Interpretation…or Visitor Experience?

Today I attended a conference titled, ‘The Role of Interpretation in Tourism’.  As may be expected, none of the speakers questioned that interpretation was an intrinsic part of any tourism effort.  This is not a given however: at a conference a few months ago, the host country’s Director of Tourism unblushingly claimed that interpretation had nothing to do with tourism.  Even the most conservative of interpreters is likely to disagree with him, and yet many interpreters themselves have a similarly compartmentalised if not downright territorial approach to our own discipline.  I still get into discussions with fellow interpreters who draw a firm line that is not to be crossed between interpretation and marketing for example.  Such a jealously guarded distinction may work in the automobile industry, but in our sector it can quickly deliver the death blow to our joint efforts.

Let me cite an example from one of today’s speakers.  David Anderson, now Director General of the National Museum Wales, reported on a meeting with the Heads of Marketing and Press at the Victoria and Albert Museum while he was Director of Learning and Interpretation there.  Visitor numbers had been low, and the three heads of department compared who they were targeting, and how.  They quickly realised that they did not go for the same audiences nor the same image at all.  The lack of collaboration and communication had resulted in each department failing in their effort to make their museum a success.

Jonathan Jones, Director of Tourism and Marketing at Visit Wales, said that interpretation begins off-site, when visitors make the decision on whether or not they want to come [1].  He highlighted that a big part of what his organisation sells (!) is the interpretation of and at cultural sites.  I can’t make a statement about how successful Visit Wales is in promoting Welsh cultural heritage, but the point I’m making is that Jonathan wasn’t compartmentalising interpretation.  In his very pragmatic view interpretation was part of a larger whole.

That whole is the visitor experience.  In fact, if I read correctly between the lines of the key note speech given by Tony Berry, Director of Visitor Experience at the National Trust, ‘visitor experience’ is the term that the National Trust use, rather than ‘interpretation.’ It encompasses much more than what the traditionalists refer to as ‘interpretation’, and actually Tony proceeded to start his speech with a slide that read, ‘Interpretation is dead’.

Of course this was an intentionally provocative statement (at an interpretation conference!) but at the same time the National Trust did make a very clear decision here to leave behind the term ‘interpretation’.  What they have done is placed greater emphasis on what has  been an admittedly small part of interpretation literature.  The National Trust have cast their net much more widely than simply looking at interpretation as conveying interpretive themes through communication media.  The term ‘visitor experience’ is also representative of a shift in the philosophical approach: the visitor is brought to the centre and the intention is to give them an experience that begins at their first contact with a site until they leave it.

Nothing in that is new.  And in my mind, most of the above is included in the definition of interpretation.  However, once the conceptual development has reached a certain stage, in some areas professionals with a different skills set and training will need to take over, such as the marketing team.  ‘Visitor Experience’, rather than ‘Interpretation’, does away with over-zealous protection of what is considered one’s professional field.  Under this umbrella term, interpretation can neatly blend into tourism promotion and marketing without causing unnecessary headaches over whether this blurring means one or the other becomes superfluous as a discipline: it is all part of creating the ‘visitor experience’.  Using the term ‘visitor experience’ may therefore be better able to integrate different departments and ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymnsheet.

What the National Trust have done so publicly seems to be a trend in the UK. I think other organisations will follow suit and formally define visitor experience  management structures (whether by that name or not) of which interpretation will be a part.  Visitor experience roles will require specialist interpretive skills alongside general supportive skills that allow for a more holistic approach.  Interpretation will continue to require specialist education and research with regard to planning and media.  However, as part of heritage management on site it needs to be better integrated than what we have seen in the past.  ‘Visitor Experience’ may just be the right term for the job.



[1] John Veverka includes this in his section on Visitor Orientation Needs (Veverka, J, 1995.  Interpretive Master Planning. Tustin: Acorn Naturalists).  It’s also the Decision Phase in Lisa Brochu’s Visitor Experience Model (Brochu, L, 2003. Interpretive Planning. The 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects. Fort Collins: The National Association for Interpretation).  Interestingly, I still only rarely hear interpreters talk about these stages when they talk about interpretation.


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