Cultural heritage and ICT in the experience economy

A concept that has inspired much reflection about changes in the preferences of consumers is the “experience economy”. The core idea is that people increasingly prefer goods and services which allow for enriching and memorable experiences. Experience has become a core value of consumption because people want to lead more intensive and meaningful lives, they seek after emotions and meanings, and want to participate in activities in a more individual way. (Pine & Gilmore 1999; Schmitt 2003; Boswijk et al. 2007; Sundbo & Sörensen 2013)

Thus vendors and service providers must differentiate their products by transforming them into experiences which engage the consumer. The concept fits perfectly for the culture, tourism and leisure sectors. But it has also influenced other sectors where the success of organisations and businesses depends highly on the experiential value of their products and services.

There is an enormous growth in experience-rich travel and leisure offerings such as experience travel packages, new types of hotels (e.g. Ice Hotel, boutique or wellness hotels), themed retail malls (e.g. the Eataly Italian food malls), visitor centres of consumer brands (e.g. Autostadt Wolfsburg), theme parks, event gastronomy and so forth. Also science centres have invested a lot in new attractions and engaging experiences.

Cultural heritage organisations should be aware of this trend, be clear about their position, and define and create distinct experiential values for visitors both on-site and online. This does not mean that heritage sites should become entertainment venues and produce spectacles, but seek to find new ways of communicating heritage in engaging and enriching ways (see the Brede Works case study, for instance).

Communicating experiential value

Customers today want to have “success guaranteed” before they actually buy a product. This is relatively easy with standardized and primarily functional products, but not with products and services that are marketed based on their experiential value. Communicating the experiential values of an offer, e.g. visiting a historic town,  monument or other heritage site, is difficult, because the visitor will gain the enriching and memorable experiences only when he or she is there. Though it is the perceived values that will make people want to actually visit it.

Heritage sites are often lacking out in the communication of experiential values, for example in promotional and interpretive information (cf. Hayes & MacLeod 2007 for material on heritage trails, Voase 2007 for visiting a cathedral). Interactive websites and media allow for more options to convey experiential values, however there considerable requirements must be fulfilled. Below we summarise some options and their requirements:

State-of-the-art Web portals

A portal will be required in cases such as a historic town where more than one heritage site need to be communicated. This is about a comprehensive offer of value propositions, though not in the typically product-driven approach of a “travel package”. The focus should be on the experiential values of monuments and historic buildings, markets and events, creative cultural courses, local producers, quality retailers, gastronomy, etc.

The overall offer and each individually need to be presented with carefully chosen visuals and messages, centred on what the visitor will experience. Multi-lingual content will be required, at least for the main visitor segments. A content-rich Web portal can offer a virtual visit of the town, though care must be taken that people do not get lost in a multitude of sub-pages. More advanced Web solutions could provide a kind of online stage, with scenes of different cultural places and proposed engaging activities and experiences.

It should be clear from the above, that platforms of cultural routes or several towns cannot be more than a marketing outlet, a tool for being present alongside other sites which are combined under a common theme. Typically such outlets also offer hotel booking services, city cards, etc. (e.g. Historic Highlights of Germany, a marketing platform of 13 cities in Germany, or Kleine historische Städte, a platform of 18 small historic towns in Austria).

Mobile tour guides

Mobile tour guides typically offer visitors different thematic entry points and suggestions for walking tours around the town or along a cultural route with information about places and objects, what to look for specifically, etc. Our case studies include some examples, e.g. literary heritage (Edinburgh), pilgrim route (Church on the Move) or a combination of unique local features (Knappensteig). It is very likely that we will see many more mobile augmented reality applications offering a “time travel” experience like Zeitfenster. Placing QR codes with URLs on panels can allow tourists also to capture and send back home links to webpages about places they are visiting (e.g. Church on the Move, Matera).

Participation of local people and institutions

Historic towns and other cultural sites sometimes find it difficult to communicate the cultural richness and specific character of the place. Therefore stereotypic marketing messages are used which are meant to create a “brand”. But brands live through recognised value and people who identify with the product, communicate this and might even participate in a community (e.g. Harley Davidson fans).

A distinctive approach is to involve local people in the communication of cultural experiences and place-specific cultural contexts. Personal voices of people who live and work in the area can communicate to potential visitors the specificity of the town, particular places and activities such as local events. Local historians, site managers and curators can contribute too. This may create an emotional resonance and first personal attachment of visitors with the town, its people and places.

Visitors’ own content and stories

Strongly related to people’s quest for enriching experiences and self-fulfilment is the increasing use of digital tools for documenting their own way of life. Ever more people capture images and videos of leisure and travel activities using digital cameras. Many place them on content sharing platforms such as Flickr or YouTube which have seen tremendous growth in user-created content. More and more people also express their own ideas using Web-based tools such as Weblogs.

Cultural heritage sites can benefit from inviting visitors to share images, stories and testimonials on a dedicated website (among our case studies Clunypedia, for instance). Possibly a community of people will form who share an interest in the particular and similar cultural sites. Contributions of visitors may also provide clues for enhancement of experiential values and visitor management. However, for cultural heritage institutions the challenge will often first be embracing the idea of cooperation with a (non-professional) online community, and then to nurture an evolving and thriving community that crosses the virtual as well as the physical space.

Interactive installations

Finally some notes on interactive installations which are a local, usually in-door experience, e.g. in museums or accessible monuments. Installations require much thought and creativity to add experiential value. Firstly, they are not meant to provide orientation, information and advice, which is anyway available from the reception, panels, audio-guides, etc. Secondly, installations compete with the actual experience of the museum or monument. No wonder therefore that various interactive applications have been found to under-utilized. (Owen et al. 2005; Economou & Pujol 2011; LEM 2013) If interactive installations do not offer special experiences, e.g. perceptions and insights otherwise difficult or impossible to convey, they will be perceived as an unnecessary “add on”.

In addition to the challenge of creating a truly engaging and inspiring installation, also some practical requirements of must be noted: the implementation must be stable, easy to understand and use by visitors, and manageable by site staff. The technology should be mature but not likely to be outdated quickly. The special experience will become outdated if it mainly depends on the technology rather than imagination and creativity.

Concerning all interactive technologies and media, the users’ expectations and measures for cultural heritage applications will become increasingly demanding. They are not set by the sector but by leisure and entertainment offerings, produced with budgets and teams of developers most heritage institutions will hardly be able to afford. This is not an argument for turning cultural heritage sites into entertainment venues, but a warning that offerings that do not inspire and engage will not find a wider appeal. Therefore the institutions will have to invest a lot of imagination and creativity in how to enhance the experiential dimension of heritage values. This will particularly be the historical and social values, i.e. connecting people in novel ways with the past as well as the meaning of heritage in the modern society.

Results of the CreativeCH workshop on “Cultural heritage and ICT in the experience economy”

The topic has been addressed by the CreativeCH workshop held at the INVTUR 2012 Conference (Aveiro, Portugal) on the 17th of May 2012.
Workshop highlights