In our February 2003 issue we discussed how critical quality-of-place is to the success of leisure venues. This is part of a continuing series of articles discussing different attributes of quality-of-place.
Quality-of-place not only deals with the physical characteristics of a facility, but also with its emotional and psychological qualities, how it is perceived by the guests. To guests, perception is reality. They act on their perceptions. They make decisions whether to visit, how long to stay and whether and how often to return based on their perceptions. It doesn't matter if your facility is cleaner than a hospital operating room; if guests perceive it as dirty, all the cleaning in the world doesn't count.
A very important characteristic of any facility designed to attract families is security; how safe do they feel when they visit? It doesn't matter if there has never been a serious accident or crime committed at the facility (of course if there has been, it is an uphill battle to overcome that reputation). The only thing that matters is does the family, and especially the mother and children, feel safe visiting it?
One major fear of parents, and even children, is child abductions. The FBI estimates that in 2001 about 750,000 children were reported missing, about 2,000 per day. Most were found within hours. But many were not. There are about 70,000 actual child abductions or kidnappings a year, About half of all child abductions are committed by parents in the course of custodial disputes; about 1/4 are by acquaintances and the remaining 1/4 of abductions are by strangers. Abductions by non-family members often result in crimes against the children, including sexual assault and robbery.
A 1998 study by pediatricians at the Mayo Clinic found that 3/4 of all parents said they feared their children might be abducted. One-third of parents said this was a frequent worry - a degree of fear greater than that held for any other concerns, including car accidents, sports injuries or drug addiction.
With the fear of abductions being so much on the minds of parents, and probably more so due to extensive press coverage of recent child abductions, it is critical to a leisure facility's success that it gives guests, and especially moms, a sense of security and psychic comfort. Parents always have the choice of not coming, and that is exactly what will happen if they don't feel the facility is safe for them and their children.
Guests' perceptions of safety are affected by many factors. Having a uniformed security guard standing by the front door or patrolling the facility won't make up for a guest's, and especially a mom's, feeling of how safe the facility is for her and her children. In fact, it can send an opposite signal that the place is so unsafe that it requires security guards to make it safe. One factor that affects guests' perceptions of safety is who the other guests are. Imagine how secure a mom would feel in the presence of leather-attired tattooed motorcyclists? This issue deals with targeting a specific socio-economic group and designing a facility to discourage others.
The design of the facility has a profound impact on its psychic comfort. Design factors that are especially important include the layout of the parking lot and its entrances, parking lot lighting, visibility, the amount of natural and artificial lighting in the facility, the presence and physical appearance of staff, having windows, the number of entrances and the location of restrooms. One general principal we always follow is to design the parking lot and the entire facility so it will be what is referred to as a defensible space, separated and secure from possible treats from the outside. This needs to be achieved both physically as well as perceptually from the guests' viewpoint.
When we design leisure facilities for women and children, we pay special attention to design factors that affect their perceptions of safety. We have developed an entire perception-of-safety design vocabulary and design standards based upon focus groups with mothers and extensive research on women's design preferences.
Quality-of-place results from attention to multiple guest-focused design features and details. Sense of security is only one, but an increasingly important one in today's world.