It is estimated that, in 2006 - the last year for which complete data is available - there were 463 million arrivals by overseas tourists in European countries. That's an increase of 16.5% since 2002. Of those 463 million, 77 million went to France; 59 million to Spain; 37 million to Italy; and 30 million to the UK.
The UK, then, is only the fourth-largest tourist market in Europe - yet overseas visitors to the UK spent a staggering £16billion. But that's not the whole story. Spending by overseas visitors was substantially overshadowed by the £65billion spent by UK residents on holidays, day trips and so on. It can safely be said that the market for entertaining visitors in Europe is a huge one.
"Yes, the visitor attraction market in Europe is growing," says Barco's Frank Vanmeenen. "The figures definitely show growth," agrees Benjamin Saint Girons, sales manager at Medialon, whose Medialon Manager show control software is widely used in visitor attractions.
"We operate worldwide, and the market is buoyant everywhere - although, of course, it varies according to the economic situation in each region." He goes on to note, however, the increasing saturation of the European market, and the focus on new markets such as Asia and the Middle East.
"Currently, the market is good," says Nick Farmer of Farmer Attractions Development, a company that provides consultancy, design and development services to the visitor attraction industry.
He is not, however, alone in sounding a note of caution. "How long it will last," he says, "is a different matter. With consumers having less disposable income and banks being unwilling to lend to finance major new projects, operators are likely to be caught in a two-way trap."
"We're not seeing a decline yet," notes Hugo Roche of systems integrator SyscoAV, "but inevitably there will be a slowdown as project funding is hit by the wider economic downturn."
Henry Corrado of Alcorn McBride, which specialises in the provision of audio, video, lighting and show control for themed entertainment, disagrees. "Past crises have shown that the market is somewhat immune to economic conditions," he says. "Growth should continue in Europe at a pace of around 6% to 8%."
Certainly, it seems that, at present, there is no lack of opportunity in Europe - far from it. It may be true that there are relatively few new visitor attractions being created - but there is an ongoing requirement to refresh and update existing attractions.
"My business comes mainly from attractions adding new features on an annual basis to keep pace with the market," says Farmer. "There are very few completely new visitor attractions being launched these days, and those that do arrive on the scene face a tough challenge. The risk of failure for new attractions is unfortunately rather high as the market is pretty much saturated."
"One of the aspects of running a visitor attraction is that new elements are needed," notes Corrado. "Keeping the product fresh and attractive is the key for operators."
"Most of our projects are a result of clients undertaking a refurbishment," says Roche, "and audiovisual technology can play a key role in that."
"We've had both enquiries and orders from old and new attractions over the past year," says Fredrik Svahnberg, marketing director of Dataton, a company specialising in presentation systems for events and entertainment.
"There are certainly a number of new attractions on the way that are already looking into what technologies they could use, as well as existing attractions adding features. For example, we supplied further gear to Liseberg - Sweden's biggest attraction with around 3 million visitors annually - this year. They have had Dataton gear installed since the 1990s and have now added Watchout (our multi-display system) as part of a new venue dedicated to one of the country's best-known singer/poets." [Evert Taubes Värld - see IE September, pages 58-59]
The increasing maturity of the European market and the worsening economic situation is making manufacturers, at least, broaden their horizons - and there is little doubt that many of them are looking to emerging visitor destinations such as Dubai.
"Dubai, along with other emerging Middle Eastern locations, are working very hard to grow their tourism business," notes Vanmeenen. "You could clearly see that at this year's Dubai Entertainment, Amusement and Leisure show [DEAL Expo 2008]. The business is growing very fast."
"We've been involved in a number of significant projects so far in Dubai," says Corrado, "and we're waiting to see if the dynamic created by Universal will help other projects come to fruition."
He's talking about Universal Studios Dubai, which will be located within Dubailand, an entertainment mega-complex, and which has a projected cost of $2.2billion. It is expected to attract 5 million visitors annually when completed in 2010. As Farmer points out: "New destinations such as India, China and most of the UAE are not generally using debt to finance these developments - they have the cash."
As with so many other aspects of the AV market, manufacturers and integrators are having to raise their game in the face of consumer familiarity with, for example, high-resolution screens, compelling audio and the ability to interact with audiovisual technology and personalise it - a point well made by Joe Graziano, UK channel sales manager for Christie.
"There is certainly greater awareness that investment in an attraction can be dramatically compromised by cutting corners on technology," he points out. "In a market where visitors are increasingly exposed to large-screen display in various forms, there is a need to match or exceed visitor expectations to generate revenues and visitor numbers."
"In the past," he continues, "it was enough to attract visitors with great content with a modest projected image or multiple back-lit panels. High-quality, engaging content is still key to the success of an attraction, but with the same display technologies now common-place in the home environment, visitor attractions increasingly need to display that content in innovative and personal ways.
"Improving, warping and blending displays, increasing brightness and resolutions help - as does a greater understanding of how to use these systems to interact with visitors using a variety of other sensory and control systems. However it is the creative application of these technologies that secures returning visitors."
A recurring comment from industry professionals is the need to ensure that the audiovisual technology is not the attraction - it supports the attraction. Nick Booker is a director of visitor attraction consultancy Attract Marketing, "You don't want the technology to get in the way of the story you're trying to tell," he says. "In some respects, you're often trying to create an illusion - immersing people as much as you can - and you don't want the technology to detract from that."
"But," he concludes, "bearing that in mind: if you want to bring something to life, AV technology is one way to do it."
"Technology is a good slave, but a poor master," smiles Corrado. "Customers return to attractions not because of the technology, but because they enjoyed the experience. A technology-led attraction is likely to be doomed."
There are, of course, attractions that remain resolutely opposed to using audiovisual technology: Booker, for example, met a museum curator recently who felt that it was "noisy, and detracts from the atmosphere". Fortunately, that experience is not typical.
"Clients are becoming more technology-friendly," says Roche. "We're seeing a much greater desire to implement multi-user interactive experiences with a variety of human interfaces."
"Our Watchout multi-display technology is being used in more inventive ways to provide the wow factor and create a new kind of experience for visitors," says Svahnberg. "Also, we are starting to see that installations are interested in combining personal and public areas in new ways. For example, the brand new Soccer Museum in Brazil has over 100 Watchout-powered displays teamed with our Pickup audio guide system. The audio guide system lets visitors audio sync into the visuals."
It's certainly becoming more challenging to stimulate visitors. "Most of them have seen 2D and 3D in action," says Saint Girons, "but now we're starting to see '4D' experiences - experiences that physically impact the visitor. Interactivity between the attraction and the visitor to personalise the attraction dynamically during the performance is a new way to excite guests.
"All this means greater use of digital, interactive and complex technologies - which, in turn, means there's great demand for powerful show controller software such as Medialon."
It may be an exaggeration to say that most guests have experienced 3D presentations - but if the consumer electronics industry is to be believed, 3D television and cinema will likely become commonplace in the very near future. If that's true, then the days remaining for 3D technology to amaze visitors are almost certainly numbered. For now, though, 3D remains different enough.
"Christie's long involvement in the development of professional stereoscopic display systems for computer-assisted virtual environments and virtual reality has also led to these systems being used to create core elements of rides such as Willy Wonka's elevator at Alton Towers, and the Tower of Terror ride at Disneyland Resort Paris," notes Brant Eckett, EMEA marketing manager for Christie.
"I can see 3D technologies are moving forward fast, and the projection and accurate placement of sound has plenty of potential for enhancing visitor experiences," says Farmer. "Mobile phone technology and development is less appealing, though, because it serves to isolate visitors and exclude the group experience - which is the very thing that people seek when leaving their homes for a day out."
Another technology that has captured the attention of both Roche and Saint Girons is 'visitor data mining' - capturing and using information about each visitor to personalise the experience and to create new opportunities. "Visitors are badged during the visit," explains Saint Girons, "and can retrieve their performances, scores, or images of their visit, over the web - which encourages them to show it to their relatives. This means that each visitor is turned into a potential ambassador for the attraction."
Visitor attractions, then, are not becoming less technically challenging - a point made by Roche. "As the demand for ever more complex solutions grows, the skills required to design and engineer around these emerging technologies will place pressure on integrators," he says. "We are spending an increasing amount of time and money developing teams able to cope with these increased demands."
It's not just the technology that's challenging: safety is, of course, of paramount importance - but so too are absolute reliability and responsive support. Here's Corrado again. "We like to think that Alcorn McBride is regarded as the most reliable equipment for themed attractions," he says.
"Attraction operators ask for our products to be installed because they know we see the business from their perspective. For us, reliability starts on the design table and continues with the exceptional level of support we provide, even during weekends and holidays. A few years ago I spent New Year's Eve fixing an attraction in a large theme park. Another time I went to Italy twice on the same Sunday to support one of our customers. This is the level of support people expect in that market."
"Ultimate reliability is something we take extremely seriously, not only for the visitor attraction markets, but for all markets in which we operate," says Eckett. "Many of our systems are ruggedised, with some models designed for use in motion-platform system to US mil-spec standards. The same ruggedised systems are designed for multi-point professional rigging, as used by the event staging industry."
"It's a very simple question," adds Saint Girons. "How long a delay will the client accept for the system to react in case of failure? For many, any failure must be transparent to visitors - a requirement we're able to satisfy by configuring fully redundant show controllers, driving spare AV devices, with automatic fault detection."
And while audiovisual technology has a vital role to play in entertaining and educating visitors, its role in ensuring their safety and security should not be underestimated. A system that provides a complete, park-wide audio solution is the Bose ControlSpace audio engine - and it's in use at the UK's Thorpe Park visitor attraction, which welcomes over 1 million visitors each year.
"The park is divided into 11 logical zones, each of which has its own audio stream," says Rob Brookes, senior field engineer at Bose, who was part of the design team for Thorpe Park's audio system.
"Each stream has its own scheduled profile of music composed specifically for the area, interspersed with promotional messages and announcements. Historically, all these elements would have been done by individual sound stores at each ride, but now we can do it all from one control room and change the content at different times or on different days.
"Simple graphical user controls in the control room and security suite allow staff to make pre-recorded or live announcements across the whole park or to any individual area of the park, delivering a clear, quick message to the people who need to hear it."
The visitor attraction market opportunity for audiovisual companies seems, for now at least, to be a buoyant one - although, inevitably, suppliers are being asked to do more for less money. Vanmeenen is, for the most part, positive about what he sees.
"I personally think that the visitor attractions market will keep on growing, at least for some time," he says. "In this 'experience society', people want to be part of the excitement, discover new things and learn new things. Amusement parks these days can easily be reached, people have more leisure time, and an increased disposable income. I wonder, however, if the ageing population will have an effect on the market, and if so, how the market will respond to this."
Farmer concludes with a salutary reminder to manufacturers, integrators and attraction operators alike. "Great visitor experiences depend on the art of narration, the skill of the story teller," he says. "This was true 500 years ago, it is true now, and in my opinion will be true forever. We can use technology to help us in the pursuit of delivering great stories but it is not an end in itself.
"The basic technique of the Pepper's Ghost is the same now as it was 150 years ago, and continues to be used in many high-profile attractions. Technology is helping us by providing better-reflecting materials, higher-definition projection and so on - but the key to success lies in the art of the narration."