Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Attracting School Groups

School visits are declining at many museums and historic sites. The cost of busing and field trips in a tight economy and the emphasis on testing has left little room at many schools for the traditional field trip. This means museum educators are becoming more and more inventive about ways to make their resources useful to classrooms. I'm beginning to see an emphasis on online learning, but recently I spoke with Shirley Brown Alleyne, director of education at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn--where their school tours for the school year sell out in September. I wanted to know how they did it and her answers provide useful guidelines for any museum looking to make visiting your site both easy and engaging.

A key element of the site's success is marketing...but it's not marketing that costs a million dollars. Here's how Shirley described her plans:

1. Brochures
I created a new brochure detailing our new on-site programs and pricing. On the back of the brochure, is a chart marrying each program and hands-on activity with the appropriate New York City Social Studies, English/Language Arts and Applied Learning standards. After, I created a marketing plan, using the brochure, to attract teachers for the 2008 – 2009 school year. (Note: Programs have always sold out at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. However, my marketing plan expanded our audience to include schools from our neighborhood who never visited the site.)

2008 – 2009 Marketing Plan

Plan A: Identified all teachers brought their classes during the 2007 – 2008 school year. Then, composed a letter discussing the new programs and prices; these teachers were offered a $30.00 discount if they made a reservation by August 15th. These letters and brochures were sent to teachers during the third week of June (one week before school ended). I received ten reservations. On August 15th, I developed a postcard detailing an extension for the $30.00 discount; returning teachers now had until September 15th to make their reservations.

Plan B: Using the New York City Department of Education and New York Archdiocese websites, I identified schools within five zip codes close to the museum. I composed a letter similar to the one I wrote for returning teachers. The letter detailed who we are, our programs and prices. I offered the $30.00 discount to these schools, as well as an additional time for visitation. Schools nearby could come at 12:30 pm and leave by 2:30 pm, walk back to school and dismiss their students. So far, five classes have chosen to come in the afternoon.

Plan C: I chose four zip codes and instituted a Good Neighbor Policy. Any schools within the four zip codes automatically received the $30.00 discount throughout the school year.

Results of the marketing plan: By September 20, 2008, we were completely booked with one class a day, through May 31, 2009; through June 12, 2009 (the last day for public schools to take field trips) by September 30th. Because of this, I was able to hire per diem staff. Currently, I am training staff members, and am now able to accommodate one class at 10 am and another at 11 am. Groups on our waitlist have been accommodated due to the 11 am time slot.

Our Website Searches
I changed the wording of our programs on the website by adding key words such as “New Amsterdam”, “early New York”, “Standards” and others, so as teachers search for field trips relating to New Amsterdam, our site will pop up.

But of course marketing doesn't matter unless your programs deliver. Programs at the Wyckoff House are specifically designed for different grades and learning styles. Pre-school through first grade students learn about colonial life. Using objects, images, storytelling and hands-on activities, students learn about the everyday lives of a Colonial family. Students in Grades 2-7 learn about the farmhouse itself--and the farm that helped to grow food for New Amsterdam. Grades 4-7 learn about an immigrant, Pieter Claesen and explore the reasons why a teenage boy would leave his home to migrate to the New World.

An evaluation form for teachers is accessed via the site's website along with numerous other materials. What do teachers think? Here's a comment from one teacher

The experience was memorable and full of information. My students were literally buzzing with information and questions. The hands-on portions and the experience of being IN an artifact has a really intense impact on my students and I know we will refer to that trip throughout our study.”

The program's success is connected directly to the site's willingness to understand classroom needs, combined with a real flexibility and passionate commitment to work with students. In tough economic times, none of those things cost substantial amounts of money.

Images, top to bottom: Butter churning, Exterior view, and candlelight tour, all images courtesy of the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum

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