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In conversation with Spencer Clark from ATS on creating great digital visitor experiences

Spencer Clark, Managing Director, ATS

The past year has definitely been an eventful one for ATS and its Managing Director, Spencer Clark. While the digital visitor experience company supported their clients during lockdown, they also acquired new staff, new clients, new equipment and broke into new territory across Europe.

Not only that but Spencer took the reins as Managing Director from Mike Howie, who is now the company Chairman. Spencer, who is well known to the museum community, had previously been Sales Director for ten years and this latest chapter has sparked a renewed excitement in the opportunity to help clients create unforgettable visitor experiences.

The new year and the new role didn’t quite start as planned for Spencer or ATS though, with the UK going into a five-month lockdown. During this time the company became a hub for the community, hosting webinars and continuing to support clients who used the opportunity to develop new content. ATS survived the storm, but other companies in the sector were not as fortunate, including Antenna UK, which folded in May.

Unexpected growth

Filming for The Churchill Exhibition at Blenheim Palace

In June ATS were appointed as the preferred company by the liquidators and bought Antenna UK’s assets. These included content, audio and multimedia guides, software and technologies including progressive web apps. However, the deal did not include contracts and so the team spent much of the summer making introductions to cultural and heritage sites across Europe, many of whom have now become clients.

It has meant that ATS, the leading provider of audio, multimedia and digital guides in the UK, now also has clients in Italy, Ireland, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and France.

“We heard the news about Antenna UK being in difficulty in May and from then it very rapidly led to its liquidation” he says.

“We knew that there were some great staff, really good people, who were essentially going to lose their jobs and I am pleased to say we were in the position to offer employment to three full-time members of the team. They’ve integrated really well into the company and we’re already benefiting from their additional skills and experience.

Accelerated export strategy

“The situation has allowed us to accelerate our export strategy, which we’d already been working on in 2019, and it gave us the opportunity to have a host of overseas clients within a matter of weeks. That’s been a huge learning curve and it’s created a real buzz within the team, with the opportunity to create content for iconic attractions all across Europe.”

ATS has taken on more than 40 new client sites this year, including Titanic Belfast, Edinburgh Castle, Teylers Museum, MAUTO and Blenheim Palace, who were relieved and pleased that there was someone with a familiar face to continue supporting them.

ATS has also hired a new creative Editor and Producer to deal with the increased workload.

Refocusing the visitor offer

A visitor at The Churchill Exhibition at Blenheim Palace

This increase in skills and capacity has fitted in with Spencer’s aims to better support ATS’s clients and offer a stronger and wider range of services. Throughout the pandemic he says the team stayed connected with friends and partners across the sector by conducting webinars and having many conversations about reviewing and refocusing the visitor offer.

“As our clients were experiencing unimaginable circumstances we’ve been able to share our knowledge and experience of the growing opportunities in the online space in order to extend their reach. That has been a key step this year.

“Simply digitising collections and putting them online does not create a memorable experience. An online solution still needs to be designed with purpose, much like an onsite physical experience.

Digital engagement

The Churchill Exhibition is a mix of physical and virtual

“ATS pioneered the multimedia visitor guide as we believe passionately that it allows for greater creative storytelling and reach. Our enthusiasm for digital cultural experiences naturally led us to developing more online experiences – websites, digital exhibitions, virtual tours, social channel content, apps etc. which became even more in demand when the pandemic arrived.”

One benefit from Covid-19 and the lockdown is that ATS’s clients and visitors are more digitally literate than they were before. Cultural and heritage attractions are taking advantage of digital and online opportunities and the potential to engage with their audiences before, during and after their visit.

The Churchill Exhibition

A waxwork figure at The Churchill Exhibition

In December ATS were invited to work on The Churchill Exhibition at Blenheim Palace (before later taking over the Antenna multimedia guide operation there). This was a blend of on-site physical exhibition and a complementary digital exhibition for schools and other interested viewers around the world. A landmark project for ATS, it allowed the team to showcase their production skills, along with their innovative approach to create an impactful digital experience.

“We learned that the fundamentals are for an on-site and online experience are very similar. You still need to have a visitor journey in mind and we just took that methodology and adapted it to work for an online audience. Additional technical challenges need addressing to ensure it can be used by as many people as possible. You have to consider different devices and specifications being used by visitors – different screen sizes, internet connection speeds etc. But ultimately, technology aside, it still comes down to getting the story right in a way that creates a seamless journey for the online visitor.”

Consultancy work

One of the ways in which ATS has been able to better support its clients in 2021 is by increasing its consultancy work and advising on interpretation, storytelling, accessibility and inclusion, as well as which technologies to employ and the overall look feel of the wider visitor experience.

“I’m here because I love helping clients understand how to make their offer more enjoyable, more inclusive and more intuitive. So, moving into the consultation side of the process early on was a huge part of this. And that’s talking about planning, talking about design and what the creative opportunities are before you even get to the concept or production stage.”

Understanding problems: designing solutions

Spencer’s background is in product design and he says this has meant he is always trying to understanding problems and design solutions in the most effective way. He was drawn to ATS when working with his sister on a project developing sign language tours for them in 2002 with their company DeafWise.

“When I started to work for ATS 10 years ago I was intrigued by their products. They were the first company to do multimedia guides in the sector and I was interested in the technology. So the hardware caught my eye and I loved the creative storytelling. They were also pretty pioneering in terms of access tours and that appealed to me greatly.

“And it’s just grown from there. We have a really united team with lots of passion, and they stay. Staff turnover is really low. From a client’s point of view, they get the same production team and production values – whether that’s Buckingham Palace or a small regional museum.

“As a team we work extremely collaboratively and everyone has a voice, from our creatives to the technicians, we’re constantly exploring new ways of making our operations smoother and improving the overall visitor experience.”

Job satisfaction

Spencer says he gets an immense amount of job satisfaction from both the big nationals to the small regional museums and heritage sites.

“Just knowing that you’ve done something that’s made a positive difference to the visitor experience. We’re aware of the privilege and responsibility that we have in telling our clients’ stories in a really great, high-quality way. We’re also focused on new and emerging technologies – never losing sight of the story being at the heart of visitor interpretation.”

One recent project that ATS worked on was at Coldharbour Mill Museum in Devon, one of the world’s oldest woollen textile mills, run by just two staff. The challenge was how to replicate a personal tour guide and encapsulate the passion that person would have and instil it into a digital guide.

Other clients such as the Royal Collection Trust, which includes Buckingham Palace among its sites, are much larger affairs welcoming millions of visitors a year and where ATS has approximately 7,000 devices across its properties.

2022: the year ahead

Spencer says that although he suspected 2021 would be a challenging year, it actually brought some huge opportunities to the business and has set it on a new and exciting trajectory. He is cautiously optimistic about 2022 and hopes to see more oversees visitors to UK museums and conduct more face-to-face meetings with clients.

He says ATS will continue to develop new products and improve its software by adding additional features and functions to its devices and apps.

“We are also investing in app-based technology as well, particularly Progressive Web Apps. We’re encouraged by the number of clients who are offering visitors the options of ‘choosing their own device’. Some may achieve greater things with on-site devices or they may wish to provide a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) offer. This decision is ultimately about reach. If you’re going to make an investment in incredible content and want the maximum number of visitors to experience it, then it’s smart to give all of your visitors the opportunity to enjoy it!”

Spencer will be talking about The Churchill Exhibition at the MuseumNext Digital Exhibitions Summit, which takes place from 6-8 December.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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