This year’s Visitor Attraction Conference (VAC) was the third year in a row that Adido has attended and supported. For a while now, it has been one of our favourite conferences on the events calendar and once again we were excited to hear from this year’s speakers.

If you’ve never attended, but visitor attraction and tourism marketing is your thing, then you should definitely consider it next year. The day is packed with tourism trends from Visit England; inspiring case studies from visitor attractions large and small, from brand new to heritage-based businesses; as well as practical advice from agency practitioners and solution providers.

The topics prevalent this year, outside of the doom and gloom of Brexit (which I’d rather not touch upon) were:

  • Creativity
  • Risk-taking
  • Being bold
  • Breaking free from convention

Bernard Donoghue (CEO & Director of ALVA (Association of Leading Attractions) once again kicked off proceedings with another elaborately entitled talk called Golf, Gay Daleks and The Far Side of the Moon. A title which sums up all of the above themes and became clearer once the examples were shared.

Against a backdrop of a climate in chaos; EU visitors to the UK dropping but domestic holidays seeing a rise; Bernard shared some of the key upward trends in UK tourism and attraction marketing from the last 12 months:

  • Greater creation and participation in literary events, especially at heritage sites

  • More food and drink festivals held with the most successful ones connecting their themes to the venue (e.g. local provenance)

  • Outdoor screenings remain popular

  • A big rise in escape games, especially at attractions – they are over 1,500 experiences in the UK now

These trends were supported with quite a few examples from cathedrals and churches.

Divine innovation?

The Church of England received much praise in the way it has defied convention and opened it's doors to new experiences and new audiences. They currently seem to be at the cutting edge of attraction marketing, who’d have thought it?

35 million people engage with 14-18 now

Jenny Waldman, CBE echoed the sentiment of these themes in her keynote speech showcasing the fantastic, emotive work from the 14-18 NOW cultural programme to support the WW1 centenary.

Her advice was:


  • Be prepared to take risks and have trust in others to deliver for you - they partnered with over 580 artists in 220 locations to deliver the 14-18 NOW programme and couldn’t have done it without letting the artist lead.

  • THINK BIG - they invited acclaimed film director Sir Peter Jackson to create a new film using original footage from Imperial War Museums’ extensive archive, especially to engage with a youth audience. Now a BAFTA nominated film.

  • Encourage lots of participation and put the power in your people’s hands - over 35 million people engaged and/or participated across the 5 year cultural programme, most notably for the mass-participation artwork PROCESSIONS and Pages of the Sea by Danny Boyle

  • Leverage great partnerships - Pages of the Sea, and We’re Here Because We’re Here couldn’t have happened without the support of institutions like The National Trust and National Rail, through to local shopping centres and small coastal authorities. If you haven’t seen these cultural projects, check out some of the videos below - We're Here Because We're Here can only be described as the most poignant and powerful piece of flashmob ‘art’ I have ever seen...

Whilst the quoted figures are big, they’ll be forgotten about soon, but guaranteed the emotional impact will last a lifetime.

sustainability for attractions

During his talk, Bernard also suggested that the noticeable growth in sustainable attractions over the course of the last 6-7 years was somewhat due to visitor attractions displaying these common characteristics:

  • Being provocative

  • Being disruptive

  • Willing to take risks

  • Stretching the brand and exploring new services and experiences

  • Audience-developing - reaching new audiences, especially less obvious ones

In support of this later in the day we were introduced to the commendable work of sustainable tourism businesses, Holkham Hall & Estate and Chester Zoo, who have found successful ways to engage with their local (and global) communities as well as establish environmentally enriching and highly educational initiatives to make an impact on society.

Check out Chester Zoo’s Sustainable Palm-Oil City initiative and discover how they’ve influenced 54 champions in the local area to support the cause, whilst places like Oxford and Newquay are looking to get onboard.

Holkham Hall & Estate, with over 800,000 visitors per year (+ 200,000 dogs and 5,000 horses) have embraced renewable energies, reduced plastic waste and championed plastic-free food retail as well as finding the right balance for commercial and preservation across their rural estate and landscape-responsibilities.

catering for new audiences

I loved the story from Castle Howard’s Head of Marketing, Abbigail Ollive who shared how the fortunate wedding reception booking for Taiwanese popstar Jay Chou, catapulted the family estate into the Asian market. Asian visitors started to flock to the venue to set foot where their idol celebrated his marriage.

Photo credit: Jay Chou / Facebook

Despite the wedding happening in 2015, the venue has continued to see an influx of Asian visitors. So much so that they have made significant changes to how they communicate and support these tourists from simple Mandarin translations of literature; to the use of Weibo, WeChat & AliPay for communication and payments; through to hiring Mandarin speaking staff and representing their Asian customers via imagery on the Chinese version of their website.

China now makes up over 50% of their overseas visitors. For a stately home in rural North Yorkshire, this is impressive!

changing the perception of museums

Kathryn Thomson from National Museums Northern Ireland spoke of a bold partnership with Game of Thrones during its season 7 release which introduced not only their museum to a younger audience and invited them into their museum, but they were also able to showcase local skills and talent during the process.

After so many years of production, Game of Thrones® has truly become a part of Northern Ireland’s heritage and culture. In order to celebrate this, Tourism Ireland created the Northern Ireland Game of Thrones® Tapestry – a giant, 77 metre long medieval wall hanging that brings to life the events, locations and story of one of the most popular television series of all time.

Tourism Ireland

The giant tapestry could be seen ‘coming to life’ throughout season 7 as a small army of enthusiastic stitchers turned episodes from seasons 1-7 into a Bayeux tapestry’eque display of grandeur including golden Lannister hair, emerald green wildfire, cold blue White Walkers and jet black crows. Subsequently season 8 has now also been added.

This project was the catalyst to showcase not only the fine art of stitching but also other local artists like Bob Johnstone who created an 11-foot willow throne and three enormous dragons. His work was so marvellous that they became the iconic backdrop to the Game of Thrones final season premiere.

The work also caught the attention of The Bayeux Museum who for a short period hosted the Games of Thrones tapestry themselves, and are now working in partnership with National Museums Northern Ireland to cross promote and support one another for the greater good of getting more people visiting and engaging with museum collections.

The day was rounded off by some adrenaline filled, extreme sport experiential attractions that are at the cutting edge of offering new, thrilling experiences for their customers.

First up was Zip World, and Managing Director David Stacey, followed by Craig Stoddard, CEO, The Wave.

I’ll let the promotional video do this attraction justice…

So, all in all, another informative day. From re-imagining the role and spaces within churches and cathedrals; to supporting the planet and discovering how attractions are doing their bit; to finishing with an up-tempo showcase of attractions doing all they can to create ever-lasting happy memories for their customers. Thanks VAC!

Want more attraction marketing ideas and insights? Read our review of last year here.

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Meet the author ...

Kherrin Wade

Strategy Director

Kherrin works with clients to develop effective marketing strategies, whether that's introducing brands to digital for the first time or pushing the boundaries with more ...