Attractions Africa 2017 recently brought together more than 100 attractions professionals at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria. They were gathered for the only conference on the continent specifically for tourist-attractions professionals who want to network, and share and seek solutions.

Attractions Africa founder and chair Sabine Lehmann believes managing an attraction is both an art and a science. “I find that most attraction managers bring their own passion for their subject – that’s why they are in charge of a zoo or a national park or a museum … because they’re curating those experiences.

Sabine Lehmann opening the Attractions Africa 2017 conference

Sabine Lehmann opening the Attractions Africa 2017 conference

“But what we also need to understand is that it’s also a science and the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented, so if you can learn from someone else what they’ve done and what works, this [Attractions Africa] is the place to find out,” said Sabine.

The conference, which took place from 7 to 8 June, featured international speakers and local professionals sharing case studies. “We are all the sum total of our experiences,” said museum expert Lizzy Moriarty, a message that was echoed by several other presenters and delegates.

Lizzy Moriarty speaking at Attractions Africa 2017

Lizzy Moriarty speaking at Attractions Africa 2017

Lizzy, who has 15 years’ experience in the museum sector and was responsible for developing the London-based British Museum’s international partnerships, spoke about the so-called “experience economy”, how experience is the attractions industry’s main commodity, and how attractions can measure their value to visitors.

She focussed on the importance of continuous evaluation by an attraction to establish visitors’ needs, build loyalty, encourage positive word of mouth, recruit new visitors, get repeat visits, and enhance its brand.

Attractions should get to know themselves by assessing exactly what they have to offer, what makes them stand out, and what they want to achieve by engaging with visitors and staff, Lizzy said. “Once you know what you’re about, your strategic objectives can be about being it.”

Other topics of discussion – all touching on creating exceptional experiences – included how Airbnb is reinventing travel, using technology at attractions, how to become less weather dependent, and ways to improve visitor safety.

Andreas Andersen, first vice-chair of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), and CEO and president of Liseberg Group in Sweden, which operates one of the most-visited amusement parks in Europe, said guest safety is a universal issue: “When people go out with their family and friends, they expect safety.”

He believes that at the fast pace at which things change, the attractions industry has to be even more adaptable than others, because attractions often have high public profiles and vast consumer and guest interaction.

Andreas added that safety will become increasingly important in the future. “Safety starts with company culture and the human factor. We have to create and maintain a safety culture in our attractions and industry.”

Velma Corcoran, Airbnb’s regional market consultant for Southern Africa, said millennials value experiences more than ownership, which has helped drive Airbnb’s growth. She added that 76% of Airbnb listings are outside tourist areas and the big uptake of bookings indicates that travellers want to live “like locals”. It’s all about “real people, real homes and real experiences”.

Just like Lizzy, Constitution Hill CEO Dawn Robertson believes you have to understand an attraction’s purpose to its visitors in order to thrive. Constitution Hill is a heritage attraction that is home to a former military fort and a prison where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were once imprisoned, as well as the Constitutional Court, and yet it is in an urban centre with many passers-by. Having identified urban youth as key users, and to enhance the visitor experience, the attraction is developing a mobile app and will be constructing a new visitor centre, including a coffee shop and working space for young creatives.

Representatives from the Cape Town Big 7 attractions – Cape Point, City Walk, Groot Constantia, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, the Robben Island Museum, Table Mountain Cableway and the V&A Waterfront – explained how their collaboration benefits each of them.

Representatives of the Cape Town Big 7

Representatives of the Cape Town Big 7

They consider their collective buying power their biggest strength, and work with large and small industry partners to market their offerings and the city. They believe cross-marketing is vital, so staff at each of the seven attractions are well informed and encouraged to share the other partners’ information with visitors.

Sabine discussed how managers can future-proof their attractions by understanding what motivates people to visit them. Trends influencing these drivers include a strong focus on personal transformation, the interplay between burnout and switch-off (people want to be connected, but they also want to slow down), the “luxury of bragging rights”, and “YOLO” (you only live once).