The Open Weekends arose from consultations with local community residents. Two major and related barriers to visits were identified at that time: cost of entry and perception of value (not just financial value). The Open Weekends that developed from this consultation give free entry (thereby removing financial barriers) and also an opportunity for local residents to experience Thinktank and challenge their own perceptions of the museum. Our consultation told us that to many of our local community residents, Thinktank was an unknown entity. They did now know what we were, what we did, what we stood for or even where we were and it is was easy to realise that these residents were unlikely to visit us in a traditional manner. The Open Weekends give us an opportunity to share our collections, exhibitions, programming and spirit with our local residents in the hope that they will learn for themselves what Thinktank represents and discover some relevance to their lives which they will then share with others – word of mouth is still our most powerful marketing tool. By working towards reducing these two barriers, we are also increasing representation within our visitor demographic by this audience and developing a closer relationship with local communities based on trust and understanding.
Summary of activity:
Building on the community engagement strategy, we work with schools, community groups and community leaders within targeted wards to raise awareness of the Open Weekends. Approx. 30K vouchers (valid for the Open Weekend only) are distributed via these networks to ensure that local residents receive them and free access to the museum is only granted to people presenting a voucher. Visitors entering the museum on these days get the full experience of Thinktank exhibitions and programming as well as the opportunity to purchase reduced rate Season Tickets thereby encouraging repeat visits. The Community Outreach Team also performs extensive visitor research to help Thinktank better understand the needs and expectations of local residents.
We carry out extensive visitor research during Open Weekends through data collection (geographical) on the vouchers and also interviews with participants across the weekend to develop our understanding of the needs and expectations of this audience. This data collection and evaluation takes place over every Open Weekend in an on-going manner.
The results clearly show that our community distribution works to attract visitors from the wards and constituencies that we have targeted. The Open Weekends target communities with a Government rated reduced socio-economic demographic. Within Birmingham at least, these same wards and constituencies also tend to have the highest proportions of BAME residents and our evaluation tells us that approx. 75% of Open Weekend visitors are from a non-white background. Thinktank already has a significantly higher representation of BAME visitors (approx. 13%) compared to other museums but they are still underrepresented when compared to the overall Birmingham demographic. Approx. two thirds of Open Weekend visitors are also first time visitors and we are starting to collect evidence that perceptions of Thinktank, value for money and Thinktank’s role within Birmingham and its communities is changing in a positive direction as a result of the Open Weekends.
What went well:
The operational processes behind Open Weekends are not dissimilar to busy periods such as half terms and are dealt with in a similar way. The greatest contribution to the success of the Open Weekends is the use of community networks (including schools) to assist with the distribution of the vouchers. Without the support of the local communities in this process, there would be no Open Weekends. By targeting specific wards and constituencies, we are also able to distribute with a much higher impact (and therefore reduced resources) in a way that supports our wider community engagement strategy.
What was learned:
Open Weekends have been running for approximately 5 years at Thinktank and they have changed considerably in that time. Many of these changes have been to increase efficiency and impact and thereby reduce costs and there are constant adjustments to operational processes for each subsequent Open Weekend. The most important learning however comes from the evaluation that we carry out with visitors over the Open Weekends; for every person or family that we interview, the greater our understanding of the needs and expectations of our local communities.
Community Open Weekends have become part of the standard year at Thinktank and as such are embedded within our operations and programming. This represents the support that all levels of staff feel towards Open Weekends and the value that they place on them. The Open Weekends themselves have come from Community Engagement and consultation and are a reaction to the needs of our local community audiences. By taking a strategic approach to developing these audiences, we have managed to reduce barriers to entry to this typically under-represented audience whilst at the same time building our relationship with local community groups, schools and networks. Each time we develop an Open Weekend, we refine our processes and become more efficient, achieving a higher impact and developing a greater understanding of our local audiences.
Top tips and advice for others
Develop clear aims, objectives and outputs for an Open Weekend. Be absolutely clear in your own mind why you want or need to run them and what the benefits, costs, and risks are. Then you will be in a position to gain support for them.
Consider how they fit into your wider audience development strategy. Will they build on any previous projects? Are they the start of something new or a stand-alone initiative?
What will you do afterwards? For the visitors that you attract on the day, what is the next step for them in your new relationship?
If you are not used to large numbers of visitors on certain days, think about your operations. Do you need to consider different facilities (e.g. Halal food, prayer rooms)?
Consult with your audience first and get their support. What do they want and need and how are you going to give it to them?
Always evaluate the events and use the opportunity to learn more about your new audience.