When the Wow Trumps the Message

Have you ever spent an hour with mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes following trails once traveled by Dian Fossey? Have you had your photo taken with baby pandas in a Sichuan panda reserve where George Schaller once studied these amazing animals? Did you climb out of your panga in the Galapagos to walk in the footsteps of Charles Darwin among blue-footed boobies? Have you watched elephants for hours from a few feet away, as they graze blissfully unaware of the impending threat to their survival on the planet from poaching and loss of habitat.

pandasThere are world-class tourism experiences that have amazing WOW power. The memories may last forever like photos in your personal collection. But they may also rest there virtually untouched, devoid of a lasting message that invites you to become more involved. I have had the pleasure of participating in each of the experiences described. However, an enduring message about conservation and my ability to get involved was lacking in all four situations.

Tourism experiences built on a world-class WOW experience often lack a thoughtful message, usually because guides in those settings tend to lack interpretive training. Without the encouragement of their employers, they may not mention the rich history behind the tour based on devoted researchers, missing the opportunity to invite you to be a donor, sponsor or volunteer. The tourists and their money will continue to roll in with no prompting due to the power of the experience. But the enduring value of bringing a thoughtful message to the experience is simply missed.

Organizations and tour companies that plan such events often have no knowledge of the power of social marketing or interpretive planning. They hope the WOW of what they are doing has enough value to override the need to create more lasting relationships. Is there anything wrong with that? Perhaps, if there is a real desire to sustain the resources that create the opportunities for profits. We left our tour of the Galapagos Islands with an empty feeling that we had shared the “sizzle” of seeing marine iguanas, boobies and sea lions and missed the stories of importance of the legendary islands and endemic wildlife. Our guides had no message. They were bored with us, and bored with the resource. They identified birds when asked, but left us with no lasting connection with the past or future of this unique place. What could have been done differently?

elephantsIn 1997 Dr. Sam Ham worked with Lindblad Expeditions in the Galapagos Islands to help their tours use improved thematic messages in support of the Charles Darwin Research Centre. The impact of his work was dramatic. Improved guide training and messages led to a 270% increase in donations to the research program, helping to ensure the future of the Galapagos Islands and the creatures found only there.

In Rwanda the sale of gorilla permits in 2013 declined from 2012 due to an increase in cost from $500 to $750. The gorilla guides are skilled in taking care of people and delivering an informational briefing about the gorilla family to be visited, but they have not been trained in interpretive skills. Without the additional understanding that the increased fees are necessary to support mountain gorillas 365 days a year, 24-7, that $750 just seems like a lot of money for a one-hour experience.

What we’ve learned over the years is that most guides want to do a better job of connecting visitors to charismatic wildlife. Many of them receive content training, but their key role in helping people understand bigger issues that surround the resource is often missed. Interpretive training requires financial support from conservation organizations, individual donors, and sponsors, but it’s money worth spending if Dr. Ham’s research is an indicator of its value.

The future of many of these species and their habitats may depend on the tourists that come to enjoy an experience with them. But that message must be shared for any action to result. Information about the animals is not enough. Those of us who enjoy the privilege of getting close to these animals should be asked to help. There’s more to say than, WOW!

– Tim Merriman

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