Knowing Visitors Helps History Sites Succeed

Strategy: Balance Your Budget, Know Your Customer/Product, Make Your Case

Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site

Summary: Attracting more visitors, writing successful grant applications, making the case for increased support from funders and targeting resources are ongoing tasks for historic sites and museums.

Attracting more visitors, writing successful grant applications, making the case for increased support from funders and targeting resources are ongoing tasks for historic sites and museums that are even more challenging in difficult economic times.

Realizing that success depends on having accurate data, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) created the Visitors Count! Survey Program to help historic sites and museums gather the information they need to make informed decisions.

“Even before the current economic crisis, we saw an increasing need for a way to measure performance, to better understand visitors’ perceptions and to establish benchmarks for museums and historic sites,” says AASLH President and CEO Terry Davis.

“History institutions understand that not all value is tangible and easily measured by counting participants or visitors,” Davis notes.  “Indicators of success are needed that connect to a site’s mission and to help in developing action plans and making strategic decisions for improvement.”

In 2000, AASLH began piloting surveys for visitors to museums and historic house museums and for educational programs using a performance measurement model developed by the Center for Nonprofit Management in Nashville, Tennessee. After a trial period, the program was officially unveiled in 2006 and 2007.

“We have had more than 130 institutions participate as of November 2010,” Davis says.

For the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the survey provided confirmation that plans to rebrand the museum were on the right path.

“With the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in 2008, we had national and international media attention, and we realized that media broadcasting from the site were saying ‘National Civil Rights Museum – at the Lorraine Motel,’” says Tracy Lauritzen Wright, director of administration and special projects. “We realized that people might not know why the National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis, but the Lorraine Motel – where Dr. King was assassinated – is well known. That spurred us to change the logo to include the words “At the Lorraine Motel.”

In late 2008, the museum’s leaders initiated the first Visitors Count! survey and decided to test the new name. “We added a question that visitors could agree or disagree with – ‘It is very special that the museum is at the Lorraine Motel.’ The survey showed 92% of visitors agreed with that statement,” Wright says.

Other program participants have also found the Visitors Count! survey has been especially useful in difficult economic times.

At Naper Settlement, a 19th century outdoor history museum in Naperville, Illinois, the survey provided insights which are helping the site’s staff make decisions on enhancing the visitor experience.

“When resources are tight, as they certainly are right now, this is critical information. We need to put our time, money and resources into the things that are most important to our customer base,” Donna Sack, former Director of Visitor Services at Naper Settlement. With the survey information “we learned what we are doing right, what meets expectations and what needs work.”

For Roanoke Island Festival Park in North Carolina, using the survey data as a way to increase promotional funding has resulted in more visitation. Says Scott M. Stroh III, former executive director of the park: “We used our visitor survey results to justify our request for increased funding. With more dollars for marketing and other areas, our visitation has increased!”

For more information Visitors Count!, contact Cherie Cook, Senior Program Manager, at cook@aaslh.org or visit www.aaslh.org/visitorscount.