Are you sitting comfortably?
Over the years that I have been working in the attractions sector I have been lucky enough to visit 100’s of attractions around the world.
I have also been responsible for the conceptualization, design and implementation of many different exhibits ranging from small standalone exhibits to entire attractions.
There is one over-riding lesson that has come out of all of this experience! The absolute need for an exhibition to be built around a unifying story line.
The importance of a storyline
Story lines not only assist the exhibition designers to order their thoughts and ideas when putting the exhibit together but a well-executed storyline guides the visitor through the exhibits, engaging their attention, driving their entertainment and ultimately determining what “take home messages” they leave the exhibition with.
Entertainment or Education?
The role of most attractions is to both entertain and educate the visitor. The balance between these two elements of course depends on what the attraction is!
Theme parks and their counterparts have a balance more toward entertainment whilst Museums & Galleries focus primarily on the educational elements.
No matter what kind of attraction you look at though there is always a balance between the two elements.
Your storyline is your framework
A good storyline gives you the framework to hang both entertainment and education off of.
With many modern attractions the story line is often multilayered. One overarching story will have multiple sub-stories or themes. Some of these themes will run throughout the attraction whilst others are effectively single chapters within the overall experience.
No matter how complex and complicated your story is always ensure it is broken down into small, easily digestible chunks of messaging. Structure the information to ensure the visitor is never overwhelmed with facts or messages. The general rule of thumb is that each information panel or message should never contain more than three pieces of key information.
The story line defines many elements of the visitor’s experience. It will define the key messages that you want to portray, it will determine the rhythm and pace of the experience and it will punctuate the journey with high points and quieter moments.
Listen to the story
One of the main purposes of the story line though, in my opinion, is to keep exhibit renewal and refreshment controlled.
Many of the attractions I have visited over the years have regrettably suffered from “mission drift”. As the operational need to refresh and renew has taken hold all too often new exhibit elements have strayed away or completely ignored the original story line.
When the story gets lost
The result of this, all too often, is an exhibition that simply loses its continuity and flow. Elements of the original story may remain but it is now punctuated with irrelevant and unrelated content which only serves to confuse and disorient the visitor. It also means that the core messages of the original story are lost and the effectiveness of the original concept is forgotten.
With each successive intervention and addition, the story becomes more obscured and ultimately forgotten. The unsurprising result of this is a gradual erosion of visitor engagement, understanding, loyalty and eventually footfall.
To keep your visitors, stick to the story
If you want to maintain or grow your visitor numbers always ensure that new additions to your attraction supplement the core storyline and don’t compete against it. Also make sure you revisit the core story regularly to ensure it is still relevant to your current visitor market, that it is still factual and current and that the engagement levels are as high or higher than they were originally.
When is it time to change the story?
There comes a point in the lifecyle of every attraction when the time is right to tell a different story. Most attractions will need to stick to the same overall theme (Conservation, History, Heritage, etc) but there is always a different story to tell and it may well be that a new story is more relevant and adds more value than the original.
When you realise that this is the case for your attraction don’t hesitate. Plan, design and implement. It may be possible to repurpose elements of your exhibition with a simple make over however other parts of the attraction may need to be replaced wholesale. It is vitally important to ensure that the story you tell is still relevant and engaging for your target visitors. If your exhibit looks dated and out of touch, then your visitors will vote with their feet and your footfall and income levels will quickly diminish.
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