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Escape rooms, axe-throwing, fully immersive cubes, a giant in Sphere in Las Vegas, sledgehammering a car in a rage room, or spilling your cocktail while mastering giant Jenga.

In the last few years, we’ve seen an explosive demand for new and unique attractions. People are flocking to one-of-a-kind entertainment and novel experiences: XR, “eatertainment,” and “artainment,” to name a few. Dinner and a movie have never been so passé.

Giudizio Universale. Michelangelo and the Secret of the Sistine Chapel Press Photo 

It’s a major shift in the attractions market, one that promises new opportunities for venue owners who can think outside the box. But pulling off an exciting new experience is much more challenging than most owners think.

If you build it, they will come — and post it on Instagram

The data is in: Traditional cultural attractions haven’t pivoted fast enough post-Covid, particularly to combat the decline in international tourism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in museum attendance. By the first quarter of 2023, both Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London were still only receiving around 80% of pre-Covid 2019 visitor numbers. That same quarter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it was down 1.7 million annual visitors compared to its pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, the National Gallery in the UK saw the biggest drop in visitors of any other museum in the world and is projecting that they won’t reach pre-Covid levels again until the end of 2024 or early 2025.

Attendance Data from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

In the domestic market, however, there’s been significant demand for new types of entertainment. Instead of hitting a movie theatre or a museum — a fairly static, passive experience after so many months of lockdown — people are flocking to active attractions like go-karting, restaurants with popular leisure games, and Meow Wolf– and teamLab-style digital art experiences.

Meow Wolf’s otherworldly Location Based Experiences

Part of the shift is driven by the phenomenon of “competitive socialising,” which involves filling your Instagram account with new and exciting experiences. Many of these new attractions have shareability baked into them, with colourful backdrops and feed-worthy visuals to show off online.

A ‘handful’ of Instagrabable moments at Squint’s immersive exhibit for the Empire State Building 

Another part of the shift is motivated by an appetite for novelty. It’s a case of reciprocal supply and demand. As people post about new attractions, more people want to experience those attractions, and the market grows to include even more new attractions.

Advancements in digital technologies can’t be discounted, either. New tech is driving many emerging attractions, augmenting immersivity and providing digital add-ons to physical experiences. One example is the Squint-supported (in collaboration with Charcoal Blue Experience and Eletrosonic)  F1® DRIVE go-karting experience at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. 

Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium 

The experience offers a layered digital experience with real-time race data, overhead lighting to communicate with drivers and a virtual race engineer who provides race updates. The augmented technology makes it a far cry from ordinary go-karting, as does the F1® DRIVE IP and merchandising (more about this a little later).

F1® DRIVE – London

For venue owners, the skyrocketing demand for novel experiences presents a potent opportunity, so it can be tempting to dive in head-first. Unfortunately, succeeding in today’s attractions market is not as simple as adopting the latest trend. We’ve likely hit the saturation point for escape rooms, bars with video game arcades, and other common ideas. Owners can no longer expect to copy and paste any old concept into their space and succeed.

Finding the right permutation of plays

The most successful attractions will use a tailored approach to leverage the authentic assets of a venue and combine them with new “plays” for visitor attention. These plays might be anything from incorporating elements of a popular franchise to honouring a building’s historic legacy.

IP deals are one popular play, like the David Hockney show at the Lightroom, the War of the Worlds immersive experience, the BBC Earth Experience, and more. 

The F1® DRIVE – London experience at Tottenham Hotspur stadium, for example, has brought in thousands of new visitors on non-match days.  

While Squint wasn’t involved in the original idea to create go-karting in the stadium’s basement, we immediately understood the importance of the IP, so we translated key brand elements into multidimensional touchpoints throughout the F1® DRIVE – London experience.

Many successful attractions also combine offerings in new and inventive ways. The Shard in London, for instance, draws in guests with its views but also offers champagne to make the experience more premium. At the Battersea Power Station, visitors similarly come for the Lift 109 Experience but stay for the high-end retail, dining, and glass of fizz. 

Squint created immersive experiences for LIFT 109 at Battersea Power Station.

AT the AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys Club (designed by our colleagues at ICRAVE a Journey Studio) offers the ultimate tailgate experience on game days and fine dining when the Dallas Cowboys aren’t playing.

ICRAVE created the interior and lighting design for the Cowboys Club at AT&T Stadium

Regardless of the exact combination of plays, it’s important that owners capitalise on what they already have while staking out a unique corner in the market. Copycat or plug-and-play experiences don’t work anymore; what’s successful for one competitor won’t be able to be duplicated on the other side of town.

Not just another business plan

Choosing the right offerings is just the start. Transforming an existing venue into an exciting new attraction is a monumental undertaking, from reimagining layouts to incorporating cutting-edge technology to ensuring a seamless visitor experience. It requires creative thinking, a keen eye for detail, strategic financial planning, and much more.

The impulse for venue owners might be to lead with a tried-and-true business plan. However, old business models are modelled on pre-Covid trends and data, making them much less useful in the new attractions market. It’s also difficult to do market testing for a new kind of attraction, since you can’t know how that attraction will actually perform or how much people will spend on it until it’s been created. This means that backers and prospective investors can often struggle to understand the potential of a plan.

Showtown Blackpool is a new museum of Fun and Entertainment and resides in a hotel complex on the Golden Mile Promenade. (Immersive Exhibits by Squint/Opera, Exhibition Design by Casson Mann.)

At the same time, a new attraction can’t be led solely by the creative team, either. An artistic vision for a project can be incredibly innovative and exciting… but that vision still has to be attached to revenue generation. Otherwise, the attraction won’t be financially sustainable in the long run.

Interactivity and cross-generational appeal are key to the success of location-based experiences. Showtown Blackpool (Immersive Exhibits by Squint/Opera, Exhibition Design by Casson Mann).

The truth is, it’s no longer enough to just invest in a novel attraction. Today’s market calls for a smooth, strategic blend of business savvy and creative innovation. There’s a sized audience opportunity, and under and over-investing in your attraction can be fatal. Ultimately, the business side needs to be open to unique ideas in the market, while the creative side needs to acquire a deep understanding of target audiences and spending habits.

Combining the commercial with the creative

At Squint, we’re continually developing and honing our processes to make sure we seamlessly integrate the commercial with the creative when we design new attractions.

First, we size the opportunities on the market and collect data on target audiences. We perform benchmarking of similar and adjacent experiences in great detail, collecting visitor counts, demographic data, Trip Advisor reviews, Google Search trends, and sentiment indexing. (For our Lift 109 experience, for instance, we conducted sentiment analysis on reviews of the Shard, a strong benchmark in the local market.) Essentially, we get under the hood, exploring what the competing attractions are doing, how their visitor experience is being received, and how successful their business model is.

Lift 109 Experience at Battersea Power Station
Lift 109 at Battersea Power Station

We then convert that commercial data into something that creatives can riff off, creating ideal visitor profiles with names, faces, aspirations, pain points, budgets, and more. We also identify key visitor personas like the luxury connoisseur, the sociable maximalist, and the family fun seeker. Our persona enrichment even extends to mockups of Forbes articles and visitor Instagram posts to help the team consider what’s important to different audiences. By alchemising the cold data and graphs into something visually tangible, we give the creative team a highly usable context that is closely tied to the financial realities of the project.

Once the creative vision has been developed, we offer high-tech previews, storyboards, and showcases to communicate a visitor’s POV experience of a unique, unmissable attraction. With CGIs and digital twins, we preview what the entire customer visit will look and feel like from start to finish.

Our digital twin for Lift 109 at Battersea Power Station 

We can also identify opportunities for upselling, which has become very popular at some attractions. Adding champagne, caviar, and a private driver — or simply more varied dining options — can all draw in premium visitors. At F1® DRIVE – London, for instance, there are four headline go-karting experiences that can be upgraded with everything from race simulators and official F1® DRIVE merchandise to a Tottenham Hotspur stadium tour. The result is highly customisable experiences that appeal to a broad range of visitors.

Beyond the marquee: closing thoughts

Turning an under-utilised venue into a powerhouse attraction is no small task. It requires strategic planning and big-picture vision to unite the best commercial and creative strategies. It also requires a highly nuanced understanding of the venue’s target audience and unique positioning. Planners need to be laser-focused on the details to understand why a venue should invest in this user experience versus that one, in Touchpoint A versus Touchpoint B. Meanwhile, designers need to have expertise in a wide range of technologies to keep audiences interested.

Ultimately, the offerings that succeed in our post-Covid landscape will be the ones that are tailor-made for their market. Every venue is different, and the right combination of plays will be as unique and distinctive as a fingerprint. 

Take it from us: Crafting a unique experience that resonates authentically with its audience can be incredibly rewarding. Is your venue up to the challenge?

Written by

Ben Townsend

Project Director

Ben is a Project Director at Squint/Opera, overseeing creative, strategic and technical aspects of major exhibition and multimedia projects. He connects the dots between Squint’s talented team and our clients’ design teams to deliver experiential projects globally including Across Ages in Oman, Battersea Power Station Chimney Lift in the UK and Peak Tramways on Hong Kong – combining his background in architecture with a passion for creating impactful, digital experiences. …