Whither Tourism? The Problems of ‘Path Through History’


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PathThroughHistoryHistoric Hudson Valley announced that it is removing the animals from Philipsburg Manor for a cost savings of $200,000/year. The organization manages several sites including Kykuit and Sunnyside in Westchester County. Two oxen, 18 sheep and lambs, and chickens have been relocated to farm sanctuaries.  In addition, 13 people were let go earlier this year including the site manger of Sunnyside.

Philipsburg Manor and Sunnyside were two of the sites singled out in the August, 2012, Path through History kickoff program as primary tourist destinations in the Lower Hudson Region. I had heard about the departure of the animals through the grapevine.

Animals, of course, are a crowd favorite. Besides the appeal to children of all ages who visited the site, the animals also were attractive to teachers who participated in IHARE Teacherhostels there. Teachers who had never milked a cow before would joyously milk one at the farm and have their pictures taken by their fellow teachers for display back in the classroom.

Historic Hudson Valley unofficially has made a strategic decision not to participate in the Path through History project even though it supposedly would be one of the beneficiaries. Instead it has chosen to place its historic sites in “hibernation.” This means the sites will be maintained until the tourist climate changes with little expectation of tourism in the present. This decision is based on the drop in tourism from 18,000 day visitors in 2008 to 10,000 in 2012 with no end to the drop in sight. This excludes the extravaganzas and special events which drew 35,000. When a program on pirates was first offered, nothing much was expected, but people poured out of the woodwork and turned it into a really big event. Pirates, of course, have little to do with the Hudson River or any of the Historic Hudson Valley locations but they do bring the people in.

RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOUR THINK THAT NEW SIGNS ON THE NYS THRUWAY AND A WEBSITE WILL RESTORE PHILIPSBURG MANOR TOURISM TO THE PREVIOUS LEVELS.

These developments reminded me of a session I attended a conference several years ago at Columbia University. In one session there was a presentation by the director of Colonial Williamsburg who recounted how excited the staff had been when the attendance passed the 1,000,000 mark for the first time. Then the plan was how to build on that achievement to reach 2,000,000. As you may expect, the 1,000,000 turned out to be the high point and paid attendance for 2012 was 653,000. And this is a big operation with a big budget and high national name recognition.

RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOUR THINK THAT NEW SIGNS ON THE VIRGINIA THRUWAY AND A WEBSITE WILL RESTORE COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG TOURISM TO THE PREVIOUS LEVELS.

One of the comments made to me by officials at Historic Hudson Valley was about the lack of attendance from the Westchester residents. Historic Hudson Valley has little interest in trying to draw people from Pennsylvania or California who might stay over in hotels when people right next door with minimal travel expense to get to Philipsburg Manor, Lyndhurst, or Sunnyside weren’t driving or taking the train from New York City to visit these sites.

The public which Historic Hudson Valley wants to reach is the same public that was mentioned in the Hudson Valley Path through History regional meeting held January 25 at the Wallace Center in Hyde Park: the residents of the community in which the historic site is located. These people aren’t visiting the sites in their own backyard, the sites are starving, and the Path project is not designed to help them.

I am having a similar experience with places in the Bronx and Queens, places that aren’t even on the officially-designated prime destination sites within the New York region. While it is fine and dandy that millions of people are visiting Manhattan for business, for diplomacy, to shop 5th Avenue, to see Broadway plays, and even to sight-see on double-decker tour buses, and to visit such world famous sites as Ground Zero, the Statue of Liberty, and the Empire State Building, where else do they go?

It would be interesting to know how many of the out-of-state and out-of-country visitors to Manhattan also visit the Museum of the City of New York, the New-York Historical Society, or the American Museum of Natural History compared to the number of visitors from within the metropolitan area. [Note - I do hear foreign accents all the time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.] At some point, one might think that the people in the immediate vicinity of an historic site in Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester or wherever in New York State form a much larger and more accessible target audience than the phantom tourists from around the country or the world who are going to be enticed to visit upstate New York because of new signs on the Thruway or a website.

IF YOU DON’T WANT TO USE THE $1,000,000 TO HIRE TEN PEOPLE TO PROMOTE THE TEN REGIONS THEN USE IT TO PAY FOR FIELD TRIPS FOR 4TH GRADERS. THAT WILL BOOST ATTENDANCE MORE THAN ANY OTHER SINGLE ACTION.

But it won’t mean increase sales and lodging taxes. In the meantime, sites are in a survival mode and the audiences they need to reach are in the ones in their own backyard. That is the frustration with the Path through History Project and why so many people have opted out. It doesn’t meet their needs. Since we can’t expect help from above, it will take a grassroots effort to develop the plans, structures, and tasks to try to make historic organizations a vibrant center of the community that they should be. After all, we are a storytelling species, and if we don’t tell the story of our community, how can the community survive?

THE GRASSROOTS SPEAK

Below are some examples of the emails I have received on the subject consistent with the actions taken by Historic Hudson Valley. Since these were private emails I have omitted the names except in one case where I received permission to use it. I will explore more positive actions at the grassroots level in future posts.

Example 1
I am historian for the Town of XXXX in XXXX County. We have group that formed a coalition  of museums and historical societies along with several town/village historians. We meet on a monthly basis. We did a county museum map/brochure and are presently working on a place mat project to give to local restaurants with a museums located on the map. The coalition shares resources such as speaker lists and a locally published book list, and we have held a XXXX County History Week with programs to attract visitors. We’re doing great work, but it’s a struggle to be able to fund any of our projects. It seems it would be of more benefit, if some of that Path project money was filtered down to our local county level where the real work is being done!

Example 2
I am very concerned about the path being taken by the leaders of Path Through History – there seems to be a great disconnect between the “upper levels” of project management and the people in the field – why are we constantly overlooked – we are an existing infrastructure with all the tools needed to move ahead – except the financing and the coordinated communication structure – I have pointed this out to the people in my region from the XXXXX who are engaged in the PTH project – I hope it is something that will be addressed – maybe what needs to be done is some kind of preliminary assessment any time a new action is proposed – the upper level management needs to ask itself: what resources are in the region our specific action is addressing? Who are the contacts? What information do we need from them? Can they support what we are proposing to do there? What else is needed? I think I’ll bring this up at our next meeting…

Example 3
From: <bhoward@oneidacountyhistory.org>
Date: Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 10:49 PM
Subject: RE: Doing Better: What Should be Done on the Path Through History
To: Peter Feinman feinmanp@ihare.org

Thanks for sending this along Peter; it reinforces the murmurs and grumblings that I heard during my time attending PTH meetings last year.

I stepped away from the effort in December.  For what it’s worth now–two months later–I’ll forward you the ‘resignation’ note that I sent to our regional coordinator.

Have a good evening,

Brian J. Howard
Executive Director, OCHS
315-735-3642

Subject: PTH Effort
From: <bhoward@oneidacountyhistory.org>
Date: Sat, December 15, 2012 6:57 am
To: “Janice Fontanella” <Janice.Fontanella@parks.ny.gov>

Hi Janice–

I am writing to inform you that I have decided to step away from active participation in the PTH effort.  Despite having attended several work group meetings and contributed to the MV heritage site list, I remain confused as to how this effort represents anything truly new, lasting, or unique to the promotion of cultural heritage tourism in NYS.

I hope the following observations will be of use as you move forward:

-STRUCTURE: As the state already has 1) established vacation destination regions and 2) the I Love NY campaign, I don’t understand why PTH is being administered through the state’s economic development councils.  It seems counterproductive, especially given the necessary interplay between PTH and other tourism promotion efforts.  Why PTH is a separate entity at all–instead of being structured as a program within an already well-established statewide tourism effort (read in: ILNY)–escapes me.

-APPROACH: Since its establishment, PTH has taken a ‘bottom up’ approach, with Albany encouraging most parts of the program to be developed within the ten regional work groups.  This would be fine if our ideas were fed into a state-established structure, but that does not appear to the be case.  Not only have we been asked to bring content to the table, but we’re also being asked to provide structure and implementation recommendations, which I’m fairly certain aren’t consistent across regions.

Unless I’ve missed something here, NYS has asked the ten different regions to provide ten unique plans, around which the state will structure its implementation effort.  I feel that a ‘top down’ effort would be more effective at promoting a statewide initiative, with regions feeding their unique content into a single structure.  There are no specific goals to focus our commentary towards, just the vague idea to ‘promote cultural heritage tourism’.  Frankly, I feel that we’re wasting time, throwing around ideas without a net in which they will be caught.

-DUPLICITY: I don’t see what PTH brings to the table that hasn’t already been covered–ad nauseum–by past and present cultural heritage tourism initiatives.  I only have the MV work group to cite, but why are we spending time reinventing the wheel when programs like the MV Heritage Corridor, Erie Canalway NH Corridor, and a wealth of local/county-wide initiatives are already in place?  If money is available for cultural heritage tourism, I think it would be better spent coordinating between these myriad existing efforts rather than trying to develop PTH.  While PTH may be new it isn’t unique.

-GUIDANCE FROM ALBANY: Communication of PTH’s specific goals has been sparse at best.  At every meeting I’ve attended I’ve heard “We’re waiting for guidance from the Governor’s office” or “That hasn’t been decided yet”.  Or worse, awkward silence in response to questions.  Time and again, PTH has been likened to a plane that has taken off but is being built in the air.  Why?  It is not the concept of PTH I disagree with so much as the approach (or lack of one) taken by the state to its development and implementation.  It was encouraging to see an ILNY representative at yesterday’s meeting, but I think one should have been with us since the start.

Please know that it is not my intention to denigrate the efforts of anyone who has participated in this program.  A lot of time, talent, and treasure has been expended by our history and tourism professionals to develop this idea.  I appreciate being asked to be a part of PTH and am encouraged to see that our great history is a priority at the highest levels of government.  Please know that I am happy to contribute content if/when the time comes to do so, and that the my facility is open for future meetings, press conferences, and other promotional efforts as is appropriate.

Feel free to share this note as you feel is appropriate.  What I am questioning is not the merit of PTH as an idea, so much as I am the disjointed, vague and duplicitous approach that has defined its development to date.  If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.  Otherwise, I wish you the best in your efforts.

Thanks again,

Brian J. Howard
Executive Director, Oneida County Historical Society
1608 Genesee St.
Utica, NY  13502
315-735-3642

 

7 thoughts on “Whither Tourism? The Problems of ‘Path Through History’

  1. Addie Harris

    Mr. Howard has summed it up nicely.

    Regarding what is apparently a poor decision in removing the very popular animals from Philipsburg Manor. Perhaps they are following the strategy that was set by the National Parks. Some of them announced in February that they were intentionally planning cuts in ways that would hurt tourists the most. Glacier National Park announced that it would stop maintaining the only road that provides access to the park. Gettysburg and Yosemite announced cutting their volunteer coordinators, eliminating 6,872 volunteer hours and 3,500 volunteers, respectively. Natchez Trace planned to close rest rooms one day a week.

    Reply
  2. Susan Day Fuller

    Peter, Brian and others concerned about this issue: I strongly urge you to send your concerns, such as those posted above, to Senator Betty Little. Senator Little is Chair of the NYS Senate Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee. She represents my district and in my interactions with her, I find Senator Little to be a very practical and effective person.
    An additional concern I have with PTH, having just completed a 220 page Corridor Management Plan for the North Country Scenic Byway, is that there seems to be no regard for the HUGE amount of effort community tourism, recreation, history, etc. stakeholders along NYS DOT Byway routes have contributed to identify important resources, and develop implementation goals and tactics. Byway plans encourage collaboration and cooperation between communities to increase the offerings for visitors (who don’t have to be from out of the region) rather than pitch a one-off resource. Now we have the I Love NY tourism districts, the Regional Economic Development Councils, and the NYS AG and Marketing Districts — all with different boundaries. Add in PTH. What a waste of money and all the time that has already been spent on these topics and are sitting waiting for funding for project implementation
    Senator Little’s e-mail is
    little@nysenate.gov
    You can also communicate with her through her web site
    http://www.nysenate.gov/senator/betty-little/contact

    Reply
  3. Lynne belluscio

    I never could figure out, given the guidelines for the choice of primary sites in our region that “they” chose a site that is only open 6 months a year and an other site that has less than 2000 visitation and is not adi compliant.

    Reply
  4. Gayle Ann

    I’ve heard little about this program that is positive. However, I have yet to have anyone remark on what I see as a major obstacle. The State keeps repeating that heritage tourism is a $5 BILLION dollar industry in NY, and that heritage tourists spend an average of $300 more per person than other tourists. Part of this PTH program was directed at those dollars. NOTHING has been done to re-educate local government officials that their offices are now tourist destinations, and that they need to act accordingly, with some positive customer service skills. With a couple of exceptions, most clerks view tourists as a nuisance. They do not engage in partnerships with local historical/genealogy groups to provide volunteers. They do not realize that people who have pleasant experiences stay in the area, and spend money in the area at local businesses.

    Additionally, nothing has been addressed as to how to keep tourists in the area, or to be blunt, encourage them to spend that extra $300. The best example of this issue is Lancaster, PA. Most of the Amish stores, like government offices, close at 5. However, there is another “night life,” so to speak of places that are open later, knowing that after dinner, people are still looking for ways to spend their money. Hence, the outlet malls and other attractions, which have nothing to do with the “Amish Experience.” I don’t think every county needs outlet malls, but they do need museums and local shops that are open later. People want to get the most out of their vacation. However if research is the primary purpose of the trip, they aren’t going to sacrifice, often, research time for other local treasures.

    The PTH program needs to start considering it’s customer, the tourist. There is an entire field of sociology dedicated to the tourist. Unfortunately, it seems as though no one in the program is familiar with it.

    Reply
  5. Addie Harris

    Gayle Ann has made some excellent points. I wholeheartedly agree with her statement: NOTHING has been done to re-educate local government officials that their offices are now tourist destinations, and that they need to act accordingly, with some positive customer service skills. With a couple of exceptions, most clerks view tourists as a nuisance.

    Reply
  6. Dick Carlson

    Excellent write-up! It is not just Historic sites and museums with declining numbers – attractions like Howe Caverns, Ausable Chasm, The Adirondack Museum all post declines from Best Year Ever. And when was that “Best Year Ever?” I’ll bet you could pin it on mid 1990′s. Since a lot of these attractions draw from the Capital Region and Mohawk Valley you can see the dovetail of jobs lost to decreased attendance. GE in Schenectady went from a high of 40-50K jobs in the 1980′s to less than 8K jobs today. Also I see a lot of government tourism promotion to be duplication and poorly designed – here in the Adirondacks the Scenic Byways Project (a federal program, administered by ANCA – hey – they gave us the money!); and the very marginal First Wilderness Heritage Corridor program http://www.firstwilderness.com/ Again a grant funded boondoggle.

    Reply
  7. John Leith

    Dear Dr. Feinman, 4/6/2013
    My two cents on your latest blog…. Sorry, this is too long, but that’s life!
    We live near Boston. My wife has lots of Tremper family in the Hudson Valley (HV) region (a few living, most dead). We used to and she still does travel to the area a few times a year for further Tremper-related research and to visit relatives.
    My opinion is that the Hudson Valley needs more tourism PR related to family history and genealogical matters, for research in unpublished archives and for discovering and visiting living cousins. Historic sites including cemeteries are included in that idea. What is not much included is the idea of simply going there for a day trip to “see the sights” – although that is certainly an added benefit. We have visited many of the local historic homes in the HV as added benefits of our trips for
    hunting ancestors and the occasional living cousin. We’ve also been to NYC Municipal Archives researching, as well as gone on some NYG&BS walking tours of the old Five Points area and nearby places where there was some Tremper activity. So, our family history interests have drawn us from some distance to the HV and NYC areas, where we have stayed one or more days at a time, spending money, seeing sights, and researching.

    Your essay reminds me that I spent 4 years at the U. of Penn, and only on the very last day did I finally force myself to make the effort to go and see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. I knew they were there and that they would not go away, so I deferred my visit until it became a “now or never” thing. Similarly, the idea of attracting “locals” to see the sights in the HV may get some of them to show up to a place once or twice, but if you want repeated visits you need something more, e.g., family history connections, genealogy, archives, cemeteries, and somehow discovery of living cousins. A few years ago my wife spent about 3 days in Philly researching some Tremper people in the City Hall’s dark, dank catacombs viewing poorly preserved records and visiting other Tremper haunts: another example of a “tourist” spending money to do family research.

    In other words, I’m not surprised that attracting “locals” may be difficult and costly (per capita) – they already know about the attractions, they know the attractions will “always be there”, and so they don’t see any hurry to visit them. Lure people from farther away with opportunities to discover more about their ancestry (in addition to eating and sleeping there and buying trinkets)!
    One of the comments in your essay or in an attached comment mentioned city clerks who see out of town visitors “as a nuisance”. While we have occasionally encountered such, most are happy to see us using their materials. The few others may need some “counseling” from Albany or some tourism group. But it is also true that they are happier to have us if we don’t need too much hand-holding when researching their records!

    BTW, I’m currently reading (skimming, mostly) an interesting book by David Critchley, “The Origin of Organized Crime in America – The New York City Mafia, 1801-1931″ (Routledge, 2009). On pages 145-147 the author describes a Mafia place ca. 1930-1931 in Wappingers Falls where they apparently distilled and also transferred barrels of bootleg liquor, using a large barn there. I’d bet one could attract some tourists there, but maybe the locals would rather not promote it!

    Thanks,

    Reply

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