Are We There Yet? Visitor Experiences and our Level of Effort


Sometimes it seems that museums and nonprofit destinations are grappling with the same issues, from year to year and over decades. The names of these issues have changed over time, but the intrinsic basis of them has stayed the same.

One long standing issue is how we view visitors and those we want to “touch,” “educate,” “enlighten,” and “inspire.” These are just some of the terms we can find in the mission statements for our institutions.

People visit our museums/gardens/historic homes/learning centers to do something worthwhile – to learn, to be social, and to have fun. There has been a lot of research on leisure time activities, including visits to museums, botanical gardens, zoos, and similar sites. Whether or not these research results and theories are being accessed and utilized is another story. Aquaria, zoos, and larger institutions, when budgets permit, have been keeping abreast of what’s out there and using it to improve the visitor’s experience, learning, and comfort. Others are more challenged, have fewer staff, or are uninterested or dismissive. Where are you?

I once had a curator accuse me of being too “Madison Avenue.” He said that marketing and visitor research are the “tails wagging the dogs.” And, in the past week, I had an interpreter tell me that “they don’t want to get to be too Disney.” It seems that the same issues go round and round.

If your attendance is not what you want it to be, have you considered the visitor and not the exhibit? Have you considered the family needs and not only the time of day, type of hike, name of the class, etc? Have you studied up as much about this area of museum life as you have about the content of the next exhibit, the price of fund raising, state standards and school groups, which grants are available, how to engage your board, what to name your next fund raising gala, or the millions of other elements that go into creating success?

Marketing starts with a product, and in the business world, few products are launched without knowing the prospective customer. While we can’t all be experts on everything related to visitor research, there are many resources that can, at the least, provide input to decision-making. And of course, to build upon that research, you can conduct your own studies with your own “customers.” There are plenty of resources to help with this, as well. Some may be at a university or graduate program near you. There are online tools, research companies, and top visitor research consultants. If you conduct your own research without the right human resource, be careful that you are measuring the right thing, asking the right questions, and compiling the data correctly.

When it comes to understanding visitors, a basic quote we like is this one, by B. L. Driver and his associates and quoted by Dr. John Falk in one of his many outstanding books, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience.

“…The leisure experience should not be viewed merely as an activity, such as hiking, fishing, camping or shopping (museum going) but rather ‘should be conceptualized as a psychological experience that is self rewarding, occurs during nonobligated free time, and is the result of free choice.’ Here is the starting point, at the least, for engaging, servicing, and caring about your leisure visitors.

For an objective, informed review of your overall visitor experience and services, contact Jan McKay & Associates.

Friday, April 18th, 2014 marketing, museums, nonprofits, public relations

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