2018-02-10 / News

New Survey Offers Insights to Visitor Experience at Colonial Michilimackinac

By Stephanie Fortino

Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) embarked on a new initiative last summer to better understand the trends and preferences of their visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City. The state park gave some of their guests the Visitors Count survey from the American Association of State and Local History. Education Curator Katie Mallory oversaw the survey and said the results indicate the state park is providing good experiences. But the big question of how to increase attendance at Colonial Michilimackinac still remains.

Surveying visitors is an important tool the state park uses every year to collect information on whether they’re successfully providing experiences to the public. The state park regularly collects comment cards from visitors and also tracks people through exhibits to understand whether the design is effective. While Mrs. Mallory has overseen other surveys in the past, the Visitors Count survey provides more comprehensive data on customer preference and experiences. She attended training in Nashville to learn how to interpret the data.

The survey sought to understand what drives people to visit Colonial Michilimackinac and what they enjoy while visiting. Colonial Michilimackinac was the focus of the survey because it has more competition from other attractions than Fort Mackinac, said Marketing Manager Dominick Miller.

“There are so many options for people to get to in their car” on the mainland, he said.

There are also some inherent challenges presented at Colonial Michilimackinac, Mrs. Mallory said, since it is tucked away at the water’s edge and partially under the Mackinac Bridge. Fort Mackinac has many advantages, with its captive audience on the Island, eye-catching white walls on the bluff, and loud cannon firings that draw further attention, Mr. Miller said. It’s hard for people visiting Mackinaw City to stumble upon the site there, Mrs. Mallory continued, and people have to seek it out purposely.

“We’re not the only game in town,” she said.

Since the national bicentennial in 1976, state park attendance has been steadily decreasing, following national trends, she said. With the latest economic decline in the early 2000s, attendance took another hit with the recession.

Now that people are traveling again, “We want to recapture that audience,” she continued, and using the information gathered in the survey will help the state park achieve that goal.

The survey was distributed to 219 people from June to Labor Day 2017, and 216 responses were used to generate data (although some responses of single answers were thrown out, she explained). The survey took about five minutes to complete, and the visitors received snacks as an incentive for filling it out.

When reviewing the results, “Nothing really surprised us,” she said. But the state park did learn that people really enjoy the programs at Colonial Michilimackinac, especially the live demonstrations like cannon firings and rifle demonstrations.

This leads to another question that is harder to answer, she said: “If we’re doing great, then why aren’t people coming?”

Almost 70% of those who participated were from Michigan, and the majority live within 120 miles of Mackinaw City. Visitors also hail from larger cities downstate like Grand Rapids and Lansing, and others visit from out of state. The state park site also has international attendees, but some international visitors declined to participate in the written survey, Mrs. Mallory said, possibly because of language barriers.

Understanding where visitors are from helps the state park understand their motivations for visiting and whether advertising efforts are effective.

Colonial Michilimackinac also has a very high visitor return rate, about 20% above average for similar sites in the nation. Of those who responded, 47% were first time visitors and 53% had visited Colonial Michilimackinac before. Overall, 68% of the respondents had visited or planned to visit Fort Mackinac. If the respondents had young children, the percentage was even higher.

“We retain the people when they come here,” she said, “but we need to get new people.”

“It shows that we’re doing something right, that they felt the need to visit again,” Mr. Miller agreed.

Mrs. Mallory believes that the human connection to the actual historic sites, through programs like the live archeological exhibit, draws people to Colonial Michilimackinac.

They also learned that people can navigate there easily, as their signs in Mackinaw City are prominent.

While the survey results didn’t provide any major red flags that can be easily fixed, the information does give the state park solid data that their programs are successful, Mrs. Mallory said. And it provides Mr. Miller some concrete data on visitors preferences that he can use for marketing efforts.

Marketing, advertising, promotion, and trying to gauge tourist preferences is a complicated process, said Mrs. Mallory, who likened it to shooting at a moving target. With increased technology, it’s harder to understand how people learn about attractions, which indicates which advertising effort is most effective.

Mr. Miller said he uses a variety of marketing strategies to generate interest in all of the sites, in print, online, radio, and television.

The season has also become more unpredictable, Mrs. Mallory said, as previously the second Tuesday in August was always considered the busiest day on Mackinac Island, but this has changed. Some travelers plan ahead, while others wait until the last minute to decide what activities they’ll do on vacation, she said, which makes it difficult for the state park to know how best to reach its audience.

While online rating systems like Trip Advisor are not scientific, they provide valuable information about experiences and observations. The state park does very well on Trip Advisor, Mr. Miller said, and now Visitors Count provides the data to back up that anecdotal information. But the best form of advertising remains word of mouth, Mrs. Mallory said, which bodes well for Colonial Michilimackinac, since so many people return each year.

Opportunities for improvement abound at Colonial Michilimackinac, she continued, since the site has more flexibility than Fort Mackinac, where original buildings have to be preserved. The state park is always looking to offer new things to the visiting public, Mr. Miller said, new programming, and ways to get better.

Mrs. Mallory, Mr. Miller, and others at MSHP plan to frequently reference the survey to gauge future programming, events, and promotional efforts. The intent of Visitors Count is to conduct the survey every five to 10 years, to get valuable trend data that will show whether changes in strategy are working. The survey may become a recurring initiative at Colonial Michilimackinac to help grow its audience.

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