You’re the director of a lovely Victorian museum house. You want to educate the public about the family who lived within its walls. You have important information to share about household customs, antique furniture and paintings by overlooked artists. Yet, the only things your visitors seem to care about is who died on the premises and whether the house is haunted.
Perhaps you are a guide at a prehistoric burial site, which the hopelessly uninformed call an Indian mound. You want to talk about pre-contact funerary practices, dietary habits, DNA distribution patterns and emergency archeological salvage techniques. But your visitors’ eyes glaze over within the first two minutes of your presentation. They are fixated on ancient aliens and UFO sightings. Maybe you should just hand out coloring books and crayons in the parking lot.
Not Our Problem
Although the situation at most attractions is not this extreme, there are plenty of folks in local history and heritage tourism who vehemently oppose changing their programs or presentations. The problem isn’t them; it’s the audience who doesn’t “get it” due to excessive TV viewing, video game playing, smart phone addiction, consumption of sugary snacks, inability to focus, lack of critical thinking skills, poor test scores, the Internet or whatever.
The fact that you’re still reading this means you are probably not one of those people. However, you may work for someone with this mindset. Or even tougher in some ways, your employees or your organization’s volunteers may share these beliefs and attitudes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could magically send them to your most hated competitor? Unfortunately that isn’t usually an option.
So what do you do? Dumb down your programs? Cater to the illiterate, unwashed and painfully ignorant? Stock up on crayons?
You take a step back and look at what’s really happening. Respect the fact that those who visit your site, attend your programs or go on your tours come voluntarily. The dollars they fork over to hear a scintillating description of 19th century window coverings could be spent on something that is actually interesting or – God forbid – fun.
If you fail to connect with visitors by coming across as a condescending bore, they probably won’t return. But the news is actually much worse, because it’s likely they’ll tell at least 10 of their friends how bad it was. If they do that on Facebook, many of their friends’ friends will read the negative comments too.
When customers ask questions, even questions you think are ridiculous, they are handing you valuable information, market research that big companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain. They are telling you what they want, what interests them. How are you going to use that information?
Let’s start with the Victorian house museum. Do some research and find out if anyone did die there. Are there ghost stories or local legends about the house? Have there been reports of anything weird happening on the property? Watch a couple of the popular ghost hunting TV shows. Find out what the hubbub is about. If there are no ghostly tales associated with the house, consider offering a program on Spiritualism or Victorian Spirit Photography. Schedule it around Halloween or run it in December and call it the Ghosts of Christmas Past. Promote it. Give it a chance and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.
As for the prehistoric site, open your presentation with the topic of ancient aliens, not to debunk your visitors’ beliefs and make them feel like imbeciles, but to engage them. Answer their questions. Talk about other crazy theories of the past. Describe how some in the 1800s thought refugees from Atlantis created the earthworks. Then segue into a discussion of who really built the structures and how we know that’s true. You’ll probably still have their attention.
This is about serving your customers. If they disappear, eventually you will too. If you meet them where they are, however, not only will they come back for more, they might post Facebook updates raving about the interesting place they’ve discovered. Word-of-mouth, social shares, recommendations from friends – you can’t buy that kind of authentic, spontaneous positive feedback. But you can earn it.