If you visited us last spring or summer, someone might have asked you to take a survey. Over 200 of you said yes! We thanked you profusely at the time, but we’re thanking you again. The results of that survey will shape Dallas Heritage Village for years to come.
Last year, through a grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation, we joined a group of museums nationwide that said “Yes, we really do want to know what our visitors think about us.” The American Association for State and Local History sponsors the Visitors Count program, an extensive survey that helps us learn more about ourselves, as well as how we compare to other museums nationally.
In November, Mandy Haltom (Director of Education) and I headed to Nashville to learn more about how to understand the report—and understand our results. It was a long, exhausting, and sometimes overwhelming day. Both of our heads were spinning with ideas by the end of it.
In January, we hosted two meetings—one for staff and volunteers and one for board members to summarize the results. However, those meetings are hardly the conclusion of our work with Visitor Counts. We’re just getting started as we use the report to guide our next steps.
So, who are you, our visitors? Of those that answered the survey:
- --70% were first-time visitors. (66% is the average for participating museums)
- --When asked which decision came first—visiting the area or visiting DHV, 67.6% said DHV. When looking at those that live more than 60 miles away, 45.6% said DHV. Within 60 miles, 77.6% said DHV. These numbers are so unusual that the evaluation expert checked the math twice!
- --Most visitors (67.3%) live within 60 miles.
- --In general, our audience is younger (79% younger than 55 vs. 54%) and more likely to have children (43.9% vs. 31%) with them than average.
Where did we perform really well? Visitors rated us the highest when they said that they “weren’t disappointed” during their visit. But right behind it, visitors responded that they felt welcome and thought our staff were friendly and knowledgeable. When comparing our data with other museums, visitors ranked us very high as a place that provides a great opportunity to connect with others. They also cited us as very easy to get around—and mentioned that we exceeded their expectations. When asked specifically what was better than expected, many visitors cited our authenticity and the quality of our staff. Ranked #3 were our animals—I’m sure Nip and Tuck and Waylon and Willie are shocked that they’re not #1! Visitors also highlighted the General Store, the blacksmith and the school.
And here’s where I want to pause and give a huge round of applause to our staff and volunteers. I’ve long believed that DHV can provide a taste of small town community in a big city through personal interactions. We’ve really emphasized over the past several years visitor experience and customer service, and clearly, those efforts are gaining traction in improving overall visitor satisfaction.
But we’re not perfect. We ranked very low on any questions relating to media (advertising, social media, etc). Though few museums rank well in this area (none of us have marketing budgets like major corporations), we know that we have drastically underspent in this area for years. We also ranked low on the “well maintained” question. We have made remarkable strides in the last five years in tackling various deferred maintenance projects, but we know we still have a long way to go. Right now, our deferred maintenance tab is estimated at $5 million. This data will be useful as we continue to ask the City of Dallas (remember, they actually own all of our buildings) for increased support, as well as some of our other fundraising for various maintenance projects.
When we started digging deeper into the data, we heard another key message from our visitors: they want more history. They want more stories. They want to be challenged. And yet, maybe they don’t want to be challenged too much—as our temporary Millermore exhibit was mentioned very frequently as “disappointing.” This is a subject where we’ll be diving more deeply in the coming months. This year, we hope to begin work on an interpretative plan that will help guide future exhibit decisions. As I’m sure you can guess, we’ll have this report at our side as we start that work.
I could go on for another 1,000—or more—words. After all, our initial meeting about this report was a full day. But I think the key question now is: what’s next? As a visitor, you may not see changes right away, but things are certainly shifting slowly. We’re already using this data in grant requests. We’ll use some of this information to discuss staffing priorities within the museum. We’ll start shoring up our marketing.
But most importantly: we’re going to keep asking you questions. This museum isn’t about me or my coworkers or my board—or even the donkeys. It’s about you, our community and our visitors. So, if someone asks you to answer a few questions, please do. And be honest!
The good news is that we won’t be doing any surveys quite as long as Visitors Count for a few years!