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Guest expert feature - What makes a successful travelling exhibition and will they survive the COVID-19 crisis

Over the coming weeks Sarner will be running a number of features on ‘Insights from the Industry’ submitted by expert consultants from the freelancing world who we have had the pleasure to team up with over the years. This week we are pleased to share an article by Adam Sanders, a sought-after specialist in travelling exhibitions. Adam is currently consulting with Sarner on the development of a major new touring show based on a popular BBC IP.

Adam Sanders
In this photo  - Adam Sanders, Sanders Exhibition Services

Having been immersed in the cultural and entertainment touring exhibitions industry for the last 20 years I am often asked what makes a successful travelling exhibition, and most recently, will this industry survive the Covid crisis? 

The number of touring exhibition providers has grown exponentially over the last three decades creating a highly competitive market. Commercial organisations, private collectors, museums, science centres, and other cultural institutions are now all producing shows to tour.

With so much product available in terms of both permanent and temporary attractions for the public to enjoy, the competition to capture people’s leisure time and money has never been higher. This competition has in turn increased the pressure for touring exhibitions to be successful.  

But what is success, and how can it be measured? 

On the face of it the answer should be simple; take a great topic, add engaging content, build the exhibition, promote it well, and people will come! Delve beneath the surface, however, and it soon becomes apparent there is more to what makes a successful travelling exhibition than meets the eye!

For every organisation that decides to develop a touring exhibition and for every venue that hosts a show, success can mean different things to different people. Success may be measured by the number of visitors it attracts, the profit or PR exposure it generates, if it can encourage repeat visits or new audiences to the venue, and whether or not it can promote the mission or brand values of the touring/hosting organisation. Due to the wide and varied criteria for success, producing the winning formula can be complex and not always straight forward. 

Some thoughts on how to achieve success include:

Picking an exhibition subject that is exciting, that will invoke a personal emotive response and be relevant to the visitor. Include a ‘Mona Lisa’ experience one that is rare and unique, providing a once in a lifetime opportunity to see. This in turn will attract high levels of media attention. Use real artefacts, specimens or objects and provide entertaining and engaging exhibits, and in some cases affiliate the exhibition with a popular brand. In the era of social media providing selfie opportunities within the exhibition for guests to enjoy will also help with the viral marketing campaign. If the exhibition can traverse international borders appealing to a global audience then the longevity of the tour will be far greater than many of its counterparts too.

Examples of exhibitions that encompassed some or all of these criteria and have had phenomenal success include: Body Worlds, Harry Potter The Exhibition, Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, Titanic The Exhibition, Art of the Brick, and Bowie to name a few.

The highly controversial exhibition Body Worlds developed by Gunther von Hagen received a staggering 1 million visitors when it first opened in Cologne in the mid 2000s, followed by 1.4 million and 860,000 in Berlin and Munich respectively. Harry Potter The Exhibition has been touring for over 11 years and has been displayed in over 19 locations worldwide and seen by millions. 

In such precarious times due to the impact of Covid, the importance of touring exhibitions can’t be underestimated. Once the constraints of Lockdown are relinquished the public desire and thirst to get out of the house to visit exhibitions and events will be immense. Times and situations change but people’s longing to be entertained, stimulated and enthralled do not. The touring exhibitions business was strong prior to Covid, and will emerge stronger and more robust after the main pandemic threat has dissipated. 

With their ability to attract existing and new audiences, and their comparatively low costs to host, touring exhibitions will be vital in kick-starting the return of visitors to venues. The parameters under which these venues will operate may have to alter, but fundamentally the need for successful exhibitions, in whatever guise this may be, will only increase.


About Adam Sanders

Adam has over 20 years of experience of marketing, sales and business development in museums and leisure attractions. For 16 years Adam worked as the Business Development Manager, for the Touring Exhibitions, International Business Development and Planning and Design Consulting departments at the Natural History Museum London (NHM). Following his time at the NHM, Adam took on the position of Director of Travelling Exhibitions for Explorado Productions, where, as part of his role, he organised and managed the Paris section of the Harry Potter Exhibition global tour. 

Adam currently owns and operates Sanders Exhibition Services (SES) which provides advisory and project development services, and exhibitions for hire, for museums, science centres, public venues, brands and products, who are involved in creating and operating first class travelling exhibitions, and permanent exhibition experiences. This involves: Consulting with organisations to develop and tour travelling and permanent exhibitions; Developing sales processes; Promoting exhibition products to potential venues for display; Exhibition contract negotiations; Project delivery; Working with IP Licensors; Securing incoming travelling exhibitions for host venues; Business development advice and assistance.

Further details on Sanders Exhibition Services can be found at: