Product or Experience?

Are you planning tourist or visitor products or experiences? It matters how you think about it.

Flumin' da ditch in Hawaii, a boat trip through aqueducts.

Flumin’ da ditch in Hawaii, a boat trip through aqueducts.

Tourist products, like tours, boat rides, or programs, are often viewed by visitors as commodities. They compare your two-hour tour to other diversions of two hours, like a movie. Price becomes an important factor in the decision to buy or not to buy the product. We tend to shop around for commodities and often the lowest price is the deciding factor.

Harvard professors, Pine and Gilmore, describe experience-oriented businesses in their book, The Experience Economy as having five traits:

Thematic design

Harmonize with positive cues

Eliminate negative cues

Mix in memorabilia

Engage all five senses

They point out that people will pay more for experiences than they do for a commodity. Many of our favorite businesses have developed experiences. We pay a lot more for coffee at a Starbucks than their fast food rivals, expecting comfortable chairs, friendly staff, warm ambiance, soft music, newspapers, free Internet and encouragement to stay as long as we want. Many other fast food shops want you to leave quickly and make room for another customer. Their low profit margins require the rapid turnover of customers.

In tourism communities, parks, museums, nature centers, aquariums and historic sites we can plan products or experiences, but experiences pay better and build more lasting relationships with our guests. To plan experiences we have to put some effort into Visitor Experience Design.  Lisa Brochu describes this process in her book, Interpretive Planning: the 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects as follows:

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Experiences begin with the DECISION POINT, the “advance organizers” such as your website,, and brochure displays at airports. They set up what will happen and it’s important to underpromise and overdeliver. The voice of previous customers shows up in reviews on social media sites so when we disappoint someone it hangs around to haunt us.

The ENTRY phase may include the journey to the experience, but it helps prepare us along the way. It tells us that we are welcome and sets the stage for the thematic experience to come. Signage, landscaping, architecture, traffic flow and much more create a rich introduction for the experience that lies ahead.

Hawaii Forest & Trail plans experiences that include great local food snacks along the way.

Hawaii Forest & Trail plans experiences that include great local food snacks along the way.

The CONNECTIONS phase is the heart of the experience. Is it thematic, multi-sensory, and highly engaging to create long-lasting impressions? Too often, poorly planned experiences reek of “been there, done that.” If they are shared with friends later, it’s usually to tell people to skip it, or to complain on Yelp or Trip Advisor. In contrast, people can’t wait to share details about rich experiences and they often plan return visits to bring their friends or family.

The EXIT part of the experience is the place to invite people to return, get their contact information, sell appropriate thematic memorabilia, invite deeper engagement as a volunteer or donor, and thank them for visiting. It can be where you suggest how they might plan a return visit and even get a discount for making it soon.

The COMMITMENT is the follow up. Did you get the engagement you wanted from the guest? Did they buy memorabilia, leave thoughtful comments, pick up the notice of future events or programs, make a donation, become a volunteer, take a behind the scenes tour? We should be tracking the changes we want in measurable terms to know that the experience meets our objectives.

It takes careful planning to create visitor experiences that work well and achieve your objectives. How do you pay for that planning? Usually careful planning keeps you from building infrastructure that is unneeded and helps you place staff where they enhance the experience. The savings realized along with the increased business income can pay for the planning. If you need help with community or visitor experience design, let us know. We would enjoy working with you.

– Tim Merriman

Don’t Dumb it Down

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, interpretation, that’s just dumbing down science so everyone can understand it.” If you’re an interpreter and you’ve ever said something similar, stop it. If you’re a scientist and you’ve said something like that, stop it. If you’re anybody else, not in one or both of those categories, and you find yourself using that phrase, stop it.

Putting something in terms that relate to that person’s experience or understanding is not “dumbing down.” It’s practicing good communication. And we certainly need more of that these days in all areas of work, home, school, and everywhere else we come into contact with other people.

I recently attended a panel discussion at the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs. The panel of four people offered different perspectives on the topic of the energy industry and its effect on the support (or lack thereof) of Congress and the American public on environmental issues. It was a fascinating discussion, filled with facts, analysis, opinions, and predictions. But what struck me as I listened was the need for more clear communication between the science community and everyone else, related not just to climate change but also every other topic that science touches on.

If scientists or interpreters claim that science needs to be “dumbed down” so that “regular” people can understand it, they’re being incredibly disrespectful to those very people whose support they seek. People are not “dumb” just because they are familiar with things other than that particular subject. Not all of us are nuclear physicists, just as not all of us are doctors, or biologists, or butchers. Everyone, no matter who or how old they are, or what they do, has a language of specialty related to their own experiences.

And this is where good interpretation comes in. Bridging between languages of specialty is as important as bridging between languages of country. You wouldn’t call someone who is fluent in other languages besides your own “dumb.” Instead, I would hope that you would work to find respectful ways to make yourself understood and to understand him or her. Using universal hand signals or pictures rather than words are certainly useful in those circumstances. Hmmm. Universals . . . there are concepts that are universal also, things that relate to almost everyone’s experience as a human being. Good interpretation draws on those universal concepts to help people understand and relate to the topic at hand. Not dumb. Different.

One of the panelists from the other day, Allen Hershkowitz (senior scientist of Natural Resources Defense Council), pointed out the need to get science messages out to the masses. He mentioned the frightening statistic that only thirteen percent of Americans follow science, while sixty-one percent follow sports. It’s no wonder we have people who still believe global climate change is a hoax in spite of the overwhelming evidence otherwise. Hershkowitz’s strategy of asking Hollywood stars and athletes to speak for science is brilliant. He refuses to preach to the choir, which is the fallback position of so many interpreters. We take the easy road, talking only to those people who come to our sites instead of reaching out to nontraditional audiences with important messages about our global natural and cultural heritage resources.

If we want to get those messages across, we need to challenge ourselves to translate more thoughtfully and respectfully, no matter who initiates or participates in the conversation. Stop “dumbing it down.”

Lisa Brochu

Storytellers or Interpreters – Is There a Difference?

Every now and then, I hear or see discussions of storytelling as being roughly equivalent to natural and cultural heritage interpretation. Certainly some interpreters use stories to help others understand places, people and

Costumed interpreters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, use music to share history and demonstrate cannon firing.

Costumed interpreters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, use music to share history and culture.

events. Conversely, some storytellers use an interpretive approach to enrich their work. But I don’t think that storytelling and interpretation are exactly the same thing.

Interpretation is defined by National Association for Interpretation (NAI) in the United States as:

A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.


Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) in the United Kingdom has the following to say about the work of interpreters:

We bring places, objects and ideas to life. We create thought-provoking and memorable experiences for visitors, and connect people with our natural and cultural heritage. We reveal hidden stories and meanings, so deepening people’s understanding and expanding horizons.

An interpreter at Longwood Gardens might tell a story as part of the experience but uses other media and approaches as well.

An interpreter, like Nancy, at Longwood Gardens might tell a story as part of the experience but uses other media and approaches as well such as this “Can you find” activity.

Both statements emphasize making connections and revealing meanings by the use of varied media. The AHI description mentions stories not to define interpretation, but as part of a process to design memorable experiences.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives these definitions for storyteller:

a : a relater of anecdotes

b : a reciter of tales (as in a children’s library)

c : liar, fibber

d : a writer of stories

Telling stories has a rich history of double meanings. Some people tell stories for a purpose, some to entertain and some to mislead. Interpretation has broad meanings outside of the heritage interpretation field and some of those seem to be less than honest, such as dream interpretation or reading palms.

Wikipedia suggests that:

Ghost walks like this one in New Orleans could be storytelling on a walk or interpretation, depending on the guide's motives to entertain or engage the guest.

Ghost walks like this one in New Orleans could be storytelling on a walk or interpretation, depending on the guide’s motives to entertain or engage the guest.

Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images, and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and to instill moral values.

I don’t want to take anything away from storytelling. As a novelist, I enjoy spinning a story out of thin air, and as an interpreter, I enjoy helping people understand the depth behind a person, place, or thing by sharing relevant stories through a variety of media. Perhaps it’s the use of the word “story” that confuses the issue. In interpretation, we certainly talk about using “stories,” but perhaps we should be using the word “meanings” instead to avoid confusion with the process of storytelling.

In heritage interpretation we reveal meanings with a purpose, to help people understand people, places and events. We encourage an attitude shift. We want them to connect with and care more about the resource, place or event. Ideally they then become advocates, donate money or behave in more thoughtful ways. Motivation matters very much in storytelling also. Storytelling encompasses a broad variety of motivations, including deception, entertainment and self-improvement. Interpretive storytellers likely have similar motivations to other heritage interpreters, but use storytelling as their preferred medium.

We will keep using storytelling as a useful approach to interpreting people, places and events, but recognize it is only one of a variety of communication options that help people understand the world around them. We always hope that a deeper understanding leads to a desire to better care for natural and cultural heritage or provide more support for scientific research and exploration.

-Tim Merriman

FameLab – The American Idol of Science Communication


Famelab was hosted in March in Houston at the Lunar Planetary Institute and eight scientists participated.

You’re getting into an elevator and find yourself surrounded by astrophysicists . . . can you just imagine the conversations? I haven’t been in this situation recently, but  I have had the opportunity to increase my exposure to science among the stars. Over the last year, I’ve been asked to be a judge at regional FameLab competitions and I have to say, it’s more fun than I could have possibly imagined.

The FameLab concept originated in the United Kingdom, but was imported to the U.S. by clever folks at NASA. The idea is to provide scientists with an opportunity to demonstrate and improve their skill in describing what they do to an “average person” audience. In other words, taking science to the masses, a much-needed skill set in these days of compromised funding and support for science in general and our space program in particular.

This year, NASA has teamed up with National Geographic to open the competition to other science disciplines, including microbiology, archaeology, geophysics, bioengineering, and more. The competition usually begins with a morning round of three-minute presentations by each of the competitors. The scientists are judged on clarity, content, and charisma – essentially, the judges are asked to answer two questions: did I understand what he or she was saying and did I enjoy hearing about it? Depending on the number of contestants, the judges may then select those who will go on to an evening round, when the public is invited to attend. The winner of the regional competition will go

Famelab judges score the performance of each contestant and give good advice about improving.

Famelab judges score the performance of each contestant and give good advice about improving.

on to compete other regional winners in a national competition and the winner of that will go on to an international competition at the Cheltenham Science Festival in Cheltenham, England. Coaching is provided to all of the contestants and training has been provided by Tim Merriman, co-author of Personal Interpretation: Connecting Your Audience to Heritage Resources, giving each participant the chance to learn more about the art and science of communicating to specific audiences.

See examples from the 2012 competition HERE.