Rising Visitation and Membership Results from Conner Prairie’s Plans

Strategy: Enhance Your Product, Focus on Customer Potential, Know Your Customer/Product

Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site

Summary: At a time when many museums across the country are struggling to retain members and increase visitation, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, IN is seeing increases in both areas.


At a time when many museums across the country are struggling to retain members and increase visitation, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, Indiana is seeing increases in both areas, thanks to an innovative planning strategy that began in 2000. Today, guests – as they are now called, instead of visitors – are engaged in an interactive experience from the moment they arrive, enjoying everything from seeing farm animals up close, learning 19th-century crafts, visiting a Discovery Station where children dress in costume and enter a kid-sized town, trying a taste of the past from historic cookbooks and even riding in a helium-filled balloon.

The process to remake Conner Prairie began by asking what visitors were learning and how they were learning when they visited the museum—even taping entire conversations to gather insights on the visitor experience. Museum staff also conducted visitor intercept surveys and distributed comment cards. The results were clear : Visitors wanted to “do,” not just “view.”

A new mission statement reflected the site’s new direction: “Conner Prairie inspires curiosity and fosters learning about Indiana's past by providing engaging, individualized and unique experiences.” More recently, a new name followed: Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

“We made our entire focus the visitor experience – not artifacts,” says Ellen M. Rosenthal, president and CEO.  “You will not find a velvet rope here. We took out those objects that were so valuable they couldn’t be touched and replaced them with reproductions. We created a strategic plan which said we were going to focus on families with children and school groups and create an increased excitement level.”

The immensely popular 1859 Balloon Voyage grew out of this new focus. Starting with a list of 12 potential projects related to Indiana’s history, the ideas were tested with focus groups. The balloon project emerged as the most popular idea. Its direct connection to Indiana’s history – where the first airmail delivery took place with a gas-filled balloon in 1859 in Lafayette, Indiana – made it an appropriate project to pursue. Working with a ballooning history expert, staff developed an outdoor exhibit to tell the story of the popularity of ballooning in the mid 19th century to transport goods and people. The real attraction was the opportunity to actually ride in a helium-filled balloon. Expecting 8-9,000 visitors in 2009, staff was amazed when nearly 22,000 people bought tickets to soar 350 feet above Conner Prairie in the tethered balloon!

The results of the planning process and implementing a new approach for Conner Prairie have been tremendous. “Staff now has a different perspective on how learning occurs. They are coming up with their own creative ways to engage a visitor,” Rosenthal says.

Rosenthal notes that most of the site’s visitation is local, so staff is particularly pleased to see an increase in membership in recent years of 60%. “Last year member visitation went up 18%, and 33% of our members now come four or more times a year,” Rosenthal says.

Many museums across the country have benefited from Conner Prairie’s experience. With support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Conner Prairie created Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences which is available on DVD/CD-ROM. The program targets docents and guides and offers practical tips and techniques to engage guests to improve their experience. Opening Doors received the Spirit of Excellence award for Best Guest Services Training Program from the International Association of Amusement Park and Attractions in November 2009. The program has been used by more than 1,200 sites in all 50 states and a dozen countries.

For more information, visit www.connerprairie.org or contact Ellen M. Rosenthal at rosenthal@connerprairie.org.