Collecting and Programming to Attract Day Trippers and Successive Generations to Your Ship, or How You Might Integrate Your Ship into the Community to Gain Support for Future Dry Dockings

James Cheevers

Collecting and Programming to Attract Day Trippers and Successive Generations to Your Ship or How You Might Integrate Your Ship into the Community to Gain Support for Future Dry Dockings by Jim Cheevers

A few givens to consider when re-examining your marketing plan and when doing surveys of your visitors or audiences are: In most locations day trippers make up the majority of visitors to museums and other attractions. In a national visitors study involving 103 museums and some 40K potential participants 48% of visitors went to history museums to view objects while 46% preferred going for programs. Most of the ships in the Association do not have birthright privileges. They were not built in the ports in which they are now shown as museums. This means it is necessary, more than ever; to continual increase their relevancy to their community.

Some members with World War II ships think they will not survive beyond the veterans of that war. Of course if this were true who are those millions who visit Civil War battlefields each year and who buy all those books about the Civil War!

The plan here is to explore solutions in identifying your current audience, in developing new audiences and local support, and in establishing collections and programs to attract and to hold the support of successive generations in your community. If you are success in your local community distant visitors will learn about you as soon as they hit town.

Have you dusted off your old marketing plan lately? Many of our institutions had to present a marketing plan as part of the application process, but have they been updated and revised as part of the current strategic plan? There is support available for updating such plans and for doing audience surveys towards refining your community oriented mission and improving your attendance figures. Your state humanities council is one source. Local colleges are often looking for resources that undergraduates can use to do market surveys.

Take a local state road map, examine the mileage scale; and, with your ship in the center, draw a circle at 100 miles out. Since most are on a waterfront your outreach circle will have lots of unproductive territory where few potential new visitors reside. The "boat people" are probably already your customers. Within the land area of your circle you will need to study all the roads, public transportation, the towns, and using other references to make a list of the media outlets - newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, and businesses. This is the territory where you want to extend, not just your advertisement dollars and public service announcements, but all your outreach for new audiences.

In the effort do not forget the neighbors. Those within two miles should be considered neighbors and treated accordingly. Sometimes your close-in potential audience gets overlooked. These are the folks you should have personally invited to the grand opening. They should be given a free tour and courted for close-in support. Using a few volunteers you can put an inexpensive flyer in every mail box within a two mile radius inviting them to a "neighborhood" event. Keep in mind that some of these folks control valuable parking assets within walking distance of your venue. They also have relatives and friends who visit and business associates and patrons. Remember word of mouth is the most successful form of advertisement.

Do you really know your visitors? You need to continually do simple surveys of visitors to find out where they are from, what they expected to see, what they liked, and what they didn't like. These surveys should be kept brief, simple, and non-intimidating; and, they should be done often, at least three or four times a year, to learn trends. Try to obtain immediate reactions and opinions from visitors at the end of a tour. Provide advanced warning that a brief survey will follow. If you have enough volunteers you might try one-on-one interviews but still keep the questions to a one page form.

If you have a membership, you should survey them, too, seeking constructive criticism and new ideas. One important question is: "I would be more likely to participate if . . ." You may realize only a ten percent response but it will be useful. You could solicit interviews with leaders of local organizations, key supporters, and community representatives to find out the impact of your current programs and to seek new ideas. Gauging the interest of people who have not been previously involved will be difficult - but important if you seeking new audiences. And you need to reach out to non-veterans because naval veterans are a declining breed.

The collected information should be shared with everyone on the staff, including the crew that cleans the heads - clean restrooms are a vital standard for all public institutions. Sometimes when you begin a conversation with prospective new audiences the staff feels threatened because they might not know all the answers. Actually the unknown answers can open up new possibilities and new opportunities for the staff itself to learn and to advance in their profession. Everyone should be made aware of the importance and process of audience study. Advanced preparation is vital to clarifying questions, specifying demographic groups, and considering the strengths and weaknesses of the methods used. Ongoing surveys should become part of the site's operation. Thoroughly understanding your visitor's expectations and needs is essential for success and for planning the future.

In meetings where you share this information, you can expand the discussions to brainstorming with staff, with volunteers, and with directors/board members. As ideas for new exhibits or programs emerge you could further test and expand new initiatives by using focus groups. Focus groups will add a reality check, find and define new potential audiences, and develop further support. Focus groups are made up of strangers who someday might be volunteers.

Do not forget to keep the priorities of travelers in mind i.e. availability and knowledge of parking, heads/restrooms, and food and drink; as well as making something new and exciting available, maybe by simply improving an aspect of what they saw or maybe based on something they expected to see. You already attract with the familiar, the expected, the hook, and stroking factor - the Navy ship that defended their national well being and their national honor. What other dramatic or dynamic thing can you do with the ship, with parts of the ship, or with items from the museum collection to interest these same people to bring all their out-of-town relatives and guests? What do you have to establish bragging rights in them about your ship or site and to make your site a "must see" destination?

A top priority must always be to drill your docents to bend over backwards to be nice and accommodating to all visitors no matter how aggravating some of them might be. Pleasant and enthusiastic docents are often deciding factors in repeat visits. It is imperative that your site have the perception of being friendly, open, and welcoming.

Most have rosters of veterans who served aboard their ship and everybody has researched, courted, and brought aboard ship reunions, squadron reunions, Navy League, Navy recruiters, boy and girl scouts, sea scouts, and NROTC junior and senior programs. How about all the American Legion and VFW posts, AmVets, Disabled Veterans, and so forth within the 100 mile circle? How many make your facilities available for a local Civitan, Kiwanis, Lions, or Rotary Club meeting or event? A ship afloat is a neat and cool venue for a meeting.

I bet no one has ever hosted a garden club meeting! Yuk! - you mean all those ladies with flowers in bottles! If you have lawn and trees as part of your site, you have the possibility for a local garden club to show what they can do at no cost to you. You might offer the landscape/beautification task as a challenge. At the Naval Academy the garden club decorates the gates and doorways for Christmas, too. You are connecting them to your site and giving them bragging rights. Being "green" is a current hot topic. Get involved in recycling, planting a tree or two, or planning a rain garden and you will be rewarded with positive headlines in your newspapers. Switching from plastic to paper bags in your gift shop and pollution soaking permeable pavers on the parking lot will get you on the local TV evening news.

You have that roster of veterans who served aboard the ship and have collected their memorabilia, but do you have a list of the naval veterans within your 100 miles circle? You can work on it by hosting an open Navy reunion for veterans within your circle using the local news media to spread the invitation. It does not have to be a major cost item. It you do not have a snack bar, you might use charity catering outfits or church groups to sell refreshments at no cost to you and a modest cost to the customer and offer reduced admission prices to the ship.

Do not forget to collect names and addresses. This can cleverly and easily be done by giving something away in a raffle format. You get the guests to write their name and address on a 3x5 card for the prize drawing. Restaurants will often donate dinner for two to a local non-profit for an announcement of their name - so even the prize might not cost you. Do not throw those cards away - enter those names and addresses into your data base.

Establishing these contacts can expand into additional advantages. Perhaps at the next "reunion" of area naval veterans and their families the invitation ask them to bring along souvenirs that they saved from their time in uniform to show and to discuss with others and with staff members. There could be items among these treasures that the staff would like to acquire and to exhibit for all visitors to the ship to see and to appreciate. Again you are establishing bragging rights for a family and for their friends in the community. It will add complements to your institutions and dollars to your fund raising efforts. Once someone feels connected they are more likely to write a check to support the operation.

There are folks who are descendents of Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard veterans to whom you can give attention, too, and reap the advantages. They often have treasures from the service and sometimes do not know for sure what they have or what to do with them. You can attract them again using regional media and offering to identify their treasures. Have trained staff members or volunteers help these people in their research, perhaps just using the internet to get ship histories or providing information on how to acquire official naval service records. There is potential for new acquisitions. A qualified local antique dealer might offer appraisal information at a modest cost to those donating an item as a gift that could be used as a tax deduction.

It would be great to gain some nice wartime personal items of a local hero that can be shown from time to time and used to attract local visitors and as evidence of the ships involvement in the community. You may have to stretch your collection policy a little to add local naval veteran memorabilia. Exercise the usual care about accepting items for use in occasional exhibits, emphasizing the long term safe preservation of certain light sensitive items versus permanent display. And make sure you use a deed of gift and create proper museum records.

Most of the ships in the Association are the size of an area village or town and were self sufficient at sea, providing many services to their sailors and Marines. Each of these services has an equivalent in the communities and towns surrounding the museum ship and the people of each related activity can be courted as new audience. Theme based exhibits and talks using the permanent collection - such as a specific part of the ship - could be created. Restaurant employees and school cafeteria workers would get a charge out of being invited to a morning exchange on the operation of the ship's galley and the officer's wardroom with veterans who worked them or staff who restored them. Physicians might be too busy to attend, although they could write a check in support of other medical personnel getting a kick being consulted on properly relating the ship's medical clinic to the public. Additional support from the medical community could be developed through hosting blood banks, blood pressure stations, and similar health related activities.

Auto mechanics from area car dealerships and independent garages could relate to the ship's engine room, as would the students from area vocational training courses. You could follow Slater's lead and use vocational training students to make needed parts for the ship or to become directly involved in repair work. Patriots Point one time let the local school district use their facilities as a laboratory to teach junior high or middle school science. The more children you can attract to your site the greater long term support group you are hooking. Local municipalities are often looking for summer programs to occupy kid's time. How about a junior volunteer program or maybe just old movies in the ship's theater or in the park for 50 cents admission to attract young folks? A teen focus group could provide additional ideas.

Encourage staff members and volunteers to participate in the community as representatives of the ship. Speaker's bureau is one way, career days at schools and working ethnic festivals and street fairs are others. Often tables or space is made available for non-profits to promote themselves in community events. You might even consider a float unit in community parades on Memorial Day, July 4th, Veterans Day, or other occasions; and partnering with other war memorials or veteran groups in remembrance ceremonies.

Those with large ships and/or large sites, perhaps with large buildings, could evaluate their facilities, mission, effectiveness of existing programs, attendance figures, budget, and other important factors and explore the potential of becoming a community center, a site for community events; perhaps one or two to supplement earned income and to improve support within the community.

Some events can be tied into the basic purpose as a naval museum. For example, there are performing arts groups, motion pictures, lecture series, and even stamp and postcard collectors that specialize in military/naval subjects. You could offer a local photography club an opportunity to shoot some very unusual sites and equipment for them aboard the ship, and then host an exhibition of the best of their work. You could ask ahead to keep copies of their products as an important part of your record on the ship and its equipment at that point in time. Photographs are important documentation records in all museums. These amateur photographers will join those with bragging rights of being part of the team at the ship.

You have such unique venues for sailors and for landlubbers. It should be fairly easy to attract all kinds of activities to use your site, some to make money and all to promote community relations and a continued and increasing paying audience. Many already do ham radio groups but what about: a book club, book signings, used book sales, Army-Navy game parties, golf and tennis tournaments, local history lecture series, civic club meetings, band/orchestra concerts, church choir competitions, piano or dance recitals, Easter sunrise services, Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, visits with Santa, Halloween parties, blessing of the fleet, blessing of pets, GED classes, computer classes, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, seafood festivals, chili cook offs, tastes of foreign ports, bridge clubs, poker nights, paper airplane competitions, war games, flea markets, theatricals, home front exhibits, period dinners and dancing, and so forth. Attracting new audiences will expand the funding base. It will attract new volunteers, too, helping to make such ventures workable and affordable. People notice when an institution reaches out and works to serve the people of a community.

Who is going to take on all the added work load for such new endeavors? Yes, there will be more work for managers to monitor, to advise, and to supervise. However, most of these events come with their own staffs. You host a funeral, for example, and the undertaker will have a crew handling all the details to include supplying you a body in a casket or in an urn for the service.

In efforts to expand and to diversify of your museum visitors you will need to get away from the notion that a majority of your visitors know something about the Navy or are Navy veterans. As we all know Navy veterans are a declining breed so it is imperative to reach new people to survive. Think of the basics. For the novice you will need to explain why your ship was necessary - in addition to how it was built and what it accomplished. A couple more off the wall exhibit ideas - how about involving a local furniture merchant to show a comparative display of ship board furnishings to those of an average home. Another on the role of women in a sailor's life - mothers, sisters, and sweethearts - and now in the same event the role of men in a woman sailor's life - fathers, brothers, and husbands. Pursue media outlets that have not been traditional supporters.

What meaning does your ship and collections have for new audiences. What new stories can you tell? You should dispel the notion that you only represent the past. What can you offer for the present and for the future? In the present, for example, your major work is the maintenance and preservation of the ship. What seems like a tremendous burden can be used as an asset to attract new interest and participation. Give out the challenge to visitors: What would you do if you had a big hunk of metal sitting in the water and you wanted to make it last forever? It would be worth the price of airfare and lodging to have Joe Lombardi come present a talk to your directors, staff, membership, and public neighbors. Don't wait until a crisis situation to let your neighbors know the ever present danger of sinking and the tremendous effort needed to prevent it. Educate the community well in advance of a major overhaul to gain their support for it.

What can you do for the future? Jobs! Current hot ticket item. For little to no money you can provide work experience to youngsters and perhaps even a skill. This past summer we had a number of college graduates more hungry for work experience than modest intern salaries and glowing letters of reference, which we provided, while they continued to search for "real" jobs. Even the volunteer brass polishing group aboard USS New Jersey provides bright shining accomplishments for the immediate future. Another idea is to let a teen focus group plan an exhibition and to write the labels for it.

In summary, re-examine your marketing plan, continually survey your visitors, use the data to explore new uses of collections and programs and acquiring new objects and inventing new programs, and keep all your staff informed and involved in the process of searching for and developing new audiences. Remember customer driven programs lead to success. Explore the resources and potential new audiences within commuter distance, the day trippers, and seek out all veterans, not just those of your ship or type of ship. Find items and sites in your existing collections to attract new customers and add collection items from local families that will attract new visitors and encourage re-visits. Become a community partner and work on becoming "the buzz" and "the destination." Create interactive experiences to make participants feel a part of the organization and to develop bragging rights about your ship in others.


The American Association of Museums has a very active Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation (CARE). Check the AAM website for conference sessions on the topic and available literature on the subject such as the following:

Audience Research and Evaluation 2007: Director of Evaluators.

Current Trends in Audience Research and Evaluation. AAM Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation.

Diamond, Judy. Practical Evaluation Guide: Tools for Museums and Other Informal Education Settings.

Falk, John H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience

Introduction to Museum Evaluation.

Korn, Randi and Laurie Sowd. Visitor Surveys: A User's Manual.

Museum Visitor Services Manual.

Serrell, Beverly. Paying Attention: Visitors and Museum Exhibitions.

Services to People: Challenges and Rewards: How Museums Can Become More Visitor Centered. The Wallace Foundation, 2001. (on internet)

Simon, Nina. Participatory Museum.

Weaver, Stephanie. Creating Great Visitor Experiences: A Guide for Museums, Parks, Zoos, Gardens, and Libraries.

Wilkening, Susie and James Chung. Life Stages of the Museum Visitor: Building Engagement Over a Lifetime.

Wilson, Linda and Steven Yalowitz. Current Trends in Audience Research and Evaluation.

Woollard, Vicky. Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-first Century

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