Amid country's demographic change, local museums seek to attract visitors

Staff writer

While the history of the United States doesn’t change, the demographic makeup of the people who live in the United States is expected to.

The region’s economy profits off America’s origin story. If that’s going to continue, local museums have to entice new visitors -- representing younger generations and growing minority populations -- to buy admission tickets.

Officials from history heavyweights the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation seem confident in their plans to adapt to changes in American demographics — with the caveat that it may be too soon to gauge success.

New generations

The Pew Research Center anticipates Millennials will edge out Baby Boomers as the United States’ largest generation in 2019, according to a report released last year. Millennials, which the center defines as people between the ages of 20 and 35 in 2016, will number 73 million this year.

There are 72 million Baby Boomers, people between the ages of 52 and 70 in 2016, expected to be alive in 2019. It’s downhill from here for aging Baby Boomers, while Millennials are buoyed by young immigrants.

At Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s museums — Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown— the average visitor is between the ages of 36 and 59, said Susan Bak, senior director of marketing and retail operations.

That person often comes as part of a young family, so there’s usually one or two children aged 6-17. That’s been the case for years, said Bak, citing data from 2012-2018 and her own two decades of experience with the foundation.

At Colonial Williamsburg, people in their 30s and 40s who bring along young children are a major segment of the foundation’s guests, particularly in the spring, said Andrea Sardone, Colonial Williamsburg’s marketing executive director.

From a marketing perspective, it’s traditional to think of visitors within age cohorts. But a newer trend adopted by both organizations is to look beyond age when attracting visitors.

At Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, marketing is about matching visitors to the museums’ offerings. Exhibitions are promoted to appeal in a personalized way.

“Personalized messages to consumers are more important every year,” Bak said.

Take “Tenacity,” a special exhibition at Jamestown Settlement focused on women in the early years of Jamestown. While there’s general appeal in that program, there’s also opportunity to market to young women specifically, given the subject.

Every year, about 65 percent of Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation visitors are individuals, people, like the family example above, who buy individual tickets, as opposed to large tour groups.

Marketing spending breaks down like this: 77 percent is spent on digital advertising and 23 percent is spent on print advertising. The foundation spent a little more than $1 million on advertising in 2018, Bak said.

An advertisement’s style and substance depends on a myriad of factors — such as a person’s geographic location and ability to travel. More than 70 percent of visitors are from out of state, and a similar number are first-time visitors. Repeat visitors are about 30 percent, Bak said.

With a strategy driven by museum exhibitions, the content of the museums is a key component in marketing.

“I want young people to come here because they want to,” said Peter Armstrong, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation senior director of museum operations and education.

Different people come to the museums with different expectations and familiarity with the information.

Armstrong has a name for that. Rather, he has three: Paddlers, swimmers and divers.

Paddlers are looking for something simple and hope to walk away with some new knowledge. That’s most visitors. Swimmers have some knowledge of the topics before they enter the museums – they’ve watched a documentary or have read books on the subject, Armstrong said.

Then there are divers, who are people on the hunt for the finer details of history they know well.

Hands-on time with artifact reproductions might appeal to paddlers, while more detailed exhibitions and rare artifacts may be more enticing to the other groups. It’s important to provide a range of experiences to capture everyone – audio, panels to read, technology — to get the story across, he said.

But there are some generational differences in how people approach the museum’s information. Millennials want information that demonstrates relevance to their own lives – it isn’t enough to just present some artifacts — what Armstrong called the “Here are fantastic objects, come look at them” strategy traditionally employed by museums.

Colonial Williamsburg sees visitor trends similar to those at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Most ticketed visitors are first-time guests (59 percent) and from out-of-state (68 percent). In 2018, about 77 percent of visitors came as individuals rather than large tour groups, according to statistics provided by Colonial Williamsburg.

It’s hard to argue that Colonial Williamsburg doesn’t already offer a lot, with tradesmen and carriage rides among other things to see and do. But perhaps it’s too much; a recurring complaint heard from visitors was a lack of awareness of programming.

In response, the foundation determined that it’s important to curate visitors’ experiences and launched official trip itineraries last spring. The Colonial Williamsburg website has curated lists of experiences aimed at specific types of visitors — ranging from first-time visitors to military-history buffs to foodies. More itineraries could be developed in the future, Sardone said.

The foundation does its marketing on behavior, beliefs and valuation of family. Colonial Williamsburg also takes pains to present itself as a place for human connection — a place where people can connect with their loved ones and also with the American history that binds all Americans, Sardone said.

“It’s new for us because we have typically looked at marketing to 25 to 54 year olds, or basically the age breakdowns that a lot of media is divided into,” Sardone said.

A more diverse country

The country’s changing racial composition will reach a notable milestone in 2045, the year it is expected that white people will constitute a little less than half (49.7 percent) of the United States’ population after making up the majority since the times local museums chronicle. Hispanics will make up almost a quarter of the country’s population, according to the Brookings Institution.

Most guests to the area’s museums are white, officials said.

Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation has taken to putting a greater emphasis on the experiences of African Americans. Such programming is a natural way to make the museums a more inclusive space for more Americans.

Again, using “Tenacity” as an example, Armstrong noted how the special exhibition, which counts the female African slave Angelo as one of its main focuses, may resonate with a teenage African-American girl more effectively than other exhibitions.

There’s also the “Forgotten Soldier” special exhibition, which chronicles the experiences of black soldiers on both sides of the Revolutionary War. The exhibition runs from June 29 to March 22, 2020.

Alongside special exhibitions, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation has made recent expansions to its permanent galleries that are more inclusive. In preparation for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, Jamestown Settlement’s exhibitions were expanded to provide greater context on the culture of the first Africans to arrive in English North America.

At Colonial Williamsburg, there’s also an increased emphasis on the stories of minorities, because traditionally those stories have been overlooked, Sardone said.

In George Washington’s time, there were essentially just African Americans, Native Americans and women alongside white men. Contemporary Virginia — and the modern-day United States — is a great deal more diverse.

That poses a hurdle when it comes to storytelling. Given the realities of America’s ethnic makeup during the 17th century, there aren’t many opportunities to highlight Hispanic or Asian people in the programming.

Programming that taps into feelings of exclusion and disenfranchisement can resonate with all minorities. Such an example is “Resolved,” an interpretive theater program that casts guests as attendees at the Fifth Virginia Convention, where the state’s Patriot legislature declared Virginia an independent state and created the state’s first constitution in 1776, alongside actor-interpreters and explores the dynamics of class, race and sex in early America.

“It applies the notion of exclusion and disenfranchisement in our founding and applies in an ingenious general way to all diverse populations in our country,” Colonial Williamsburg spokesman Joe Straw said.

Measuring results

Recently, the museums have seen mixed fortunes when it comes to paid visitation.

In 2017, Colonial Williamsburg increased its paid visitation to 594,378 people from the 584,472 people who bought tickets the previous year, according to recent admissions figure provided by the foundation.

It remains to be seen whether a marketing campaign centered on human connection will continue that trend. The concept was developed last year and is being put into use this year, Sardone said.

“Through market research, Colonial Williamsburg has determined that our ideal brand positioning, i.e. our primary value to past and potential guests, is as a destination that fosters human connection, Sardone said.

“By speaking with representative samples of our target audience, we’ve determined that in an increasingly disconnected world, human connection is the common thread of all our work,” Sardone said. “Years of guest feedback validate this — people love to come here with their families and choose Colonial Williamsburg because it’s a great place for that. People have thought this about us for years and we have finally put words to it.”

At Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation museums, 533,730 people bought tickets in 2018, an almost 13 percent drop from the 610,844 people who paid to visit the museums in 2017. Officials have said that since the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown opened in 2017, it’s been difficult to top the interest the new museum generated in its first year.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s programming shift is likewise a relatively new development.

“It is too early to have measurable results from these programs and related special events,” said Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation spokeswoman Meghan van Joosten. “However, the schedule of such programs and events will begin to increase in occurrence starting in May, and we will know more in the months following.”

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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