Creating the Perfect Line: A case study of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

This blog is part 1 of a series on managing visitor flows for World Heritage Sites (WHS). Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS) are great examples of the necessity of implementing queue management at cultural sites, because these sites often attempt to fit millions of visitors into small, “must-see” venues. At times, the high number of visitors raises concern from the authorities responsible for these sites’ up-keeping about the condition of the displayed art and the spaces themselves. This apprehension is well-founded. Tourists increase the amount of humidity, carbon dioxide, dust and lint at these cultural sites, which in turn effects the conservation of these spaces. Perhaps even more harmful is physical damage inflicted, usually in and around visitor entrance/exit points of the sites. Even light used to illuminate displays and guide tourists through spaces can pose a threat to the longevity of these spaces. These environment-specific problems also affect visitors’ experience as well, as high humidity, excessive carbon dioxide, dim-lighting, crowding, and poor presentation make for an unpleasant visitor experience. To complicate matters, governments and travel industries often wish to increase visitor numbers at these sites, so as to facilitate economic growth in the tourism industry, while local communities are often at odds with these wishes. So, while the success of these sites depends on perfect execution of conservation projects and collaborations between conservation groups and government institutions[1], visitor flow optimization is a key factor in these processes as well.

​But visitor flow optimization is more than simply organizing lines in and out of sites. It is developing and testing multiple queue management strategies that take into account visitor forecasting, sites’ “carrying capacity”, peak demand management, among other factors. This blog series will give an in-depth look at the importance of these factors in visitor optimization projects, and help you when considering the planning for visitors at any site.

1.    Maximizing Access

The main goal of WHS is to maximize the number of visitors able to visit such sights, while keeping these sites safe for damage and without a decrease in visitor experience and satisfaction. Like at other commercial venues, a strong negative correlation exists between visitor satisfaction figures and visitor wait times. So maximizing the amount of visitors the site can handle must be balanced with acceptable visitor wait times. But how does one accurately calculate the scale between two opposing variables?

2.1. Demand Forecasting and Management

Demand forecasting is the important first step in the process of maximizing access while maintaining visitor happiness. However, forecasting is not simply calculating averages and adjusting for future trends. Forecasting must be more accurate in order to be useful in planning for the future. In fact, using an “average” of the daily visitor arrival volume without considering the seasonal, monthly and daily demand patterns can be grossly misleading. This is because visitor demand generally shows significant amount of variation from day-to-day. Hence, observations of the daily demand for short periods of time aren’t sufficient enough to gain an understanding of a venue’s actual visitor numbers.

For example, Figure 1 below depicts the daily visitor arrival volumes at a historical site for 13 consecutive days. Looking at this data, we could conclude that the average demand is about 1,900 visitors a day and that daily volume varies between 1,750 to 2,500 visitors. However, this conclusion only takes into account 13 days of the year; if operations were to be based on these “averages,” there would likely be idle employees when the demand is lower and longer lines when the demand is higher on the 352 unaccounted days. Even if observations are made for longer periods of time, using averages is not recommended because, as single values, they do not represent true visitor volume fluctuations at a site.

Figure 1: Daily Demand for a Cultural Site

These fluctuations can fall into daily or monthly patterns. What this means is that visitors tend to come at various times of the day and sometimes, in large groupings. When deciphered correctly, daily and hourly variations, which at first can seem random, can reveal distinct patterns that repeat themselves at these sites. While these patterns can seem mysterious in their appearance, they are often a result of the following factors:

•        Annual trends

•        Seasonality

•        Day of the month effects

•        Day of the week effects

•        Special days and holidays

•        Time of the day

Thus, if a forecasting model correctly considers all these potential causes of variability, it will yield accurate visitor arrival forecasts at daily and even hourly levels.

Forecasting should also take into the account the following visitor characteristics:

·      Group size: Many of visitor activities are performed in groupings. At ticketing booths, for example, issuing admission documents are done for the entire group, rather than individually, and time differences in typical group sizes are insignificant except for very large groups, which need to be forecasted separately. Typically, individual groups are between 2-5 people.

·      Payment type: Identifying payment types (Credit card, cash, prepaid) is important for timing ticketing activities, as each type takes a different amount of time.

·      Members vs. “First-time” Visitors: Members (usually locals who are familiar with the site) may follow a completely different route and their dwell times may differ at other parts of the venue, as compared to “first-time” visitors. Additionally, the time members spend going through ticketing processes and other activities may vary from first-timers, as members often simply present membership cards. Even if members must obtain a ticket, they may prefer to use kiosks or other digital forms to obtain admission documents. If members make up a significant number of the sites’ visitors, members/member service lines may need to be separated from the general visitors’ processes, in order to increase both groups’ perception of the visitor service.

·      Visitors’ language requirements: The importance of this is obvious if the site has a large number of multi-national visitors, and provides guides in different languages. However, multiple language requirements may affect other activities besides guides and groups. With the advent of technology in recent years, multi-language kiosks may help facilitate the access of visitors with different language requirements.

·      Special needs: Different time allocations and routes may be required for people with wheelchairs, strollers, and other special needs.

·      “VIP” visitors: Many commercial sites use VIP lines for faster and easier access in exchange for higher entry fees. However, as it is the creation of a “privileged” group of customers, this is not always the best option for most sites. Generally speaking, VIP options can only be “justified” by the following reasons: providing easier/increased access to visitors who may be coming from long distances; or to help finance site improvements. Thus, it is important to take into account visitors’ perception when considering VIP options.

Stay tuned for our next post to find out about “carrying capacity” and its effect your organization’s visitor management strategies.

[1] “Conserving and Managing the Tomb of Tutankhamen”, Agnew, N. and Wong, L., The Getty, Winter 2019, pp. 8-11

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