All smiles for the camera

16:00, Dec 09 2012

When is a tourism photography business not about photography?

It’s not a trick question, it’s a hint about the thinking behind Queenstown-born business Magic Memories. You might have seen the company in action at Sydney Aquarium, South Africa’s Table Mountain cable car or London Zoo. Or Wild Life Sydney, where sets, lighting and sound take visitors into a theatrical bush scene to strike poses and become the star of a photo book resembling a souvenir guide.

But Magic Memories doesn’t hire photographers to work at its 70-plus partner attractions worldwide. It hires ‘hosts’ whose mission is making people smile. The photography training comes later.

“It’s about how you are with people,” says co-founder and CEO John Wikstrom. “It’s the same with going to a restaurant, if the food’s up to a certain standard it’s always the service that sets it apart and separates a great night from an average night. We don’t want people going to work thinking they’re in a photo factory, they’re in a tourism business.”

For Wikstrom and co-founder Stuart Norris, it’s always been about getting it right in the customer’s eyes. Wikstrom grew up skiing in the Queenstown winter and boating in its summer. He and Norris worked in sales and marketing for the local Mountain Scene newspaper and in the mid 1990s saw a friend of Norris’ offering photos to passengers as they departed the TSS Earnslaw ship. They wondered if they could make the concept work at the city’s gondola.

“We looked around at how things were being done in Queenstown and realised the service was pretty bad. People had to wait in queues and look around for their photo an hour after it was taken and everything was about the photo.”


Wikstrom and Norris put tourists’ photos in a “fancy folder” when others were using a wallet printed in black and white.

“We created a story about your time up the gondola and put it in your hand when you finished. If you needed reprints we’d jump on our trusty scooter or get in our cheap car and take them up to the bungy bridge or take them to your hotel. We just provided a service the tour leaders loved and created a higher quality product that wasn’t just about the photo — and made it instant.”

In this magic world, the customer experience has become the ‘guest journey’ and photo capture sets are named ‘smile stations’. Magic Memories runs a company within a company at each venue, installing the ‘smile stations’, providing staff, wearing the attraction’s uniform and creating the sound and light shows that create an interactive experience. The attraction gets a share of the revenue.

Magic Memories’ “unifying call to action” for staff and partners is making people smile, but behind the smiles staff must constantly meet high standards, says Wikstrom. Everyone’s on incentive schemes and weekly reviews reveal any emerging issues with the potential to drag the business down.

“We’ve got a great story on the face of it that makes people smile, but underneath it all it’s very commercial and there are hourly KPIs [key performance indicators] all staff must meet. Those who stand out deliver day in, day out and come to work loving delivery. That’s part of what’s pushed us to grow because the more people you have around you, the more you have to give them opportunities to grow.”