New Report on Declining Historic Site Visits

Bad news is never welcome. Opening my inbox to read about a new report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (HI) project on declining visitation to historic sites was indeed disappointing, but not unexpected. The report, citing visitation from 1979 to 2012, found that “with each birth cohort Americans of all ages have been less likely to visit historic sites.” The report also shared that “as people aged they were less likely to visit a historic site.” Not an optimistic picture for destinations and organizations wanting to use historic sites to attract visitors and their spending.

The project report uses data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (1982, 1992, 2002, 2008, 2012). AASLH President John Dichtl observed in his blog post “the lack of reliable data on total visitation for U.S. historic sites.”

I am not surprised, and find market research a continuing problem for our industry segment. When the National Trust started its Heritage Tourism initiative in 1989, there was no data on visiting historic sites beyond what the National Park Service conducts (and continues to collect.)  The national heritage tourism studies by Smithsonian/TIA (2003) and Mandala Research LLC (2009, and updated in 2013) required funding partners to conduct the research. Unless someone steps up to the plate to fund a comprehensive study (that is updated frequently), we are reliant on others to provide substantive data to cobble together.

Perhaps a better focus for heritage tourism research is return on investment, both for the visitor and host site. Do historic sites provide the types of compelling experiences visitors want today – especially as they move through various life chapters or advance learning through technology? What will compel a visitor to spend time at or return to a historic site? Are we meeting the fundamental interests of visitors – from when they want to visit to what and how they want to learn?

I am not talking about abandoning historic integrity for a commodified or manufactured experience. In fact, just the opposite. The quest for authenticity is high, but that doesn’t mean boring or tired interpretation. Instead, programs need to be compelling and engaging. The desire for immersive experiences provides a great opportunity to tell local stories in authentic ways. Being open when visitors want to tour (weekends, evenings) may also impact attendance. Getting people in the door is a challenge, in part because other activities – cuisine, music, shopping – are trumping the (perceived) historic site experience. Hosting visitors is a responsibility and, like all other forms of economic development, tourism requires investment to meet expectations. If tourism is important part of a historic sites’ mission (and revenue generation), investing in the experience is paramount. Since capacity is frequently an issue, volume isn’t always better. Satisfied customers are what matters.

Beyond attendance, let’s consistently and collectively survey our level of visitor satisfaction. This type of research can shed light on how well historic sites are meeting or exceeding visitor expectations and what can be done to possibly reverse the trend of declining interest/ visitation. It can also reveal whether visitation is indeed a path to greater engagement and support, as members or donors or stewardship at home.