Digital experiences | changing demographics after COVID

Digital experiences | changing demographics after COVID

**** Please visit the themeparks official websites for their latest guidelines and openings ****

by Ellen

Things are looking more optimistic for attractions. Yet we still need to embrace the seismic shift in guest attitudes accelerated by COVID-19.

I don’t know about you, but there’s an air of optimism to our 2022 planning sessions. In the UK, we’re riding on the high of a bumper summer season. One that saw visitors return to attractions in droves and quashed fears that physical experiences would struggle after 18 months of Zoom, Netflix and Dalgona coffees.

In Orlando, for example, despite a severe decline in international attendance this year (which typically accounts for up to 25% of attendees), Universal Studios hit capacity and reached 2019 visitor levels by June. Parks around the world also reported similar levels of engagement.

Universal Orlando Resort

Yes, it finally feels like much of the industry is getting back to what feels like business as usual after 18-months of ‘firefighting’ during the pandemic.

Nonetheless, as attractions start planning for the first full post-pandemic year, we must absorb the long term impacts of COVID-19. We need to adjust strategies to account for what today’s guests want, rather than reverting to pre-pandemic tactics. COVID is here to stay, and so are many of the trends, behaviours and habits it accelerated.

Digital natives are now the dominant source of visitors

Marc Prensky introduced the concept of digital natives and digital immigrants in his 2001 On the Horizon article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”.

In the article, Prensky argued that digital technologies have changed young people so fundamentally that they actually “think and process information differently from their predecessors.”

He believed this made them ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games, and the internet.

Individuals born after 1984 (AKA millennials and gen-z) are considered to be digital natives. As consumers, digital natives have considerable power. They make up over 50% of the workforce and wield around $350bn (£264bn) of spending power in the US alone. What’s more, they’re now parents – the oldest digital natives are approaching 40!

How should attractions respond?

As attractions, we need to take notice of this increasingly powerful visitor segment. We must adjust our experiences accordingly to make sure we account for digital natives’ preferences for digitally enhanced experiences.

Pre-pandemic, digital natives were already more likely to want digitally enhanced services and experiences. And post-pandemic, this tendency has increased significantly

Pre-pandemic, digital natives were already more likely to want digitally enhanced services and experiences. And post-pandemic, this tendency has increased significantly, with demand for self-service options, tap and go payments, web or app-based booking systems, and connected on and offline experiences rising during the past 18-months.

All generations have embraced personal technology

Digital natives have always viewed tech as an integral part of their lives. But another group’s digital behaviour was more profoundly affected by the pandemic.

These are the ‘Digital Immigrants,’ born before 1984. Prensky defines these initially as being technically capable but showing signs of their ‘accents’ through their use of the internet as a reference source, their adherence to user manuals, and their common preference for editing on paper rather than on screen.

During the pandemic, digital immigrants became increasingly dependent on personal technology. This became the primary means of staying in touch with loved ones, escaping from the mundanity of lockdown life and enjoying in-home entertainment.

In a sense, they started to mirror the behaviours of digital natives– they took online courses, organised their finances, ordered groceries for delivery and even enjoyed novelties like Tai Chi classes over Zoom!

However, when it comes to physical experiences, research shows that digital immigrants are more hesitant to visit crowded spaces. They are also more likely to want protective measures like capacity restrictions, social distancing and minimised contact to remain in place at the attractions they choose to visit.

How should attractions respond?

By taking advantage of the digital immigrants’ newfound technical prowess, attractions can use technology like mobile apps, virtual queuing and contactless purchases, to ease crowds, queues and congestion on-site, enhancing the guest experience.

The pandemic has changed all age groups expectations of physical experiences

Some guests have rushed back to attractions. However, research indicates that increasing capacity may not be the best outcome for either guest satisfaction or growth following COVID. It’s always been a hard balance for operators to strike. But now it looks although the scales may be tipping, with guests of all ages favouring quieter, more exclusive experiences.

And, as it turns out, many of the changes brought about by the pandemic proved a hit with visitors.

Measures that reduce capacity (like quotas and operating on a booking only basis) and support social distancing (think contactless payments, self-service restaurant ordering and virtual queuing) are helping visitors of all ages return to our favourite spaces safely. There is also the added benefit of minimising typical sources of friction they encounter during their day.

Waiting in line, for example, has long been the number one bugbear of guests at visitor attractions. But with fewer visitors in the park this season, suddenly entry lines and lunchtime rushes were no more! In exchange for some extra planning – booking in advance – they were able to pack more adventure into their day.

However, when capacity limits relaxed during the summer season and visitor numbers increased, guest sentiment suffered.

A study by Travel Sat and Visit Britain compared guest sentiment to the number of reviews attractions received per month during 2021. As the number of reviews increased (indicating an increase in visitor numbers for that period), guest sentiment decreased. This suggests that higher visitor numbers do indeed impact our experience.

The feedback we’ve captured from our customers corroborates this finding. Many of our customers have found that guests are willing to pay more in exchange for a quieter visit. This has helped to balance out reduced capacities.

How should attractions respond?

It’s time to review your revenue sources. Traditionally, most attraction marketers focus on admissions, meaning success is often determined by the volume of visitors on-site. Instead, can you balance CSAT with revenue and prioritising spending per cap? Based on the research, your guests will welcome the change.

Where are we now?

Despite a bumper summer season, things aren’t going ‘back to normal’ any time soon. Planning for the 2022 season is getting underway. And operators need to make customers post-pandemic preferences a core part of their sales and marketing strategy.

In particular, in light of guest sensitivity to visitor numbers, perhaps it’s time to re-think the prioritisation of admissions over other revenue metrics. After all, volume isn’t the only lever operators can pull.

By listening to guests’ preferences for quieter spaces and re-focusing on alternative growth strategies like driving secondary spending or offering premium experiences, attractions can prioritise the visitor experience whilst simultaneously growing their bottom line.

Digital experiences have a pivotal role to play in achieving this. 67% of respondents in Merlin Entertainment’s Theme Parks Trends 2021 survey still want social distancing measures in place. Tech makes that possible. Mobile apps displaying wait times and virtual queues — whereby guests ask for attraction or restaurant access on an app and are given a return time for a shorter wait — space out visitors and reduce time standing in lines.

At the same time, capabilities like mobile food ordering and direct messaging, help to drive spending across the end-to-end guest journey.

What next?

Join Mark Locker, CEO and founder of, for his IAAPA Edutalk on 4 November 2021 at 11 am EDT ( 3 pm BST).

During the webinar, Mark will expand on the ideas presented in this article. He will also explore how attractions can use digital technology to address these changing consumer needs.

Click here to register your seat.

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**** Please visit the themeparks official websites for their latest guidelines and openings ****



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