A closer look at our 2016 attendance by HNHS/Penn Dixie Executive Director Dr. Phil Stokes
We’ve received a lot of feedback about our huge boost in attendance this year. While much of the feedback is positive, there’s some genuine curiosity as well. So, I thought that I’d share some of our strategies with our supporters. First, some notes:
- These data only represent general admissions (i.e., visitors who arrived at the site to collect fossils as individuals or small groups). We did not include group programs (e.g., school tours, scout programs), special events (e.g., Dig with the Experts), summer camps, lectures, off-site programs (e.g., Science Nights) and other programming.
- We estimated 2014 attendance as these numbers were not digitally available at the time we made our graph.
- A more detailed look at our 2016 attendance will be included in our annual report, which will be released this winter.
Onto the discussion
Looking back at our historical attendance, the number of visitors to our site steadily increased throughout the 1990s and 2000s. This was an important time for us — we were an all-volunteer organization for our first decade and relied heavily on word of mouth and newsletters to get the word out. With the hiring of full time and seasonal staff in the mid-2000s, we were able to serve more visitors through expanded collecting days and through improved marketing.
From 2011 to 2015, we experienced some ups and downs. In 2012 and 2013, Penn Dixie offered new — and greater numbers of — programs and group tours. However, poor weather conditions hurt our general attendance in 2014 and 2015.
You’ll see that we are busiest in July and August, since these are the months when school is out and people are traveling. Our summer visitors are comprised of a mix of local collectors and fossil enthusiasts from around the country and the world. In 2016, for instance, we’ve welcomed visitors from 35 states and five countries. Our visitors represent a breadth of experience levels: some are world-renowned fossil collectors, some are science fans who collect rocks and minerals for fun, and some are first-time collectors.
To attract out of town visitors, Penn Dixie relies heavily on internet searches, communications within amateur and professional paleontology communities, brochures in places like the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, and word of mouth. We’re pleased to have such a good reputation in the fossil collecting community — based on decades of hard work from our staff and volunteers — and will work diligently to keep up our reputation at the top fossil part in the U.S.
We shifted our marketing
Regional visitors are drawn to Penn Dixie through advertising, word of mouth, and community engagement (e.g., our booths at the Erie County Fair and Hamburg Burgerfest). In the past, these efforts involved many volunteer and staff hours staffing festivals and other events. This year, we refocused our marketing in the region to reach new audiences who might not had previously heard of Penn Dixie. These were some of our initiatives:
- A new website. We redesigned our site to be more user friendly and to include as much information about the first-time visitor experience as possible. We wanted our new guests to understand what this fossil collecting business was all about!
- Enhanced social media presence. We put our Facebook page on the fast track (see chart below) and it boosted traffic to our website and our physical site. We also created a Twitter account and started blogging — how meta that you’re reading this!
- We included discount coupons in local newspapers and magazines and in the Hamburg Visitor’s Guide. The Hamburg Chamber of Commerce is awesome, btw.
- We distributed coupons to participants in our group programs with the hopes that they would bring new visitors to our site.
- We shifted some of our advertising from traditional media (e.g., newspapers and magazines) to online media (e.g., Facebook and Google Ads).
- We reduced our quantity of community events while increasing the impact of our presence at the events that we did attend. For example, we decided against traveling to the Syracuse Gem & Mineral Show but did attend a children’s fair at SUNY Buffalo.
We were fortunate that this combination of changes was successful. As luck would have it, we were also in the right place at the right time. We didn’t know it then, but some visitors from India went back home and decided to open their own fossil park and model it after Penn Dixie. The Buffalo News and Artvoice did an excellent job describing this new partnership. We benefited from a lot of great press this year, and you can see all of the articles on our media page.
Similarly, we were excited to host our largest ever Dig with the Experts this spring. Channel 4 News did a live feed from our site the morning before the dig, and our website experienced a surge of visitors as a result. And, as a result, we had even more visitors attend the dig, more new fossil collectors come to the site during the summer, more birthday party bookings, and welcomed many new members to our society. It’s certainly a funny feeling to have a 3rd grader come to the site and say “Hey, I saw you on TV!”
Our luck continued and our high visibility encouraged new advertisers to reach out to us. In a very short period of time, Penn Dixie was approached by Groupon — a nationally recognized leader, Seize the Deal/Townsquare Media — with radio advertising (!), and Entertainment — printers of the famous books — to do promotional deals. Of course we said ‘YES!’ And, each of these deals helped us to further boost our admissions.
The next steps
So, where are we headed? Despite this huge increase, we’re NOT swimming in gold like Uncle Scrooge (below). Sadly, our revenue doesn’t double along with our attendance — though if it did, I’d be writing this from a much more comfortable office chair! Much of our admissions revenue goes towards labor costs, which include staff salaries, payroll taxes, and employee-related expenses such as disability insurance. It’s not very exciting, but that’s the reality of a small nonprofit. For example, just as a great deal of my time is spent away from the fun stuff going on at the site, much of our revenue goes to unexciting things like insurance, bookkeeping/accounting, and other operating expenses. If any insurance or accounting people reading this, I’m sorry!
The good news is that increased attendance allows us to make a stronger case for grants and public funding. More visitors means that more people know and appreciate Penn Dixie, which translates to better chances for us to grow in the future. Plus, if we’re careful about how we commit our staff — and blessed with help from volunteers — we can use some of the proceeds from increased admissions to invest in the future. These funds might go towards the hiring of additional staff — which helps us to offer new programs — and advertising. And, I know that I’d love to work out of a building on the site — which would allow us to remain open year round — and showing increased attendance is perhaps the best way to justify that expense.
One last thought
On a personal note, I love seeing first-time collectors at the site, especially families with young children. We provide an incredible and unique opportunity for science learning at a very affordable cost. Plus, we’re in an outdoors setting, which means that visitors need to tune out their electronic devices to get the full experience. Despite having collected fossils for over two decades, I’m still thrilled every time I find something new — which is very often at Penn Dixie as you probably know — and am encouraged when our guests experience that same feeling.