Today’s Destination Visitors

By Diane Lochner and Tom Owen
From Dimensions
November/December 2013

Now that the United States has passed through the crucible of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, destination visitors, both locals and those traveling, are back. And they are wiser, seek greater value, and are more sensitive to “pain points” (see graph) than ever before.

In May 2013, PGAV Destinations, a destination design and consulting firm in St. Louis, Missouri, and H2R Market Research published a study of destination visitors across the United States. The study evaluated the shifting priorities of today’s visitors and how their needs and wants drive their behavior.

PGAV Destinations conducted an online survey of adults who had visited at least one U.S.-based leisure attraction in the previous two years. The 524 respondents included an equal number of males and females, and approximately one-third of respondents had children still living at home. The respondents included 25% who were ages 18–34, 39% ages 35–54, and 36% ages 55 and older. They had visited a range of destinations, and the top 10, in order of most visited, were zoos, museums, theme parks, aquariums, historic sites, national and state parks, casinos or gaming attractions, special events or festivals, major sporting events, and water parks.

In this article, we present key findings from this study and compare them with a prerecession study, published in May 2008, to track key shifts in consumer behavior in the post-recession era. The 2008 study included 529 respondents with similar demographics to the 2013 study respondents.

Results from the 2013 study

The data revealed that when people first start planning to visit a destination, they think of specific associations and intentions. Foremost in their thoughts are three powerful emotional drivers: reconnect with my loved ones, please the people I care about, and have fun together. As people begin to research and decide how best to achieve these motivations, they seek practical activities such as shopping, dining, attractions, and interactive experiences. In addition, 62% of respondents indicated that they look for attractions and activities that help them learn something new.

At their destination, people participate in diverse activities, as can be expected from the wide range of destinations in the United States. The seven activities they are most likely to participate in are, in order, going on family rides, going on thrill rides, viewing exhibits, going on water rides, eating with friends and family, shopping, and participating in educational demonstrations. The roots of why they participate in these different activities are similar. Their reasons echo the emotional drivers of planning, with the most common reason for choosing an on-site activity being to reconnect with friends and family in a fun environment. Closely tied for second place are three other reasons: time together with loved ones, a fun getaway with friends and family, and being with others who wanted to go.

A destination is only successful if it meets its visitors’ needs and desires. In the 2013 research, PGAV Destinations asked about visitor satisfaction. Regardless of the specific destination, 49% of respondents were somewhat or very satisfied with the quality and variety of places to eat, 41% were somewhat or very satisfied with the quality of the service, and 33% were somewhat or very satisfied with their shopping experience.

To feel satisfied with their attraction visit, respondents indicated their five most important needs, in order of priority, as a quality product; value for money spent; a safe, worry-free experience; relaxation; and an experience that’s out of the ordinary.

Then and now

What has changed since the beginning of the recession? At the top of the list is people’s increased interest in relaxing opportunities. A 2010 American Psychological Association (APA) report, Stress in America, suggested that the struggling U.S. economy is helping generate an overstressed population. Further, people are aware of their unhealthy levels of stress but are simply too busy to foster a work-life balance and engage in healthy activities. This vicious cycle keeps them in highstress mode and in need of relaxing opportunities.

Other differences from the 2008 study are that people today generally engage in more preplanning, are more likely to stay closer to home (not fly), are more likely to visit less crowded places, and prefer experiences that are less commercial. In general, people are more stressed and therefore more specific about what they want to do in their limited free time.

In the 2008 study, PGAV Destinations also looked at people’s predisposition to splurge—to spend a little extra money for a premium experience. The data indicated that 57.8% of visitors were willing to splurge occasionally, and 24.9% of them did splurge. Most of these people were in Generations X and Y (defined as people born 1965–78 and 1979–95, respectively) and had visited zoos, aquariums, and theme parks. Also, the research revealed that people were motivated to splurge by wanting to create special memories and have opportunities to be great parents.

Today, despite having come through a recession, people will still spend more money for a premium experience. In the 2013 study, the percentages were even up slightly from the prerecession study, with 58.3% of respondents willing to splurge and 25.1% following through. However, visitors’ motivations to splurge have changed. Creating memories remains in the top three, but people are now more interested in opportunities that can reduce their stress or give them personal enrichment. In addition, they want activities that give them plenty of choice and control, and things they couldn’t do anywhere else. Today’s splurgers are also looking for quality, convenience, comfort, access (like behind-the-scenes tours), and personalization (one-on-one interaction with an expert). The interest to splurge is greatest among adults younger than 40 and parents with children younger than 18.

At the beginning of the recession, PGAV Destinations also surveyed destination-goers to find out specifically where they wanted to visit and how strong that intention was. Now, people are more likely to look for destinations that are closer to home, warm and sunny, and peaceful and relaxing. Respondents in 2013 showed interest in visiting places such as national parks; the Hawaiian Islands, California, Florida, and other sunny destinations; inspiring locations like Florida’s Space Coast; and mountain resorts like those in Colorado. Their intent to visit these areas is even stronger than it was prerecession.

The most popular visitor destinations in both studies were zoos, museums, and theme parks. In 2013, 66% of respondents had visited a zoo in the previous two years, 63% had visited a museum, 59% had visited a theme park, and 35% had visited a science center.

Implications for science centers and museums

The insights from these studies may prove valuable for evaluating your marketing and programming strategies and seeing how well they match with your target audience.

You can greatly strengthen visitor experience by attending to the emotional drivers that motivate people to select a particular destination. In particular, science centers are well placed to provide visitors with interactive experiences, choice and control, activities where they can learn new things, and opportunities to have fun together. Understanding visitors’ motivations is the key to designing and fostering exceptional products and experiences. Designing experiences so that visitors achieve the feeling of reconnecting with their friends and family in fun environments can increase visitor satisfaction, encourage repeat visits, and result in higher net promoter scores (i.e., more people recommending a brand or destination to their friends and family). In addition, people want to do things they couldn’t do anywhere else. Science centers and museums can capitalize on this desire by providing one-of-a-kind opportunities and activities that give visitors a personalized, memorable experience.

The APA data about stress and the PGAV Destinations findings about the need for relaxation and the desire to stay closer to home have powerful implications for product development, as well as for marketing and communications at your institution. This may be an excellent time to refocus efforts on reaching out to your local market, providing simple preplanning tools, and highlighting your destination as “an escape.”

Last, a close investigation of your operations can ensure that you’re addressing all the pain points reported by the study respondents. These items are well within your control through staff training and site development. Attacking less-than-satisfactory experiences head-on can eliminate some of the most glaring visitor pain points and provide more enjoyable, carefree experiences.

We hope the PGAV Destinations research findings have provided a better understanding of the motivators and activities that may be attracting your potential visitors, both those who live locally and those who travel from elsewhere, and what you can do to bring them through your doors.

Diane Lochner is project manager and Tom Owen is vice president at PGAV Destinations, St. Louis, Missouri. The 2013 study described in this article was originally published as The New Destination Visitor: Travel Motivations in the Post-recession Era in Destinology, May 2013. For more information about the studies discussed or for other published PGAV Destinations studies, please contact Ben Cober, director of business development and research.