Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Benefits of a Women's History Trail - Fun AND Profit!

A True Story

My favorite example of the economic impact of a women's history trail happened during the summer of 2009 in Salem, Massachusetts. As the creator of the Salem Women's Heritage Trail, I was hired for the day to lead a tour group of women who were members of the Worcester (MA) Women's History Project. They rented a bus, paid me for my time, visited three ticketed attractions, had lunch, and shopped along the way.

By the time they were ready to leave, they knew they had only scratched the surface. Their bus happened to be parked in front of a Salem hotel and I said, "You'll have to come back next year, stay at the hotel, and see more sites!" And I'm sure they will.

The economic impact of a women's history trail on a community is real, and all kinds of organizations stand to benefit. Historic sites and museums sell tickets, attract members, and enjoy incremental business in their shops. Retail stores and restaurants welcome new customers. Bus companies, tour guides, parking accommodations, and modes of public transportation make money.

People who walk history trails also visit local attractions, eat, shop, and might even stay overnight at one of your local hotels. I've seen it - and not just in Salem, but in Boston where I served as the executive director of the Boston Women's Heritage Trail, on the South Shore of Massachusetts where I helped to develop a driving trail, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts where the Women's History Project website prompted guided tours and programs.


In my experience leading women's history tours, the majority of my audiences are women who range in age from 40 to 65. They are:

• well educated

• intellectually curious

• financially comfortable

Some work, some are retired.

Some of these female "cultural tourists" are residents, their friends, family, and guests, or those who work in town (local tourists). But more of them are part of the "drive market," visitors who travel to a destination for the day from a not-very-distant location.

Others are "frequent independent travelers," people who visit from other countries for two or more weeks at a time. These visitors are usually drawn to an area for a reason other than women's history, but they are itching to find new and interesting things to do during their lengthy stay - and women by far make the majority of travel decisions. Since exchange rates tend to work in their favor, these women are also prepared to spend money!

Women's History and Tourism

Tourism is such an important part of the U.S. economy that in 2008 President-elect Obama instructed his transition team to look hard at tourism in the United States, bring traditionally segmented parts of the industry together, and make recommendations to improve that would "help fuel America's economy."

In the National Travel Association's December 16, 2008 report, they offered the following statistics:

• For the U.S. economy, travel and tourism annually generate $1.7 trillion in revenue and approximately 17 million jobs.

• Spanning every state and congressional district, the economic benefits of travel and tourism generated more than $115 billion in tax revenue in 2007.

• Tourism is either the first, second or third largest employer in 29 states.

• International travel is America's fastest-growing travel segment, due to favorable exchange rates. Travel and tourism exports accounted for 7.5 percent of all U.S. exports of goods and services and 25 percent of service exports in 2007. That includes international passenger fares and international traveler spending in the U.S.

• Adding 10 million additional international visitors every year boosts the U.S. economy $12 billion per year. That is 151,000 new jobs and $2 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues.

• An increase of just 1 percent in international travel market share would produce $13.5 billion in additional revenue for the U.S. economy.

Given these impressive figures, it's more important than ever for women's history - and women's history trails - to become a more visible part of the national tourism picture.

But let's look at specifics. During the process of creating a women's history trail, when and where can you notice its economic impact?

Planning Phase and Early Marketing

Women's history trails are developed in different ways. Sometimes, a nonprofit organization is formed to create and promote a trail - like the Boston Women's Heritage Trail. Other times, leaders of historical, educational, and business organizations come together under one participant's "umbrella," which is what happened in Salem and Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the South Shore of Massachusetts, I worked with an enterprising newspaper reporter who created a driving trail because the historic sites were so spread out. It was published as a special supplement in her newspaper.

However you plan to develop a trail for your community, know that from the very beginning you are in the business of marketing. People need to know your trail is there! No one will derive any economic benefit unless you promote the trail throughout the development process and well after. And it will serve you well to budget for marketing from the project's inception.

Rule #1 in marketing is "know thy audience" and in the planning phase your primary audience is residents, especially adult women (including those with school-aged daughters). They can:

• give you information for the trail

• attend your fundraising events

• go on tours with you when the trail is complete

• recommend your trail to tourists

During the planning phase, you will want to hold well-publicized public meetings to present your ideas for the trail, solicit new information, and introduce the members of your planning committee who should represent your cultural and business communities, town, schools, and local college or university.

Right away, you are in a position to promote these committee members and the organizations and businesses they represent - meaning, your trail project is benefiting them economically from the start! You can encourage the people who attend your meetings to patronize your committee members' companies, and if they are smart, your committee members will use their involvement with the trail to self-promote, offer incentives, free passes, and so on.

You also want to involve your local Chamber of Commerce from the beginning. If you have a Main Streets program, engage them as well, or perhaps your community development office - wherever the intersection between business and tourism/marketing happens in your town. These business organizations understand that people who walk also shop and dine. If local businesses don't understand how your trail can benefit them, your Chamber of Commerce can help them "get it."

In Salem, Massachusetts, the Chamber believed so strongly in the economic benefit of having a women's heritage trail they hosted fundraisers, promoted the trail to their members, and helped plan the kick-off event.

Development Phase and More Marketing

While the trail is being developed, publicize your progress. Send press releases and email blasts, use the "social media" of Facebook and Twitter - and be sure you are always promoting the participating historic sites and businesses. By doing this, you will send customers their way AND build momentum for your grand opening.

You will also need to raise money for your "product," whatever it might be - a brochure, book, or website. Hold fundraisers at your hotel, historic site, or a local business. You will be providing a perfect opportunity for participating sites and businesses to promote themselves. You can set up information tables where they can display products and interact with new customers.

You might also want to call special attention to woman-owned businesses! An exciting (and potentially lasting) byproduct of the development phase is collaboration and networking between nonprofits and for-profits. In Salem, one of my greatest joys was introducing historic site representatives and local business people to each other during fundraising events. More often than not, they had never met. Store owners picked up new customers and promised to make a greater effort to direct visitors to their new friend's historic site. Frequently, these new business relationships led to future win-win collaborations.

In Salem, we held an evening fundraiser at The House of the Seven Gables while the museum was closed. I overheard many residents admit they had never been to The Gables before. Seizing the opportunity, the director provided free passes for daytime visits and easily secured new customers and new members - and the gratitude of the community.

Opening Phase and Even More Marketing

When the trail is complete and you're ready to "open," all kinds of opportunities await! In Salem, we rented two trolleys and gave "driving tours." Later, we offered walking tours. We invited reporters to go along, and they wrote terrific stories that inspired people to visit Salem for a new reason.

Businesses along the route hung our posters and sold our book. Some offered refreshments, others gave a flower to each woman customer. Historic sites offered new women's history-focused tours and created special displays from their collections.

All of these places - for-profit and nonprofit - made money!

Once your trail exists make sure it's featured in your community's visitor information, including materials distributed by your Chamber of Commerce, Main Streets program, local and state tourism offices. You do NOT need to handle all of the marketing yourself at this point, nor should you. That is what tourism professionals do, and why they are valuable partners. Meet with them, provide information, and follow their recommendations.

Having said that, you probably know more about women's history than most tourism people do so you should do some of your own research. Which women's history websites do potential visitors to your community peruse? Which publications? Where should your trail be listed or linked? A good example is the National Collaborative for Women's History Sites website and book. There is a section on walking trails in the book, and an online section with links to trails and historic sites all over the U.S.

Another example is Discover New England, the tourism marketing organization that promotes New England as a destination for international travelers. In 2010, they are launching a new page on women's history trails and historic sites!

Think about offering special tours for affinity groups (Girl Scouts, women's clubs or organizations, women's studies students at your local college) and for local students. If you reach the students, you reach the parents, and they are the ones with the money to spend. And plan your walks to include time for food and shopping!

Assuming you created a PowerPoint presentation for your fundraising events, you can now present an updated version to local groups (Rotary, senior center). Some people will never walk the trail, but they will visit specific sites and shops. Again, steer them toward your collaborators!

Moving Forward

In the years after your trail is open, the biggest challenge will be to sustain its visibility. Some communities are able to paint a line or install plaques, but most cannot. You do need to keep your brochure or book in print, your website updated, and send out messages from time to time via email blasts, an online newsletter, or Facebook to keep the buzz going.

History isn't static. Even after your trail is complete, people will find new information about historical women in your community. Today's women will open new businesses. Through your trail, you can "own" your local women's history. Make announcements, report news, and celebrate achievements.

In Salem, to perpetuate the link between business and history, I recently transformed the trail website into the Salem Women's History and Business Community. Through the website and social media, I promote women business owners in Salem and make announcements about historical and contemporary women.

The month of March, National Women's History Month, provides an annual opportunity to promote your trail. For several years in Salem, the "trail" hosted a series of talks in March on historical women and women's history sites people could visit. As a virtual organization, the "trail" partnered with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (National Park Service), which hosted the events.

You can continue to lead tours as well. For the Boston Women's Heritage Trail (BWHT), I always combined a walking tour with a visit to the host historic site and lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. Like Salem's trail, BWHT had no official office. Every program had to involve collaborating with a historic site - and they benefited!

Men Can Become an Important Audience as Well

I have given plenty of tours that included men - husbands who reluctantly attended with their wives who told me afterward, "I had no idea I would actually enjoy this!" and fathers who brought their daughters because they wanted them to be inspired by women's achievements. These kinds of men are a very important audience, and they can become some of your fiercest allies!

Final Thoughts

The story I told at the beginning of this article is just one example of how a women's history trail can benefit a community economically. Imagine adding more and more women's history trails to walkable downtowns or to driveable regions in states all across the country.

Imagine if the National Travel Association gave special acknowledgment to women's history trails (and women's history in general!) as the fastest-growing tourism segment in an upcoming report?

If you think about it, historic sites are already "there." No one will be adding sites to Boston's Freedom Trail, for example, any time soon. Those places are, literally, set in stone.

Women's history trails, on the other hand, are a new history "product" that can be created and marketed to generate income for hundreds of nonprofits and local businesses. That's heady stuff to contemplate, and you can make it happen!

You can create a women's history trail for your community!

Helpful Links

• Salem Women's History and Business Community

• Boston Women's Heritage Trail


Many thanks to the Salem Chamber of Commerce for their support of the Salem Women's Heritage Trail, specifically, former executive director Ellen DiGeronimo and former president Joseph Correnti. I am also grateful to the Boston Women's Heritage Trail, especially Mary Howland Smoyer and Polly Welts Kaufman, for encouraging me to be creative with women's history in Boston many years ago.

Bonnie Hurd Smith is an unusual combination of historian and marketer. Her work as a historian has focused largely on women's history, especially the eighteenth-century essayist Judith Sargent Murray and women's history trails, but she has also managed a historical society, served as the president of a historic house museum, and planned and implemented dozens of history-based events and projects through her business, History Smiths (formerly Hurd Smith Communications). On the business side, Bonnie has not only planned highly successful large- and small-scale community events, she excels in public relations, marketing, fundraising, project management, writing and graphic design. She is a popular speaker, tour guide, and writer on historical subjects. Her passion is to boost the visibility of women's history throughout the United States as a source of inspiration for girls and boys, women and men, and to tell a more balanced story of American history.
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