In today's episode, I speak with Esther Johnson, a Freelance Designer and Illustrator specialising in working with heritage sites. We discuss the importance of having niche products in your gift shop, how you can develop these for your attraction, and what you need to think about before taking on the plunge.
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Esther Johnson is working with the leading tourist attractions. Creating contemporary illustrations based on extensive research of each subject for commercial use.
Kelly Molson: Welcome to Skip the Queue, a podcast for working in, or working with, visitor attractions. I'm your host, Kelly Molson. Each episode, I speak with industry experts from the attractions world.
In today's episode, I speak with Esther Johnson, a freelance designer and illustrator specialising in working with heritage sites.
We discuss the importance of having niche products in your gift shop, how you can develop these for your attraction, and what you need to think about before taking on the plunge.
If you like what you hear, you can subscribe on all the usual channels by searching Skip the Queue.
Kelly Molson: Esther, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, it's so lovely to see you again.
Esther Johnson: Thank you very much for having me, very flattered.
Kelly Molson: I love the backdrop that you've got there as well, for everyone that's watching this on YouTube, I can see your beautiful illustrations that we're going to talk about in the background. It's a lot more beautiful than my background.
Esther Johnson: No, it's authentic. It's authentic working from home. We redid it last year at the start of April and didn't know that it was going to be really useful for having meetings like this.
Kelly Molson: Who did?
Esther Johnson: [crosstalk 00:01:05]. So, thank you very much.
Kelly Molson: You are welcome. As ever, we're going to start off with some icebreaker questions. So, if money was no limit, what would be your absolute dream holiday?
Esther Johnson: Easy, Nashville. I'm such a big country music fan, absolutely love Nashville, and I would love, love, love to go and listen to the music, and drink the beer and everything. Proper Nashville, want to do it, that is on my bucket list. So, if I had all the money, that's straight where I would go.
Kelly Molson: I love that. There was no hesitation whatsoever in that at all, "I've got this planned already".
Esther Johnson: Literally, country music... It's all I listen to. During the day, it's all I listen to.
Kelly Molson: Who is your favourite country music artist?
Esther Johnson: So, a bit of a girl crush on Carrie Underwood. I've seen her I think three times in London. I think she's just such an incredible performer, and I love her outfits, and I love just everything that she's doing. Carrie Underwood.
Kelly Molson: You've just set the Spotify playlist for me for the rest of the day, I'll have to check her out.
Esther Johnson: Yeah, [inaudible 00:02:26] playlist, definitely [inaudible 00:02:26].
Kelly Molson: What is your food-based guilty pleasure?
Esther Johnson: Probably After Eight's. I have a few food allergies, so my palette is barely limited at times, so After Eight's are literally my go-to for everything. It's the only chocolate I can have, so it's definitely my guilty pleasure.
Kelly Molson: The only chocolate you can have? Wow. Do you play the After Eight game when you eat them as well?
Esther Johnson: No, wastes time, wastes time, straight in.
Kelly Molson: Messy too, depending on the time.
Esther Johnson: Of course, yes.
Kelly Molson: This might tie in actually to your dream holiday, if you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life what would it be?
Esther Johnson: Probably Tommy Scott, this is very Scottish, but it's literally my family's favourite tunes and songs. Tommy Scott, he'll do a range of, We Belong to Glasgow, and all these very Scottish things. So, Tommy Scott. I don't know what album, but anything he's done we'll listen to that.
Kelly Molson: Alright, I don't know Tommy Scott, I'm going to have to put him in my playlist.
Esther Johnson: I'm sure you maybe recognise if you've been to a Burns Night, or [inaudible 00:03:47], or New Year's Eve literally they'll play some of his music.
Kelly Molson: Esther, it's unpopular opinion time.
Esther Johnson: My unpopular opinion is I really don't like pasta, and I'm sorry. I really don't like pasta. If you've gone out to a restaurant and gone to an Italian, and you have Pizza, why would you choose pasta over pizza? I just don't get it.
Kelly Molson: I get you on that. There is no decision to be made there.
Esther Johnson: [crosstalk 00:04:20] all the way.
Kelly Molson: But, you don't like pasta at all?
Esther Johnson: At all. I like rice, so I'd rather have rice. If mum and dad are having pasta I will have rice or something else, or potatoes. I don't know if it's the texture, or if it's the taste. I don't know. Just not for me at all.
Kelly Molson: I'll accept your unpopular opinion.
Esther Johnson: Thank you.
Kelly Molson: I don't agree with it, but I think that there might be a few people that will.
Esther Johnson: I'm very much alone in this house as well.
Kelly Molson: Let's get on to the serious questions. So, Esther, I think we connected on LinkedIn quite a while ago, and I have to say, I'm really blown away by the illustrative work that you do. I think it's absolutely beautiful. You're a freelance designer, but you specialise in illustrations and products for heritage sites.
Esther Johnson: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: Tell me a little bit about how you started your business.
Esther Johnson: It was back in 2017, I'd just been on the Prince's Trust course. They do an enterprise course and it's a four-day crash course into running a business. So, it does your taxes, your marketing. So, four days of full-on business stuff. And, they were doing pros and cons of being an entrepreneur or being self-employed, and every single one I was like, "Yeah, I really want to be self-employed, I want to make my own day job and routine." So, got partnered with a mentor, and we started talking about what I could do as a business really, so creating that idea. I said, "I really like sketchbooks, and drawing, and things like that, but things that I like drawing are the quirky characters, not characters as in Disney characters, but characteristics of places.
Esther Johnson: And, there was a program recently that really summed up my mindset into what I, hopefully, what I'm into the business. It was Tony Robinson, and he did this documentary on Cathedrals in England, and he was saying that, "Unless somebody pointed out these little details, you wouldn't know." So, so many people would just walk past, and that's fine because it's all this history. And, it's those kind of quirky things that we was talking about that I really loved and wanted to capture through illustration.
Esther Johnson: So, there was a video, on Facebook I think it was, and it was all these railings that were really bizarre in London, and they were old World War 2 stretchers, and they'd been recycled into railings. And, it's that kind of idea that I really like drawing. So, we were like, "How can we get that concept?" Because, it's heritage, it's history, and quirky characteristics, "How can we get that concept into a business?" Basically, so, we started thinking of places that were local to me, so in Medway, and Chatham Dockyard came to the list.
Esther Johnson: So, one day, just basically walked in, I had a couple of designs in a folder, and went, "Can I speak to the retail manager?" Hadn't planned anything, didn't know what I wanted to say. And, he didn't laugh at me at the door, which was really nice. He said, "Come back", he had a look at my designs in the folder, seemed to like them. He said, "Come back with some designs and we'll go from there." So, that was it. I went around the site. Chatham Dockyard I think was the biggest employer for Medway before it closed. But, there are so many different aspects of it. There are the three ships, there's a Victorian Ropery where they filmed Call the Midwife, and there are all these buildings. So, there were so many different aspects that I wanted to capture, that I felt that it couldn't go into one design, I felt like it would go as a collection.
Esther Johnson: So, I did By the Docks, so focused on the ships and the maritime aspect of Chatham Dockyard, and called it By the Docks. And then, The Long Walk, because of the Victorian Ropery. I'll probably get this wrong, but I think it was a quarter of a mile long building. So, called it The Long Walk, and the colours were brown and earthy in the style that you would see when you go and visit. And then, finally, I wanted to capture all the different buildings, because it was like a little community in the Dockyard. They had a little church, and they had a Commissioner's House, and it's all things that you see passing by.
Esther Johnson: So, I had the three designs, came back, and he seemed to like them which was really lovely because I had no degree, no experience, absolutely nothing to my name. And, I thought, "No one's going to take me seriously", but I think he saw that I was really interested in the Dockyard in particular and finding out the history of it, and capturing that through illustration. Some of the comments that he said as well was that it was quite unusual that an artist potentially or a designer would go and do some work specific to them. Normally they would either buy in stock or they would buy some designs from a catalogue, kind of thing. And, the fact that I went and wanted to get it bespoke for them was a bit different. And, it was those nuggets of information that built to this idea of what I wanted to do for a business.
Esther Johnson: Then, we went into a product launch, we had all these products. And, having my name on these actual labels, and there would be barcodes, and everything so professional, it was like, "Wow". Lit the fire for what I wanted to do.
Kelly Molson: That must have been such an amazing feeling, to be able to go into a shop and pick up something that you have designed or you've illustrated, and it's there, it's a physical thing.
Esther Johnson: Yeah, I've definitely been in there a few times just to take pictures and just be like, "This is so bizarre". It really sparked that idea that heritage is definitely the market that I want to go in and do it for other places. There are so many other museums in Medway and in Kent. So, that's where it started really.
Kelly Molson: It's a brilliant story. I love that you were supported by Prince's Trust as well, I think they're such an incredible organisation, what they do for young people, really fantastic.
Esther Johnson: Yeah, they still are.
Kelly Molson: You're a mentor for them as well, aren't you?
Esther Johnson: I'm a young ambassador for them.
Kelly Molson: Ambassador.
Esther Johnson: Over lockdown, there's been so many enterprise courses that I've been running. And, on the week you get... They call it an inspirational speaker, it's strange to be called that. I go in and tell my story about how I run the business and how the Prince's Trust has helped. So, I did eight of those over lockdown. So, the demand for small businesses and people setting up their own business has definitely been on the increase. Prince's Trust, still keeps in contact with my mentors and in contact with the South East and London region, which is incredible. I've never met a bunch of people that are just so willing for you to do well. Across the board, everyone is so happy and so excited about what you're doing. It's really encouraging.
Kelly Molson: It's amazing. I love the progression that you've made in what you've achieved so far. The reason that I got you on the podcast today is there's a few things that you mentioned, as you were telling your story about how you set up, that tie in really lovely with a past episode that we've had on the podcast. Back in November time, we had Simon Jones from Digital Visitor on, and at that point we were talking a lot about the fact that attractions have been closed for a huge amount of 2020. As they were starting to reopen again, they needed to look at different ways of engaging with the visitor when they came. And, not just when they come, but when they're buying from them online, or when they're buying from them on the gift shop on-site.
Kelly Molson: And, Simon and I both very much talked about the fact that attractions need to stock products that you can't buy anywhere else, that's the whole point of going to that gift shop. You don't really want to just pop in there and buy something that you could pop to Tesco's and buy, or pop to your high street gift shop and buy. The reason for going is, you've been to this fantastic attraction all day, if you're going to go into the gift shop and buy something, you want to buy something that you can only get there that is very individual to that venue. And, you touched on that a little bit when you were speaking about your client had said that it's unusual for them to have illustrations that were very much focused on them, rather than just buying something that was stock.
Kelly Molson: So, I wanted to talk through your process really, because I thought that would be really interesting for our audience, how you work with an organisation to do this. So, can you tell us a little bit about how that process starts? What do you do when you're first speaking to an attraction? How do you start that process of designing something that is bespoke for them?
Esther Johnson: Most importantly, I need to visit the place. There's obviously so much that you can get from the internet and looking at social media, but actually visiting, as a visitor and as a customer, you see things that you wouldn't necessarily get on the internet. And also, I think a hugely important part of when I do design, is speaking to the staff, some of the visitors, and some of the people that work there because they're the experts in that place. Some of them have been there for their whole career and know every inch of the history of the museum or heritage site. And, it's that kind of information that I think is crucial and is really helpful in making a really good design. Because, they'll know what visitors are always keen to go and look at, the best sellers or the must-sees of each place. And, it's that kind of information that you wouldn't get maybe on the internet. You get a feel, you get an idea of the colours, and what the place is laid out like. So that, when you've done the whole journey and then you finish up at the gift shop, which sometimes that is how it works in museums, you know what they're expecting, and what kind of products they would want to have as part of their trip and day out. So, definitely very much go and visit it first, see it firsthand, and get imagery, photography from those places.
Esther Johnson: And then, I'll go back and do some illustrations, do some designs, and put together something. I'm very lucky that I get free rein to start off with, "Here's the brief, here's what we want", go in, create something. So then, after that, we'll put together a design and I'll maybe put together some products that I think might work. And then, we go from there, we tweak it, sometimes the information might be incorrect, or they prefer to take out some images. It's a very partnership kind of relationship, because, the people that I'm working with, they know the place inside out. So, if I've taken something that I thought was interesting but doesn't quite work with their branding or with their ethos, then it will be taken out. And, that's absolutely fine, because it's them that will be selling it, it will be them that are talking to the customers, and knowing what's going to sell, and things like that.
Esther Johnson: So, design is created, and then we'll put it onto products. And normally, I help find the suppliers and recommend some products that I think might work with some designs from previous examples, previous museums that I've worked with. And then, I also like doing the end part, the packaging, because I found some clients it's quite a small team in the retail side, and don't necessarily have the time to look at swatches for binding for oven gloves, and looking at fabric materials, and all those details. I'm putting my name on it, so I want to make sure it's the best product that it can be for the customer, and I want it to be well-thought-out. Because, like you say, they're spending their money and they want to have something that is bespoke for that place. And, also you can add a bit of a premium to that product that has been well-thought-out, and things like that. So, I really try and go for the full process from start to finish, and they're helping with the packaging, and if you need labels designed. I'm really interested in that whole design process.
Kelly Molson: It's really collaborative, isn't it? You're working really hand in hand with them.
Esther Johnson: Yeah. I definitely feel that is the better way to go about it, rather than just, "Here's a design, you pay me for that, you've got to deal with it, you've got to sell it." I'd rather it be something that they're proud of as well, and that they're passionate about it. That really does help actually with the design. When you're speaking to the staff and customers, the passion of their site and the story that they are telling, when that passion comes over, it really influences the design. And, I get that passion as well, and then I get really excited thinking, "I really hope that they like it, and I really hope that they can see that I've listened to what they've said." So, little details that go in the design, I hope that comes across.
Kelly Molson: And, how do you work with the site to define what those products might be? Because your illustrations can be applied to a variety of different products, how do you help that site define what products are going to be the most popular for them, and how they can make the most of them?
Esther Johnson: So, normally they already have a shop and a product range that they have already, and sometimes it is just a new product collection. So, I can say that "This design particularly works well with confectionary or kitchenware." If it's a place that's not really had product development, or they've just potentially bought things for stock, it's kind of, "Who's your target market? Who are the people that are coming in and buying tickets? Who are the people that are spending the most time in the gift shop?" It's really the research that they have, and it's all their knowledge that really influences what the products... I can suggest and say, "I think this would work really well for this target market", but they are the people that would know who is their customer. I'm not there to tell them, "This is what you should do", at all. It really is a, "I would like to help", or, "I'd like to contribute". So, it really is down to them, to be honest.
Kelly Molson: If we talk about things that people need to think about before they start to speak to somebody like you who will help them develop those products, what do they need to know before they engage with you? What do they need to prepare beforehand?
Esther Johnson: I suppose it depends on what their end reason for having a design. So, an example would be, some design I did for a client was not used for products, it was used for educational purposes. So, getting the school kids would be a big part of their attraction, and they needed a branding or a mascot that could be targeting to the children, and have little speech bubbles, and giving them the educational purposes, and the facts and figures of that. So, that was a very different market.
Kelly Molson: If I gave you an ideal brief, what would be in that brief? What would you need to know, that you would have everything that was in that brief, that you'd go, "This brief is perfect. I'm going to take that away and..."?
Esther Johnson: A perfect brief would be fairly minimal. It would be, "Come and visit on X, Y, and Z", and then I go and take inspiration from the place, and go from there. That would, I'd say, be the perfect brief. Or, another one would be, "We've got five sites, and we're trying to collaborate them together because they're all a bit disjointed", or something like that. And then, I'll be like, "Okay, I'll go to each five sites, find out something specific, and then a design will be created that can collaborate each five site, and then you can sell it in each five sites, so they're all brought together." Finding out what their unique characteristics are to go on.
Kelly Molson: Is that harder to do? Because, if you're going to one site there will be individual things about that site that are really bespoke to that site, it feels like it would be easier to create on thing. How do you manage it when it's five different sites? Do you have to go through the same process at each site?
Esther Johnson: I suppose. There's one particular client that I'm working with, the Brighton Pavilion Trust. So, they've got five museums down in Brighton. The Royal Pavilion is a classic, beautiful architectural building.
Kelly Molson: Such an iconic building, isn't it?
Esther Johnson: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: Everyone remembers it.
Esther Johnson: Beautiful. And, I didn't know that they had five other sites that were all linked in the same thing, and they wanted to create something that was uniformed. So, went around and found all these quirky little things that were in each site. So, I've drawn all the buildings, and then added little elements that were relevant. And then, put them into one design... I know I put it into repeat, just for a textile design background, I suppose. Customers, I hope, will be able to recognise all these different elements, and know that they can go to each different site and then find something else there.
Kelly Molson: That makes sense. I guess you might be a bit biased in [inaudible 00:22:40], how important do you think it is that heritage sites do have niche products?
Esther Johnson: I think it's very important. So, yes, I'm probably biased. I think it is very important because... My mindset for it is that you're spending X amount of money to get into the place, and it's a day out. And, you wouldn't go there if it was just a park, or it had no memory or meaning to it, you go there because there is a purpose to that place. And, the people are passionate about their history and what they are offering. They are, ultimately, offering a story and a place to go. And, I think that it's only fair to capture those stories into something that they can take home as a souvenir. And, the meaning of the souvenir is the whole reason why I create bespoke-ness, is because you want something that you can only buy from that place. And, I also think that well-thought design is important, rather than something that you think, "They didn't really care much about the product." I think it's important to make sure that you do care about the end product so that your customers know that you're passionate about the story, and you want them to come back, and you want them to remember. And, it would be a nice gift that they can give to somebody else as well.
Kelly Molson: It's helping them continue that story as well, isn't it? To continue the journey that they've been on by buying something that is only available there, they then bring it home, which then sparks those lovely memories of that day. And again, does it act as a reminder to say, "We need to go there again", it's something that's in their house, they physically see it all the time, "We need to go back there. We need to revisit."?
Esther Johnson: Yeah, of course. And, if you go to John Lewis and they've got some beautiful collections from maybe artists or just well-designed products, you think, "Wow, that's really nice. I might want to go back and add to the collection." So, you've got a set of some really nice products. And, I think, why couldn't you do that in the museum setting, and a visitor site setting? Why can't you have really beautiful products that maybe you want to go back and get the set. Or, maybe you see what else they've developed and think, "I'd rather spend my money here than on a high street store." It's making that decision made easy for customers to spend their money in a museum and visitor site rather than somewhere else online.
Kelly Molson: That's a great answer. I completely agree with you on that. I think it's part of that whole mindset... There was a majority of people that were trying to shift to buying local, and buying [inaudible 00:25:43], buying smaller products anyway. But, there's definitely been a shift towards that more so since lockdown, buying local, supporting independents and things. So, I think if you can intertwine that into your visitor center as well then that's a perfect offering.
Esther Johnson: Yeah. I totally agree.
Kelly Molson: You might not have facts and figures and stuff for this, but it'd be interesting to know if you've spoken to any of the attractions that you've worked with and seen what the uptake has been in those niche products, compared to something that was a stock product that people would have been able to buy previously?
Esther Johnson: I don't have facts and figures. I would love to be able to say their revenue was amazing after they had worked with me. In 2020, I had five projects that was going onto products that all got put on hold, and I only really started the business in 2018. So, in terms of facts and figures, it's quite difficult to get them because it's quite a short time. However, I did get contacted by a charity called ABF, the national Soldier's Charity, I think it was March/ April last year, so during the lockdown. And, we created a design, and we created some products, and it went quite well. And, they had to reorder within a couple of months. And, we did some Christmas cards that were e-cards, and they were doing them onto physical Christmas cards. And, we're doing some new product collections that are now stationary. We did confectionary, we expanded on the confectionary style. And, the response has been really good. It is a different market in terms of that it's a military charity, rather than a visitor attraction. But, the process is still the same thing. I still get in elements from what they do, what their ethos, why they do what they do, and put that onto design.
Esther Johnson: And, people took... I think they liked it. Because, they were like, "Yes, this is the charity that I support and have a lot of relationships or memories within this charity, and I want to support them. And, the fact that they've got a lovely designed product, even better." So, instead of just donating money, which people do every month, they actually get a product for it. And, something that they can admire... Not admire, [inaudible 00:28:16].
Kelly Molson: I totally get that. I think it's really relevant, regardless of whether that's a charity or an attraction that you're talking to. Again, it comes back to that idea of people are making really big choices about where they spend their money, and that charity or that attraction is really important to them, therefore they're choosing to spend their money there. And, they want something that they can only get at that venue. That's the message that we're driving through today. It is really important that your venue has something that is so special, and so unique to you, that people can only spend their money there on that product.
Esther Johnson: Yeah, because, ultimately, the people will go there for a particular reason, because of the story that they tell. And, if it can be someway reflected into a lovely product that they can then purchase and help, then the money goes back into the refurbishment or the continuation of that organisation, I think all the better for it.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. So, other than behind your head, where I can see some of your beautiful products. Again, if you're not watching this on YouTube, apologies. What attractions have you worked with? Where can we find out a bit more about your work?
Esther Johnson: Chatham Dockyard, to start off with. They still sell the three designs that I started my business on, so you can go and find them there. Chelsea Pensioners was such an amazing project to work on, going around the Chelsea Pensioner site, the Royal Hospital, and speaking with Chelsea Pensioner, and getting all that thing. So, they have products and they have it online as well. So, if you have any connections with the Chelsea Pensioners, that was a really good project to work on. The Brighton Billing Trust, I really hope I've got that name right, this year we're working on some products that will combine all the five sites that they have, and we're putting them on to products. So, it would have come out in 2020, but obviously, it was postponed. So, hopefully, this year, maybe next year, Brighton will have some new products designed by me.
Kelly Molson: So exciting. I think it's wonderful. I've really enjoyed chatting to you today, just to find out more about that process and how it works. If anyone wants to get in touch with you, where's the best place that they can do that?
Esther Johnson: Website, email, designedbyesther.co.uk. Instagram, I try and put a lot more on Instagram.
Kelly Molson: Fabulous. And, we will put all the links to Esther's contact details in the show notes anyway, so don't worry if you didn't grab that. You'll be able to pop over and hit her up if you want to chat with her and find out a little bit more about how she can help. We always end our podcast with asking about a book that you'd recommend to our listeners. So, a book that you love, or something that's helped shape your career in some way? What's your suggestion for us today?
Esther Johnson: Ashamedly, I've not read many books. However, over lockdown, there's a lady called Holly Tucker, who co-founded Not On The High Street, and Holly & Co, and she's been doing these Instagram Lives two or three times a week, and they've been so inspirational, so motivating. She really just captures what small businesses and small entrepreneurs are going through. She answers questions, she's just so helpful. She has a book coming out called Do What You Love, Love What You Do. I've pre-ordered it, and I am so excited to read it. I've gone against the rules, that I haven't read it. Over lockdown, she has really inspired me to think, "Why do I want to run a business?", and, "Why do I want to continue what I'm doing?" So, she has been a big boost in the daily running of my business. I really recommend her. And also, if you just watch her Instagram Lives, she's so interesting and so personable, she's just incredible.
Kelly Molson: I love that. I think that's a perfect book for this episode.
Esther Johnson: Perfect, yeah.
Kelly Molson: It fits really well with what we've been talking about, in terms of products. Good recommendation. As ever, listeners, if you want to win a copy of this book, then if you head over to our Twitter account, which is Skip the Queue, and if you retweet this episode announcement with the comment, "I want Esther's book", then you will be in with a chance of winning it.
Esther Johnson: It should be a good one.
Kelly Molson: Esther, thank you so much for coming on today, I've really enjoyed finding out a bit more about what you do. I think understanding a bit of that process that you go through when you work with attractions will definitely help our audience if they're thinking about developing a bespoke product in some way that is going to be really individual for them. So, thank you.
Esther Johnson: Thank you very much for asking, I hope it has been of some use.
Kelly Molson: It absolutely will be.
Kelly Molson: Thanks for listening to Skip the Queue. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a five-star review, it really helps others find us. And, remember to follow us on Twitter for your chance to win the books that have been mentioned. Skip the Queue is brought to you by Rubber Cheese, a digital agency that builds remarkable systems and websites for attractions that helps them increase their visitor numbers. You can find show notes and transcriptions from this episode and more over on our website, rubbercheese.com/podcast.