We were on the Big Island of Hawaii last year and tried out a night swim with manta rays with a local company. We suited up with full wet suits, listened to the safety talk and then the photographer/naturalist gave us a pep talk. “This is going to be the best outdoor experience of your life.” He had just set his company up for failure and, sure enough, it failed. He promised the best experience we would ever have and no mantas showed that evening. We’ve had some pretty remarkable experiences, so a miserable evening of lying in dark, cold water without the distraction of mantas or other marine life just wasn’t doing it for us.
He could have started the talk with “This is an underwater experience of great subtlety. The lights will attract tiny animals, zooplankton, and they will attract fish and on a very good night, the manta rays will show up.” The big brag at the beginning of any outdoor experience may not always be in your best interest. Ecotourists, adventure travelers and very experienced naturalists have done a lot in their lives. Personally I have sat in a giant panda nursery in China with 11 sixty-pound giant panda babies, seen lions and cheetahs in Tanzania from four feet away in the safety of a safari vehicle, and caught vampire bats in the middle of the night in Belize while wading through the Macal River among Morelet’s crocodiles. A new “best experience” would have to be stupendous to beat those and other situations in which we’ve found ourselves.
We would eventually swim with the mantas in a more thoughtfully managed experience in Hawaii with a different operator that did not promise anything, but suggested we might have a good night if we were lucky. That night, only one manta showed up and this 16-foot female swept back and forth near us two dozen times. It was amazing. It required no big buildup. It was simply a great experience on its own merit. We went away very happy with a new memory to tuck into our great times file.
Some experience planners suggest that a big “Wow” is needed to enhance every situation. Actually it often backfires to build a community, resort or adventure experience around the “Wow.” Weather, animal behavior, or group dynamics can derail any experience without warning. Helping people have a realistic idea of what they will encounter works much better, because when something amazing occurs it is even more exciting.
People try out new places and experiences for lots of reasons. They may just want to take a photo or two, make some new friends, show their children a special place or say they have been there and done that. Helping them understand the place, the people, the animals or the story is much more likely to make a lasting connection. And they may make that connection even on the evening when the “Wow” doesn’t show up or is underwhelming if the overall experience is thoughtfully planned to work with or without the “Wow.”
We sometimes underestimate our audiences. They come to an experience with varied expectations. The “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter” research conducted by John Falk and others segments an audience into experience seekers, facilitators, spiritual rechargers, professionals/hobbyists and explorers. It makes the point that our guests often already know a lot about the resource and they expect thoughtful, ethical behavior from our organization. Their specific expectations of the experience differ. But the one size fits all approach of promising a “Wow” assumes that they’re all interested in the same thing and so misses the mark for many of them.
Planning outdoor and community experiences is more than generating big “Wows.” It requires visitor experience planning (interpretive planning) that includes thoughtful analysis of the audience. The planning must consider every step of the experience from Decision to the Entry through the Connections (tour, program, etc.) phase to the Exit and finally the Commitment (what will they do – buy a video, tell their friends, come back again).
The Decision point and Entry is where we set up their expectations. Promises are dangerous, especially superlatives like the “BEST EXPERIENCE EVER.” We are far better off to underpromise and then overdeliver. Our audience wants a realistic idea of what to expect and when we deliver more than expected, they are delighted.