How your customer’s experience has changed in 2020 – and what you should do about it

It’s been a year like no other, and alongside the disruption to all our lives, one of the most obvious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the way the dynamic of the relationships, and interactions, between businesses and their customers have profoundly changed.

As one of the pioneers of the art and science of Customer Experience, Lou Carbone, succinctly put it: “You cannot, not have an experience” and so customers sitting at home and scrolling through their smartphones and laptops are experiencing brands and businesses as surely as if they were physically present. The vital difference for businesses to engage with though, is that now the experience the customer has of your business is no less complex than it ever was, it’s just unseen by you.

Two more Customer Experience heroes, Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, in their 1998 Harvard Business Review article Welcome to the Experience Economy, demonstrated that “experiences” are at the top of what they call “the progression of economic value” – in other words, customers will pay more for experiences than for services or goods alone. Logically, if you don’t deliver an experience (i.e. a positive one) then don’t expect customers to value your proposition. You could argue that this doesn’t apply if your proposition is based on value alone; however if that is delivered inefficiently, rudely, or inconsistently then the experience is still going to dictate your customer’s perception of your business. “You cannot, not have an experience.”

The Natural History Museum
Museum of Natural History

For the visitor economy in particular, which is nothing if not based on the quality of customer experiences – think hospitality, retail, tourism, events – the existential challenges of 2020 continue: the second lockdown in England inevitably impacts crucial pre-Christmas trade, and a recent Oxford Economics study suggested that it will take five years for the global tourism industry to recover from the impact of COVID-19.

That this matters is shown in the value of the Oxfordshire visitor economy: according to a report commissioned by Experience Oxfordshire it was worth £2.28 billion last year, supporting nearly 39,000 jobs – accounting for 11% of all employment, and, until the pandemic, enjoying a 5% year on year growth for each of the past 5 years. Almost half of this value was generated from overnight stays, of which £322 million was spent by guests from overseas.

Christ Church Hall ©Ralph-Williamson
Christ Church Hall ©Ralph-Williamson

The report, which estimated losses to the Oxfordshire economy of between £112.5m and £137.5m per month in the initial 2 to 3 months, was instrumental in the campaign to reopen as much of the visitor economy as possible, albeit with health precautions and capacity limits having a profound impact on the customer experience, and of course with many of those visitors having gone away: UKinbound suggests that the UK as a whole is losing £457m per week, due to a 76% reduction in inbound tourism in 2020.

Of those businesses that have reopened, many have demonstrated huge reserves of determination and innovation as they have adapted to lower customer footfall. The unprecedented amount of government financial support has undoubtedly helped, however the reality is that at some point in the not-too distant future the much talked-about “new normal” will arrive, in the shape of fewer customers, many with new values and more rigorous expectations, many more with reduced disposable income.

Unless businesses react to this by creating new experience models, above all delivering a value proposition that resonates with customers, and financially sustainable, the visitor economy risks being devastated.

Courtyard By Marriott Oxford City Centre
Courtyard By Marriott Oxford City Centre

We asked some of Oxfordshire’s visitor economy leaders how 2020 has changed their customers’ experience of their venue. Heather Carter, Operations Director at Blenheim Palace (where customers are referred to as ‘guests’) says the experience is very different:

“Blenheim Palace guests traditionally arrived when they wanted to, flowed across the site freely and had a wide choice of things to see and do. We had a variety of food outlets, plenty of indoor seating and lots of Blenheim Palace souvenirs in the gift shop for our overseas and one-time-only visitors who wanted to take a piece of Blenheim Palace home with them.

“When we reopened the park and the gardens in June and then the Palace in July we had to follow the government guidelines to open safely. All our guests had to pre-book a ticket and arrival time before coming to site, we instigated one-way systems around the paths, and unfortunately we had to close all our small indoor exhibitions, leaving only the Palace State Rooms open. We also had to close our main restaurant on the Water Terrace and installed temporary outside catering offers instead. The guest experience had become very limited and controlled.”

Heather Carter
Kate Del Nevo
Marie O’Connor

Kate del Nevo, Venue Hire and Marketing Manager at the Bodleian Libraries, like many thousands of venue managers, had to respond to a scenario where the previous way of doing business was impossible:

“The biggest change is virtual – and the challenge of how your customer’s sales journey now looks in a ‘virtual’ world. In turn that drives the need to be ‘present’ so that clients do not forget about you. This involves regular posts on social media, writing blogs, updating your website and any listing sites. As people have more time at home ( certainly during the lockdowns) they are spending more time on social media researching your brand. This means that when they come to you they often have more informed questions but also more opinions of your brand.”

The Harvard Lecture Theatre at Saïd Business School
The Harvard Lecture Theatre at Saïd Business School

Marie O’Connor, Head of Conference Oxford, which represents 68 University and college venues in the city, emphasises that continuity of customer service and responsiveness has been crucial:

“So, in terms of the response our clients receive from Conference Oxford – their experience hasn’t and won’t have changed. However, due to the lockdown and Government restrictions, the response from some of our venues might have changed and we are aware that our clients may not have received an immediate response due to many of our venues being temporarily closed, and some venues’ events teams being seconded to other departments to help prepare for our students’ return.

“We have also noticed that in some cases clients are seeking to change the format of their events and for example, rather than hold a face to face meeting, some are opting to run a hybrid or virtual event.”

Wendy Ball - Ashmolean
Wendy Ball – Ashmolean
Christina Irons - Courtyard by Marriott Oxford
Christina Irons – Courtyard by Marriott Oxford

Wendy Ball, Head of Events, Catering and Corporate Relationships at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, agrees that continuity and responsiveness have been vital from the start of the crisis:

“As an overarching concept, communication still remains absolutely key. That means, listening to clients’ aims and helping them adapt the format, or indeed their vision for their event, to ensure it meets all of three key elements:

  1. Respect (following health and safety and other guidelines);
  2. Protect (ensuring that clients, guests and staff are safe at all times);
  3. Enjoy (remembering that the object of the exercise is to deliver a positive experience for all concerned).

Christina Irons, Sales Manager at the Courtyard By Marriott Oxford City Centre Hotel, continues the theme – the best businesses aren’t thinking about the customer experience for the first time due to COVID-19, they are doubling down on their focus on this key business driver. As Christina explains:

“Our customer’s experience of our business has not changed but evolved and we have adapted to these changes in the following ways:

  1. Reassurance – In response to COVID-19 Marriott had launched an industry-leading cleaning programme in conjunction with Ecolab. Apart from implementing the enhanced procedure the key focus for us is to effectively communicate this message to our guests. We follow up and ensure that our guests have the confidence that we are here for them throughout their customer journey – providing them with the confidence to travel.
  2. Flexibility – in order to encourage and build confidence, we have adapted a very flexible approach to meet our guests’ needs in an ever-changing world. This includes flexible cancellation and managing our guests’ access to food and beverage facilities during their stay.
  3. Personalisation – making each stay personal, being aware of guests’ reasons to travel, and anticipating their needs accordingly. In other words, being in tune with our guests and offering the support that they need.”
The Oxford Union Debating Chamber
The Oxford Union Debating Chamber

So what changes did our other respondents make, or intend to make, to their customers’ experience?

Heather Carter points out that the Blenheim guest experience is now itself on a journey, with a vision to make it better than ever before:

“We’ve created walks and tours round the park and gardens, and launched an audio tour via WAPP that the guest can download onto their own phones. We’ve created new routes connecting the Walled Garden to the Formal Garden, making both areas far more accessible. We’ve also launched a programme of family activities such as storytelling and bushcraft, to keep guests engaged and to encourage local people to visit often using their Annual Pass.

“We are now investing in opening up new areas and reconfiguring routes through the Palace to enable opening more indoor areas, and in much more outdoor seating across the site, as well as digital aids such as virtual tickets and an assisted food service app. In the shop we are now selling more local products including food and drink with less emphasis on Blenheim Palace souvenirs, and have changed our product mix and layout to reflect this.”

Kate del Novo agrees that technology plays a key role in facilitating the customer experience:
“At the Bodleian we have introduced a virtual tour that enables clients and wedding couples to visualise the room fully set up for an event or wedding. We’re hosting virtual show-rounds via Zoom, and have also hosted a virtual wedding showcase event which enabled couples to contact with our Bodleian wedding partners and learn more about the Bodleian as venue.”

Marie O’Connor is focused on the need to work with up-to-date information at all times, especially in a rapidly-changing set of circumstances:

“For all enquiries received and in all dealings with our clients, we have tried to ensure that we manage their expectations by explaining what the situation is from the outset. Offering help, information and advice at the beginning of our clients’ journey ensures that they feel valued and trust us to help them. Our venues have been busy planning how they will manage future events in their venues, ensuring they provide a safe and COVID secure environment for all and they are adapting to a new way of working – investing in and embracing new technology to facilitate hybrid and virtual events. We are all working extremely hard on better understanding how we go forward.”

Wendy Ball describes three key initiatives supporting the Ashmolean’s new client experience:

Bodleian Libraries ©Kate Hope-Smith
Divinity School, Bodleian Libraries ©Kate Hope-Smith
  1. Hybrid Events
    “At the Ashmolean we know how important business meetings are and understand that for many reasons some guests may not be able to attend in person. Now everyone can take part. We help professionals to network wherever they are in the world. Our discrete live streaming service is the perfect way to include all guests and ensure that they don’t miss a moment. The final bonus is that we can provide a copy of the stream which can be leveraged as collateral for business contacts in the future.
  2. Virtual Venue Visit
    “We understand concerns about visiting the venue for a show-round, and so we’ve created some fantastic 360o views of our venue spaces, giving event planners a real sense of being in our stunning spaces. As you can imagine the Museum’s Collection contains many objects and paintings that can spark inspiration and become icebreakers, and we’ve included some of these in the virtual views. We are encouraging planners to book a video call so that our experts can guide them through the spaces and answer questions in real time
  3. Protect, Respect, Enjoy
    “Everyone’s safety is paramount at an event at the Ashmolean. We protect our guests and colleagues, respect government and scientific regulations, but above all ensure the enjoyment of our guests at an event. The Ashmolean Museum is an accredited COVID-secure venue, meaning event planners can rest assured knowing that we take everyone’s health and safety seriously. We can even provide guests with some exquisite face coverings inspired by the Museum’s Collection!”

What’s clear is that none of these leading operators in the Oxfordshire visitor economy is standing still, waiting for the crisis to pass – let alone gazing wistfully back to pre-pandemic days, hoping things “get back to normal.” Just as some of the most innovative businesses of all time were started in a recession – Disney, Microsoft and Airbnb, to name but three – these organisations are not just carefully managing their people and their assets, but actively innovating and planning a better future, based on a better-than-ever-before customer experience.

As Heather Carter concludes:

One of the most important things we have done at Blenheim is to stand back and look at our business strategy and to make some big decisions: about how to best prepare for post-COVID recovery, but also how to enhance our guests’ experience so that when people can travel freely, and overseas visitors return, we can attract our share of ‘the pie’ in what will be a highly-competitive world.”

Stephen Spencer + Associates is a collaborative consulting and training organisation with a simple purpose: to help organisations and destinations extract maximum value from their customers’ experience of their brand.

Don’t miss our webinar How your customer’s experience has changed in 2020 – and what you should do about it – on Thursday, 17th December, featuring insights from some of our contributors. Click here to find out more.

The Ashmolean’s recently-launched virtual venue tour is here:


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