Pine & Gilmore first wrote about the experience economy in 1998 long before anyone thought about crowd-sourcing restaurant ideas on Yelp from the comfort of their Lyft.
Pent-up demand from the pandemic has increased spending on experiences by 65% from 2019 to 2023 in the United States, according to Mastercard’s Travel Industry Trends Report. Despite some uncertainty in the economy, consumers continue to spend on entertainment, food and experiences at destination attractions like theme parks to local attractions like zoos and water parks as well as live events.
Carl Foy, VP of Marketing at American Resort Management, says, “The customer experience no longer starts when consumers park their car and walk through the front gate. It now starts when they go on your website to buy a ticket or they search for something to do on Yelp, Tripadvisor, or on social media.”
LaneTerralever, in partnership with IAAPA, published a comprehensive national study of how all generations are making decisions, where they’re spending, and what impacts satisfaction around entertainment.
Of the people surveyed, 93% plan to visit attractions at the same or greater level in 2024 when compared to 2023. Of note is that 50% of Gen Z and affluent visitors plan to go to even more attractions than they did this past year, making them the two groups with the most positive sentiment heading into next year.
Three Mega Trends to Watch:
1. Uniqueness Matters
Millennials are especially interested in unique experiences, and 67% of the survey population will pay incrementally for them. Families with young kids are especially interested in edutainment — attractions with a learning component. As they become a larger part of the population, attraction operators must showcase history, skills, and other value-adds.
2. Green Friendly
Gen Z expects “green” destination attractions, with 80% of the survey population stating that it is a key driver for them. While it is important to older generations (Gen X and Boomers), it is more of a “nice to have” rather than the reason for selecting a particular brand. Forty-eight percent of visitors are willing to pay more to visit an attraction that has a strong commitment to sustainability.
3. Digitize It
Digital media across all phases of the planning process and on-site experience is now “table stakes.” YouTube videos help 32% of local attraction visitors and 35% of destination attraction travelers decide if an attraction is worth visiting. Affluent visitors, in particular, are more likely to leverage YouTube as part of the planning process. Digital maps and tools that show wait times and create a guided experience are now critical for attraction planning.
Human Touch Is Still Important
What was surprising in the research is that despite the surge in the use of technology and automation before, during, and after the attraction visit, the human touch is still critically important to visitors.
Twice as many Gen Z and Young Millennials as their older counterparts contacted customer service before an attraction visit. Whether it be a bot or a live person answering their questions, a certain level of customer service is expected.
Up to 60% of visitors will lose trust if staff is rude. Although 87% of all visitors will give an attraction at least one chance to make things right, Boomers and Gen X are the least likely group to forgive and forget. Attraction operators need to find ways to attract customer service-focused front-line talent and ensure that their training programs lead to exceptional guest experiences, which can be particularly difficult in today’s job market.
Anthony Palermo, Co-Founder of Connect&GO, reinforces the importance of the entire experience. “We must go from admissions to experience, and we from guests to ambassadors. So it’s not just a ticket to get you in. We’re selling you an experience. Everyone’s a guest. I want you to become an ambassador,” he said.
Consider The Day-Of Purchases
Food and merchandise are critical parts of the attraction’s experience. More than 50% of the survey participants are unsatisfied with the food and dining options offered at local and destination attractions, indicating there is an opportunity for those who make the investment in this area to really stand out.
Tyler Jacobs, Director of Guest Experience at Morey’s Piers & Resorts, speaks to the importance of dining at attractions. “A number of years ago, we didn’t necessarily have the food and beverage and alcohol offerings that we currently do,” he said. “That has since grown and become a huge part of our business. This has opened the door up from being just a family destination to a great place to come on a date. It’s a great place to come hang out with your friends. It’s a great place to grab dinner.”
An impressive 70% of all generations will invest in souvenirs, photos, and other tangible memories of their visits.
Attractions operators are facing a range of new competitors for consumers’ leisure time. As we saw with the recent Barbie movie launch and the Taylor Swift Eras Tour, coupling experiences with brand marketing can draw in cross-generational groups of raving fans. But they can also siphon wallet share from other types of local activities and entertainment.
The old-school bowling alley is now a Family Entertainment Center, with VR games, dining options, and tech-based scorekeeping and competitions. The zoo or aquarium experience has become a sustainable and educational destination, giving young families a way to entertain and teach their kids.
The Means For A Great Experience
Customer experience is critically important because at the end of the day it creates word-of-mouth and word-of-mouse, and I’m not talking about Mickey here. Consumers are using online tools to “find” the next great experience.
Jakob Wahl, President & CEO of IAAPA, probably summed it up best when he said, “We have an industry thriving with innovation and the introduction of so many diverse new products and experiences. New attractions, new consumer offerings, new events, and festivals – all designed to create fresh and unique memories for guests year-round.”