Case study – Exeter Cathedral



Case study – Exeter Cathedral[1]

Exeter Cathedral is an Anglican Cathedral, and the seat of the Bishop of Exeter, in the city of Exeter, Devon in South West England. It is one of the great medieval Cathedrals of England, and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture anywhere. Originally dating back to the 11th century, the Cathedral building was rebuilt during the 13th century, when the Norman foundations were replaced with a Gothic style.

The Cathedral is now Exeter’s top attraction, with over 100.000 visitors every year. As a site, Exeter Cathedral fits into three categories: as a place of worship, catering to pilgrims and worshippers; as a tourist attraction, catering to visitors who pay to visit the Cathedral; and a venue for events organised for specific audiences. Each of these angles relates to a specific business model, in that each has its own offering, audiences and operations. Because VISTA is a solution for creating visitor experiences, this case study will focus on the tourism business model of the Cathedral.

More recently, site managers have realised that the Cathedral’s offer was not sufficiently appealing. Paying visitors often conveyed a feeling of not gaining much in return for the admission price and therefore improvements to the visitor experience were necessary. In this context, the opportunity arose to participate in the VISTA AR project, aiming to improve visitor satisfaction and experience by introducing elements of digital interpretation to the visitor journey.

Phase 1 – Analysing Exeter Cathedral’s business model

Value Proposition

Visitor intelligence

One notable deficiency identified by the Cathedral management was the lack of a basic understanding of their visitors. Data collection was limited to occasional surveys procured from external market research companies, visitor numbers data from the ticket office, and a circumstantial review of online reviews. While useful, these merely portrayed a general profile of visitors’ demographic and geographic characteristics, leaving the Cathedral management with limited knowledge of Cathedral their visitors.
As part of the VISTA project, several data collection tools were employed including visitor surveys, geospatial tracking, and text analytics in order to capture visitors’ profile, motivations, experience, and visitor behaviour.

Visitor surveys

Questionnaires were administered to visitors to the Cathedral to collect data concerning demographics, geography, motives for visit the site, general holiday context, type of experience, and satisfaction and visit outcomes. Based on scientific literature, specific measures included:

  • Demographic: age, gender, number of children in household, marital status, employment, level of education
  • Geographic: UK residence, nationality, country travelled from
  • Motivation for visit
  • Type of visit/holiday: duration of holiday, party size
  • Times visited Cathedral (repeat visits)
  • Type of experience: entertaining, educational, escapist, aesthetic, arousing
  • Satisfaction, memorability, intention to return and recommend to others

These types of data provided insights into who visitors are, where they come from, and why they visit. The survey was administered at two points: during high-season (with 166 visitors completing the survey) and during low-season (47 visitors).
The survey results provided a comprehensive picture of the visitors’ profiles.

The survey also provided thorough results concerning visitor experience and outcomes.

The survey reveals a visitor profile that is of older age, highly educated and looking to learn about the Cathedral. Their experience is positive, with the majority of visitors reporting high levels of satisfaction. This may be associated with experiences that either enhance the acquisition of knowledge about the Cathedral, or that draw visitors to absorb the atmosphere and aesthetic features of the monument.


A study was also run on the spatio-temporal behaviour of visitors who agreed to carry a tracking device during their visit. Analysis of the captured data was based on a set of geospatial algorithms that could reconstruct a visitor’s journey around a site using a combination of beacon and GPS data from their electronic guides. The algorithms could also determine where visitors lingered and associate this to POI within the site, helping managers understand which POI were more popular with visitors.

At Exeter Cathedral, a geospatial analysis of visitor journeys was conducted with two groups of visitors (self-led visitors vs audio-guide users). The findings revealed that visitors using the audio-guide were less likely to visit the Cathedral shop, meaning the site was missing out on revenue from potential sales. This led the site management to rethink the way the audio-guide is structured so as to encourage visitors to walk through the shop.

The geospatial data provides insights into visitor behaviour, dwell time and navigation route and is visually represented in a visitor intelligence dashboard that the project has created for site managers (example below).

Text analytics

In addition, an analysis was made of the reviews written by visitors on the Cathedral’s TripAdvisor page. This was done using Natural Language Processing algorithms capable of extracting information from visitor reviews; both what was being commented on and how the visitor felt about it. Analysis is based on a framework of concepts covering six main aspects of visitor interactions: site offerings (e.g., features and artefacts), interpretation offerings (e.g. guided tours), supporting services (e.g., café and shop), price (fees and admission), staff (e.g., welcome desk, stewards), and external elements (e.g., weather). Each of these aspects are highlighted in visitor reviews and analysed in terms of positive and negative feedback, also shown on the dashboard.

2794 TripAdvisor reviews written by visitors  between 2002 and 2019 were analysed. Findings show that visitors mostly commented about the interpretation offerings, site offerings and supporting services. However, admission price to the Cathedral was the feature receiving the largest number of negative reviews, with visitors often stating the admission fee was too high or questioning whether the Cathedral should even charge for admission at all.

This data provided a detailed analysis of the visitor profile, experience and behaviour. Furthermore, it provided a robust basis to segment visitors from several angles and design new experiences for specific target audiences. Finally, it created a baseline to evaluate the impact the implementation of digital interpretation devices would have on the overall visitor experience.

Value propositions

A value proposition explains why someone should want to take the time to visit the heritage site, and usually takes the form of a clear and concise statement. In the case of Exeter Cathedral, the general value proposition was related to the sacredness and tranquillity of the space, its rich history and heritage, and its place as a central local landmark. As there was no specific visitor segmentation, only one generic value proposition statement could be established for the Cathedral’s current offer:

The chance to visit a local landmark, discover its history and heritage and experience a moment of peace.

This VP is experienced through access to the site and the partaking in the visitor journeys available, e.g., guided tours (see next section, Storytelling/content).


The central message Exeter Cathedral aims to convey to its visitors is its role as a focal point in the community and as a holy house of worship open to all. The main features highlighted for visitor interpretation concern the building’s architecture and artefacts, as well as its history and people that played a key role throughout the centuries. These features are told by means of a core offer, as well as a number of visitor journeys with enhanced interpretation.

The core offer includes access to the Cathedral floor (nave, quire, and Lady Chapel), Chapter House (occasionally closed off), shop and café. This is supported by an interpretation leaflet that highlights 20 points of interest (POIs) on a map alongside a brief explanation. In addition to the core offer, several other enhanced visitor journeys are available, including guided tours, an audioguide and a guidebook.

The table below presents an overview of all journeys and their storytelling aspects.

In some cases, it is useful to create a table breaking down each individual journey to analyse and describe its storytelling and heritage content in greater detail. For example, the audioguide at Exeter Cathedral integrates a variety of features and POIs of the Cathedral, providing a general overview of the Cathedral’s history, architecture and liturgical activities, among others (see table below).

Journey title: Audioguide
Value proposition: A comprehensive tour of the Cathedral, narrated by voice actor, to discover the main architectonic features, artefacts, figures and events that took place in the Cathedral’s history.
Target audience: General public

From the tables above, it is visible that the most significant messages passed on to visitors to the Cathedral focus on themes such as history, liturgy and artefacts. These messages/stories are communicated through several interpretation tools.

Mediation tools

Current mediation tools to support visitor interpretation at Exeter Cathedral are quite limited. The primary tools used for interpretation are the guided tours (free, happening hourly during opening times), an audioguide covering a general presentation of the Cathedral, and a short leaflet with a map of the floorplan and a brief indication of the most significant points of interest. Notably, the only interpretation tools using some kind of technology are the audio guide, a video, and a virtual tour (online).

The table below summarises the visitor journeys on offer, focusing on the mediation aspects.


The tourism operation at Exeter Cathedral requires key resources and activities to ensure that the value proposition is successfully delivered to visitors.

In terms of staff involved in the tourism side of the Cathedral offering, these include: tour guides, stewards, desk and booking personnel, shop assistants, and café workers (managed by an external partner). Of these, most tour guides and stewards are part of a volunteer scheme.

These staff are responsible for providing key activities, namely welcoming visitors, processing payment and taking bookings, and providing information/interpretation (guided tours, answers to questions, general assistance).

Value Capture

The primary source of income in Exeter Cathedral’s tourism business model is visitor admissions. The Cathedral operates a pay-per-visit charge to tourists. The price for entry varies by customer group with adults paying £7.50, seniors and students paying £6.00 and under 18s being free of charge. This fixed price menu acts as the income stream for the tourism business model and determines the revenue generated.

The cost structure comprises direct and indirect expenses. The main cost drivers in Exeter Cathedral’s tourism business model are related to marketing, staff salaries and booking systems. Other costs refer to the conservation of the building and heritage content, as well as the cost of Cathedral activities, e.g., choir.

Having conducted a thorough analysis of the Cathedral’s tourism business model, work then proceeded on the design and development of the new digital experiences.

Phase 2 – Designing AR/VR experiences

Value Proposition

Target audiences

Before setting out the ideas for new digital experiences, the visitor profile of current visitors to the Cathedral was examined. In addition to catering to the Cathedral’s core visitor segments, i.e., senior couples with an interest in Cathedral activities and history, site managers also wished to increase the number of younger audiences (20-30 age group, families with teenagers and children), as these were identified as an underrepresented group with potential to grow.

On the other hand, the visitor survey indicated that few visitors were having an entertaining experience. Exploring this dimension was seen as a way of attracting younger audiences, whilst safeguarding the sense of aesthetics and learning already provided.

Given that one of the Cathedral’s aims  was to improve the value for money of the current visitor experience, as found in the analysis of visitor reviews, it was decided that the new experiences should be diverse in order to attract the interest of multiple visitor segments. Each activity offered a different proposition appealing to specific motivations and audiences. For example, something thrilling for younger audiences looking for a fun experience, and something more contemplative for senior audiences that see the Cathedral as a place of peace.

Four digital experiences focusing on four major POIs of the Cathedral were designed: the West Front, the Cathedral choir, the tower views, and the Minstrels’ Gallery.

Value propositions

Based on audiences targeted, work began to develop value propositions for new digital interpretation that could improve the overall visitor experience.

Minstrels’ Gallery

The Minstrels’ Gallery is one of the most unique and significant artefacts in the Cathedral. However, its position high up in the nave makes it difficult for visitors to truly appreciate the intricate carvings. Therefore, a digital representation in AR was created to make the artefact more accessible to visitors, who can view it via a tablet device. In addition to the 3D visual representation of the gallery, animations of the angels’ movement and music were added to make the experience more pleasing. The experience targets mainly families and younger audiences, but also other visitors with interest in the Cathedral’s artefacts.


Music is an important part of the Exeter Cathedral experience. However, choir performances are limited and generally do not happen often during visitor opening times. The idea was to offer visitors an opportunity to listen to a choir performance at any time. For increased impact, an immersive VR experience of Cathedral choir was created where visitors can wear a headset and experience what it feels like to sit among the choir as they perform. The experience is suitable for those interested in Cathedral activities (music) or looking for a moment of peace.

Tower view

Exeter Cathedral’s towers offer an impressive view of the city and surrounding landscape. However, although accessible, reaching the top of the North Tower is challenging, with visitors having to climb over 100 steps up narrow stone stairways. Therefore, a VR recreation of the tower view was developed to enable access to the tower to those with limited mobility. An alternate version includes a plank positioned at the edge of the tower, and visitors are encouraged to walk off the plank. This element gives a sense of thrill due to the heights and increases the level of fun in the experience, making it more appealing to younger audiences. Depending on their motivation, visitors can choose which version to take: View or Plank.

West Front

The Cathedral Green is a central spot in the city that attracts large numbers of people to sit in the sun and meet friends. This footfall does not, however, directly translate into large number of visitors entering the Cathedral. To tap into this market, a standalone mobile application was developed, to be made available independently from Cathedral admission. The app included an AR representation of the Cathedral’s West Front that illustrates the original chromatic figures and statues of the Cathedral, triggered by pointing the camera on the ground in front of the building’s façade. The aim was to generate interest about the Cathedral and increase visibility of the other digital experiences available in the Cathedral.

A key issue shared by all these digital experiences concerns accessibility of Cathedral features. Based on the visitor feedback, site managers were keen on creating experiences that could bring Cathedral artefacts, points of interest, or knowledge closer to and more visible to visitors.

In addition to the AR and VR experiences, an audio-visual tour was also created as a means of offering all the AR/VR in an integrated way. This is experienced using a tablet device and provides a storyline for the entire visitor journey, making use of 2D content (e.g., audio, images and text) as well as the AR and VR experiences.

Having decided on the value proposition, the storyline and heritage content of the experiences were developed.


Designing the visitor journey

The new digital experience can add a new journey to the site and tell a story that is not currently available. On the other hand, digital technology can also be used to re-tell an existing story. For example, the choir experience was already available to the public, albeit limited to the schedule of choir performances and rehearsals. By means of technology, visitors can experience the choir at any time of the day, thus re-telling an existing journey.

As a result of the broad targeting developed in the previous section, an overall tour was designed to integrate the digital experiences into one visitor journey. A dedicated mobile app was developed for this purpose, available on tablets that visitors can acquire at the welcome desk. This umbrella app was designed as an audio-visual tour that guides visitors around several POIs in the Cathedral, narrated by a fictional character, as accompanied by expert notes. The newly created Minstrels’ AR, Choir VR and Tower VR experiences are integrated in this visitor journey (the West Front AR is a standalone experience).

Visitors are invited to take a tour that ties together several POIs, digital or not, into one journey. The new visitor journey includes a total of 10 POIs, three of which deploying digital technologies. The journey is narrated by a fictional character – a pilgrim from the 15th century – that guides the visitor through the Cathedral and, invites the visitor to take part in the AR and VR experiences at the relevant points.


A story for the visitor journey was created around the theme of pilgrimage due to the significance of the history of pilgrimage to the Cathedral, and how it shows visitors the importance of Exeter Cathedral for communities local and far away. A fictional character – Joan, from Tiverton, in 1458 – was created to tell the story.

Then the POIs identified in the previous section were examined, 10 of which were chosen due to their relevance to the pilgrimage story. Based on the POIs and the Pilgrimage theme, scripts were then written for each of the chosen POIs by a curation expert working with a team at Exeter Cathedral. Two types of scripts were created for each POI: the main script to be told by the pilgrim, the other consisting of “expert voices” serving as add-ons of extra content. These are separate audio tracks that complement the main story, with detailed information about particular aspects and themes related to the POI in question.

  1. Welcome
  2. The Nave
  3. Minstrels’ Gallery
  4. The Pulpitum Screen
  5. Bishop Lacy’s Tomb
  6. Bishop Stapledon’s Tomb
  7. Lady Chapel
  8. St Gabriel’s Chapel
  9. The Quire
  10. The Courtenay Tomb
  11. Farewell

Storytelling is mainly achieved by the character-led narration in the umbrella audio-visual tablet tour rather than within each AR and VR experience, therefore storyboards were not required for the AR Minstrels or the VR Choir and VR Tower/Plank.

The Visitor Journey Table below describes the storytelling involved in the audio-visual tour, covering the digital innovations developed as part of VISTA AR project.

Mediation tools

The choice of technology used to tell the story was based on what was set out in the value proposition. Both AR and VR technologies were employed for different purposes.

Minstrels’ Gallery – AR

The Minstrels’ Gallery was developed in AR in order to provide an interactive social experience, in that a group taking the tablet tour could stop at the POI and listen to the music and animation together. Furthermore, integrating the AR into the tour app ensured that the digital interpretation of the POI blended in with the overall experience.

Technically, a 3D model of the Minstrels’ Gallery was created by laser scanning the artefact. Each angel has been animated to recreate the movements of playing the instrument associated, and then coloured accordingly to the original artefact. A music score was commissioned to offer a bespoke piece played with authentic medieval musical instruments. This score was then recorded by professional musicians and synced to the animation. The AR is triggered by pointing the tablet camera at the artefact.

Cathedral choir – VR

The choir experience has been designed as an immersive experience of listening to the Cathedral Choir performing three songs. It was essential to provide a way of shutting off from the surroundings so visitors could fully immerse themselves in the experience. As such, the choir experience was developed in VR, and experienced via a wireless headset whilst seated in the Quire stalls.

Technically, a 360 video was shot of the choir performing, and then modelled into VR. Visitors are able to sit and have complete control of what to look at in a  panoramic view of the performance.

Tower view/plank – VR

Similarly to the Choir experience, the VR of the Tower View offers strong immersiveness to give visitors a convincing experience of being on the Cathedral tower. To achieve this sense of presence, visitors are virtually transported to the rooftop of the North Tower, from where they can appreciate a 360 view of the surroundings of the Cathedral and main landmarks of the city of Exeter.

Technically, a 360 picture was taken from the top of the tower, and modelled into a VR environment. Contrary to the choir experience, in which visitors may sit down, the Tower VR experience allows visitors to move around a 10-m2 area recreating the tower roof, look over the edge and appreciate the view from all sides of the tower.

An alternate version of the Tower VR includes a plank experience. A plank was added to the VR environment and positioned over the edge of the tower, which visitors can walk on and fall or jump off.

Visitors can choose between taking the View or the Plank experience. While the View VR is more contemplative and informative, the Plank experience offers a thrill of the sensation of height. In this sense, the same technology can offer two very different experiences, making it more suitable to cater to various visitor segments.

West Front – AR

The West Front experience was developed in AR. Visitors are able to point the smartphone camera at the ground in front of the façade of the Cathedral, triggering an animation recreating the authentic colours decorating the statues and figures of the façade in medieval times. The animation also includes a short welcome by the animated statue of St Peter, patron of the Cathedral.

Technically, a 3D model was made from a laser scan of the Cathedral façade. Based on previous scientific research on the chromatics of the Cathedral, animators coloured the figures in the 3D model, and created a transition from the bare stone to colour. A further layer of animation of the statue of St Peter has been included, in which he welcomes the visitors to the Cathedral and encourages them to enter to discover the wonders within.

There are two different versions of the West Front AR app. A first version which is intended to be experienced outdoors, when visitors are standing outside the Cathedral, before entering the building. The AR experience, developed as standalone app, is downloadable via QR code available at the main entrance of the Cathedral. The aim was to make it possible for people on the Green to download and install the app on their own devices and explore the AR. The underpinning idea for the outdoor version is for it to be a teaser to lure people into visiting the inside of the Cathedral and experience the other digital experiences. Being a teaser, the outdoor version contains limited contents compared to the indoor version.

The second version is meant to be experienced indoors and it is intended for paying visitors of the Cathedral. The AR experience is available to visitors via the tablet acquired with the ticket at the reception desk. This version offers full access to the contents. Alongside the animation of the colours of the façade, triggered by a 2D image of the Cathedral screen, it also offers to the visitors the possibility of navigating the reconstructed 3D model and accessing extra written and audio content provided in the form of POIs.

The table below summarises the audio-visual tour, focusing on the mediation aspects of the AR/VR digital experiences.


The introduction of digital technologies in the Cathedral offering required some operational changes in the site’s previous organisation.

For example, staff at the welcome desk are required to undertake new tasks, such as providing the tablet devices to visitors who take the audio-visual tablet tour and explaining to them how the device works. They also need to process the deposit money and check the state of the device and battery after each visit, charging them as necessary, as well as sanitising the device. Where VR experiences are in place, staff are required to handle the VR system, headset and controllers. This includes helping visitors put the headset on and providing instructions, and starting/stopping the software program. Headsets and controllers also need to be sanitised after each use, and stored securely at the end of the day.

As for new resources for delivering the digital experiences, 50 tablets and headphones were purchased for the audio-visual tour. Space was cleared inside the welcome desk office to accommodate a cabinet for the charging docks and storage of tablets. For the VR experiences, VR kits were purchased for each VR experience (Tower and Choir).

  • The Tower VR kit, comprised of one tethered headset, two controllers, server computer sensors, tripods, and headphones, was set up in the North Porch, a room just off the North aisle. This room provided sufficient space to allow visitors to move in the virtual environment, as well as a physical barrier (door) to prevent noise disturbances to visitors in the nave.
  • The Choir VR kit includes a wireless headset and controllers (no computer necessary). Six kits were purchased which are stored in a cabinet near the Quire and brought out when requested.

The table below summarises the operational aspects of the audio-visual tablet tour and AR/VR experiences.

Value Capture

In order to support decision making in terms of monetising the digital experiences, a study of visitors’ willingness-to-pay (WtP) was conducted at Exeter Cathedral. Visitors were asked a variety of questions about the pricing of digital interpretation experiences at the Cathedral.

WtP is the maximum price a potential buyer is prepared to pay and can be estimated using  the Price Sensitivity Meter (PSM) as an initial step in situations where there is genuine uncertainty over what is an appropriate price range. This method may include inherent biases, such as hypothetical bias, where stated WtP is greater than actual WtP because visitors are presented with a hypothetical situation; strategic bias, where respondents seek to game the study to influence actual pricing; and protest values, where respondents have a principled objection to providing monetary value. Nevertheless, PSM provides an ‘acceptable’ price range that can be used for further steps.

At the Cathedral this was done first by exposing respondents to two demonstrations; one ‘walk-the-plank’ and one ‘virtual tour’ (not VISTA demos but commercially available demos of a quality expected to be delivered by VISTA). Respondents were then asked ‘would you be willing to pay for these experiences?’ Depending on their answer they were shown a purchasing scenario and asked 4 questions on prices they consider too cheap, cheap, expensive, too expensive (see below).

The PSM analysis calculates the Indifference-Price (IDP) and the Optimal Price Point (OPP). IDP normally represents the median price actually paid or price of market leader, and is based on people’s experience with price levels in the market. At the OPP an equal number of people believe a product is too cheap or too expensive; this price is the price at which resistance is low. At OPP, 18% of respondents experience the product (e.g., admission fee) as too cheap or too expensive. If the two lines do not cross then it is determined as a range.

At Exeter Cathedral, the study found that the optimal price point for the digital experiences is £10.

Following on from this analysis, the Point Marginal Cheapness (PMC) and Point Marginal Expensiveness (PME) are calculated. PMC is the number of people who experience a product as too cheap and is larger than the number which experience it merely as cheap. PME refers to the number of people experiencing the product as too expensive is larger than the number of those experiencing the product merely as expensive. The point between the two is the range of acceptable prices.

At Exeter Cathedral, the study found that:

  • Point Marginal Cheapness = £6.00
  • Point Marginal Expensiveness = £15.00

Therefore, the acceptable price range for digital experiences at the Cathedral is between £6-£15.

Visitor Journey table – VISTA AR audio-visual tour (complete)

Journey title: VISTA AR audio-visual app tour
Value proposition: Experience the Cathedral through the eyes of a fifteenth century pilgrim, in a visually appealing tour with augmented and virtual reality.
Target audience: General public

[1] This is a provisional version V2. As such, some content may not be up to date with final arrangements of the VISTA AR project. A final V3 fully updated version will be delivered at the end of the project.

[2] NOTE: the content in this section is provisional and will be updated depending on final arrangements of the digital experiences and devices being implemented at Exeter Cathedral