Why making families welcome pays

It’s no wonder families have become key targets for so many museum and heritage organisations. At last count there were 18.6 million families in the UK, and when you add to that all the grandparents looking after their grandchildren (a rapidly expanding trend) it’s too big of an audience for us to ignore.

But for such potential, why are visits consistently falling short for families? At many sites there is a toxic combination of families having low expectations of their visit and lower than average enjoyment. Families don’t expect a lot and often we don’t even meet these low expectations.

49 minutes is the average time a family spends together each day.

So what do families want?

Well, topping the list is to feel welcome. Surely this isn’t too much to ask? Really thinking about how families visit and their motivations and needs can help to supercharge our welcome and make a museum or heritage visit one they want to repeat, recommend and share with friends. Who doesn’t want that?

It’s also about being welcoming across the whole site, not just having a sign above the entrance that says ‘welcome’ or creating a focused family welcome at reception with the rest of the site not following suit.

The average amount of time a family spends together each day is 49 minutes, so it’s not surprising they’re picky about what to do with their leisure time. They’re risk averse as well; they want what they choose to do together to be a success (who hasn’t had disaster days out with the family?).

We need to make it really clear that we have a fantastic offer for families, and if we do we need to make sure we’re honest about it.

Hampton Court Palace is hitting the right notes – it has a relaxed and welcoming tone on its website, some über-friendly meeter-greeters as well as the varied on-site offerings for families. At times the family interpretation at the Palace outstrips that intended for adults alone.

The Palace has even added playful touches, such as providing Tudor cloaks so the whole family can conduct their visit in resplendent royal finery. It’s this attention to detail that can uplift a visitor experience from humdrum to magical.

Families can’t all be the same so why do we often provide just one or two family-based things to do on-site? Families come in all shapes and sizes and every conceivable variation of ages, ability and so on – providing a menu of activities as part of an informed welcome is a great thing to work on.

The National Trust’s 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ is a prime example of an organisation increasing the visibility and range of their offer and welcome. What they’re basically saying is: families, we’re for you and we want you to come and play with us.

It’s essential this kind of offer is backed up by on-site staff and volunteers, as is being able to provide a personalised welcome to visitors. If not, it’s just a smart marketing campaign with no substance – we need the ability to win the hearts of families for the long-term, not just one visit.

And why stop at the welcome? Let’s get people excited about their museum or heritage visit. We rarely see a conscious effort to do this – it’s almost as if we’re ever so slightly embarrassed.

Some organisations have been going beyond the welcome. The Enchanted Palace installation at Kensington Palace (2010-2012) and the Welcome to Monsterville exhibition (2011) at the Discover Story Centre both encouraged a heady mix of anticipation and excitement.

This is when the welcome really starts to ‘kick ass’ in terms of creating a buzz for family audiences – museums and organisations are pushing to be the thing everyone is talking about.

Families can be part of the solution

The most exciting and fundamental shifts are in our relationship with families as an audience. Some museums and heritage sites are breaking down the boundaries between our organisations as ‘providers’ and the families as ‘consumers’ of the visitor experience.

Families can be our consultants, co-producers, designers, testers, volunteers, makers and reviewers. ZSL London Zoo’s new Animal Adventure proudly proclaims itself as “designed by families, for families.”

Improving the welcome must be a priority, and it makes sense because it’s what our family audiences want. But it also makes sense because in these times of funding flux we have to make hard decisions about where to spend valuable resources.

This articles was originally written for Guardian Professional, published in May 2012. 

If you are looking to improve your offer for families, or review how you welcome them and work with them at your organisation then you might want to check out these resources: