The importance of continuous experimentation was the theme from Head of Evaluation & Research at the Eden Project, Andy Jasper.
In basic terms, this seems to follow something of a cycle:
Stage 1: Flex your product to meet your customer/audience's needs.
Stage 2: Evaluate the changes you made.
Stage 3: Make changes based on evaluation findings.
Stage 4: Do not rest! Go back to Stage 1.
By means of example, Andy discussed Eden's collaboration with NoFit State, a contemporary circus company, during the summers of 2011 and 2012.
The thinking behind the collaboration being that Eden would be an amazing backdrop for NoFit State to create and then show a brand new production, expanding Eden's audience and giving previous visitors (including locals) a reason to come back to experience something new.
That was Stage 1: Flex your product. On to Stage 2: Evaluation. And the findings were … interesting.
In 2011 NoFit State performances of Labyrinth were a sell-out; despite happening on week nights rather than weekends. There was a whopping 35% increase in new visitors while the circus was in town – and annual visits were up 7% that year. So they did it again the following year.
Where the Bianco company lived in Eden – by Emily Morgan (Producer, NoFit State)
In 2012, during the Bianco show, having the circus there actually resulted in a loss of revenue for the venue. There were several reasons for this, none of which are related to the quality or popularity of the show itself …
a. As a contrast to the previous year, 2012's performances happened on Friday nights and weekends – because more people go out at the weekend, right? In this case; wrong.
Tourist's changeover days are more-often-than-not on a weekend therefore, more-often-than-not, people holidaying in the area – the mainstay of Eden's income – choose to visit attractions during the week (perhaps also mistakenly assuming it'll be quieter then). Likewise, the locals assume the place will be chock-full of tourists at the weekend so're more likely to attend during the week.
b. The second thing that Andy suggested was a major factor in the drop in visitors/revenue was that Bianco tickets were sold separately from regular Eden Project tickets; meaning that anyone buying tickets for the show couldn't explore the gardens without paying extra, and vice-versa. The result was more people buying tickets for the show … to the detriment of regular ticket sales.
c. With this drop-off in regular day ticket sales, related sales such as food, drink and merchandise also decreased dramatically. (After an evening of circus, it seems people don't want to buy plants or a sandwich.)
So with the evaluation complete, time for Stage 3: Make change. The biggest thing Andy feels they've learnt from this is to allow people to buy a single ticket for entrance to Eden and 'Event XYZ'. (Adding just a few pounds to the price of tickets would cover costs for shows such as Labyrinth or Bianco.)
Another nod towards keeping it simple: a single ticket is easier for everyone – and should ultimately be more profitable. WIN!
The Eden Project is clearly adaptable to change, willing to take risks, and right from its inception the place has had, as Andy puts it, a spirit of experimentation.
As an aside – completely unrelated to the 'continuously experiment' theme – it was fantastic to hear what an enormous impact the NoFit State residency (literally, as they lived on-site) had on Eden Project staff. Andy was so enthusiastic talking about the strong bonds formed between NoFit State and Eden's staff. It's clear he genuinely cares very much about this. And a place which values its staff, and truly cares about their experience just as much as that of customers/audience? That's a place to admire.