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Last updated

25 April 2022

Camera Obscura & World of Illusions

How data was used to mitigate lockdown and COVID restrictions

"We believe in data, in gathering it and acting on it systematically. It has never been so important as in the last two years"

Andrew Johnson, General Manager, Camera Obscura & World of Illusions (link to website)

Like most tourist-based businesses, the pandemic caused major disruption to our business. With lockdowns and 2m social distancing, it became apparent we needed to find a new approach.

We have always used data to aid our decisions, and 2020 was no different. In fact, through analysing business, tourism and our own data, we were able to make the most of these difficult years, and almost return to full capacity despite the pandemic.

Taking advantage of lockdown
Camera Obscura is Edinburgh’s oldest purpose built attraction, dating from 1853. With over 100 hands-on exhibits themed on perception and optical illusion, plus breathtaking rooftop views and a show in the Victorian Camera Obscura, we are used to welcoming on average over a thousand visitors per day, all year. When lockdown was first announced, we were faced with a number of questions.

What did it mean for our market?
50% of our visitors came from overseas and they weren’t coming back anytime soon. Tourism research was also forecasting that cities and indoor attractions would be the slowest to recover. So we researched our market. We had confidence in Edinburgh: research indicated that heritage cities would recover quickest. We also knew our attraction suited all ages and nationalities, so a domestic, even local market might work. Pre-pandemic more than half our visitors came through personal recommendations, so we knew we had to keep the hands-on elements intact to keep delighting people. But how?

How could we operate?
Most attractions like ours were either staying shut or closing all the interactive elements. We didn’t want to do that, so we researched and invested in state-of-the-art cleaning products used in hospitals, trains and planes to deliver long-term safety. Through a tip from a data scientist, we also fitted CO2 monitors early on to monitor air quality, fitting new ventilation as required. These timely interventions, plus a new one-way route, enabled us to re-open almost every part of the attraction, keeping the pre-pandemic experience intact.

With no income, should we put improvements on hold indefinitely?
There was very little data available on how to recover from a pandemic, so we researched how to recover from a recession. While it was tempting to stop spending, data demonstrated that companies that continued to invest during a downturn recovered fastest. So we kept our maintenance team on, employed a local builder and did major work both on the premises and exhibitions from rooftop to basement, including gutting and redesigning two floors and giving the Camera chamber a 150 year makeover. We would normally work overnight to make changes so as not to inconvenience visitors – there was a silver lining to being shut and we used every day well, significantly improving many aspects of the visit. Our marketing team kept working too, garnering more coverage closed during 2020 than when open in 2019.

What were the implications for staffing?
Many businesses were making mass redundancies and furloughing staff. Our research on recessions told us that businesses who held onto staff, instead of laying them off, recovered fastest. So we worked to retain almost all of ours, topping up furlough to 100%.

In spite of holding onto most of our staff, we still needed to recruit, and in the latter part of 2021 this became very difficult. We compared our rates of pay to both our sector and other sectors and the data indicated our rates were no longer competitive. Trading profitably again, we were able to raise pay substantially, largely solving recruitment issues.

What hours should we operate when reopening?
Pre-pandemic, we used to open late all year round. However, most attractions were opening less days, reducing hours or not opening at all. Reopening as soon as we were allowed to, but with restricted capacity, demand for tickets soon began to outstrip supply. We realised there was only one way to increase availability and quickly extended our hours – only possible due to retaining our staff.

Analysing our performance by the hour and adapting our hours based on demand, was vital when dealing with the ups and downs of the last two years. Even during the long, dark days pre-Christmas 2020 (where almost everywhere shutdown and markets were shrinking due to travel limits locally) we used data to justify staying open, working out we would be losing less money by doing so.

When June 2021 arrived, we could predict from our own data that July and August were going to be bumper months for Edinburgh, so we opened from 8am to 10pm. Since then, that has become the norm at peak - perhaps the longest hours of any UK attraction.

How do we adapt to survive, let alone thrive?
With less capacity we analysed how to boost ticket yield. We reduced discounts and free admissions, simplified discount schemes to prioritise the emergency services and changed validity on complimentary tickets to off-peak only. Demand was such that we could stop selling tickets through online tour operators such as Viator and Get Your Guide altogether.

Most visitors booked online, we had access to more customer data than ever before. Postcode analysis told us where everyone came from and we were able to gather far more feedback through sending everyone a questionnaire after visiting. We used this data to measure everything from the quality of the visitor experience to our safety measures. It also enabled conversations with people post-visit when we want to drill into more detail. These insights are invaluable in constantly adapting our offer and service.

The results that using data brought for us
According to every measure we have against our sector, our performance has been exceptional. Between May and December 2021 (even with 2-metre distancing in May and June and 1-metre for half of July into August), we sold 87% of the tickets we had sold in 2019, our record year by some distance. Just taking July to December, this rose to 97%. Admissions ticket yield is up 37%, shop spend per head up 26% compared to pre-pandemic.

We believe in data, in gathering it and acting on it systematically. It has never been so important to us as in the last two years. Our staff’s efforts and our adaptability through data is what made us (nearly) return to full capacity so quickly, adapting, indeed thriving, in spite of all the many challenges of the last two years.

View of Camera Obscura and World of Illusions on the Royal Mile Edinburgh
Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam