeemed and has been scanned as they enter the venue? What happens when they are able to redeem the ticket more than once?

You may also need to think about the way you count visitors versus the way you recognize revenue – for example, you may specifically wait until a ticket is redeemed before your accounting rules permit the revenue from the admission to be counted.

The same rules apply (across both visitation and revenue recognition rules) to the visitation not just of your venue, but of various activities such as exhibitions, experiences or events at your venue (and may differ for each).

Once you have gone to the trouble of working your way through these questions, the most important next step is to document your decisions and review with all relevant stakeholders. This avoids unpleasant relitigation down the line!

By understanding and documenting your visitation data sources and business rules, you are removing the risk that these decisions live buried in a hidden cell in a spreadsheet somewhere, or even worse, in one person’s head. Counting visitation is not a simple task, but with strong data governance and transparency, you can get to an answer that works for your organization.