Museums, non-profits face challenges in promoting themselves

B y Derek Liebig

As Heritage Area director and head of the Skenesborough Museum, Carol Greenough has a firm grasp of Whitehall’s place in New York’s history, but what she can’t understand is why the community is not represented in some of the state’s tourism promotions.

Whitehall, the birthplace—albeit disputed—of the U.S. Navy and a strategic entry port for soldiers and supplies during the War of 1812, is not mentioned in promotional materials for the state’s Path Through History program, a $1 million dollar initiative designed to raise the profile of New York’s historic sites and cultural institutions.

“It’s disappointing,” Greenough said. “Only specific sites were chosen across the state. There are so many smaller sites that don’t receive recognition.”

A 20-page brochure, published by I Love NY, the state’s tourism agency, highlights 38 state historic sites across New York but doesn’t include private or locally run points of interest, such as the Skenesborough and Slate Valley Museums and Fort Ticonderoga.
And while the latter two do appear on the official Path Through History website (paththroughhistory.ny.gov), other historically and cultural significant sites like the William Miller Chapel in Hampton, the USS Ticonderoga, the Pember Library and Museum in Granville and Roger’s Island in Fort Edward do not.

Pat Wesner, director of the Pember Library and Museum said her organization’s exclusion is frustrating.

“We get some state funding so I feel we should be included,” she said.

The site does allow organizations to submit information on special events but local museum directors say allocating the resources to fill out the information can be difficult for organizations that in many instances have only a handful of paid employees and a staff of part-time volunteers.

“We have only one or two volunteers so unless we get a call or an email we don’t know these things exist and don’t have the time to look for them,” Wesner said.

Besides limited staff, budget and time constraints are other problems non-profit organizations face in trying to promote themselves.

“One issue we all face is we’re under a time crunch. There’s not always enough time to spend on promotions,” said Kate Weller, executive director of the Slate Valley Museum.

Many organizations have also seen their funding reducing and one of the first things to get cut is advertising budgets.

“The biggest thing facing smaller cultural institutions is the amount of money we have budgeted for marketing and promotions. There are some amazing opportunities for promotion but cost is a huge factor and some of those opportunities are cost prohibitive,” Weller said.

The Washington County Tourism department operates a website that details the county’s businesses and attractions at no charge but it has received mixed reviews.

Greenough said the site seems to focus more on the southern part of the county.

Although the site does make mention of the Skenesborough Museum under the “Plan Your Trip” tab, it is not included under museums. In fact, only three museums in the entire county are listed and other prominent businesses and attractions also aren’t listed.

Hick’s Orchards, the state’s oldest U-pick orchard, isn’t included under agri-tourism, there isn’t a single golf course listed, and while mentioned elsewhere on the site, the Washington County Fair—by far the county’s largest single tourist attraction—isn’t listed under fairs.

Christine Hoffer, the county’s tourism czar, said the county site is meant to be self-populating, meaning the onus is on businesses and organizations to provide their information.

“People need to take the opportunity to list themselves,” she said. “I receive the information, weed out the spam, read it over and usually have it posted within 24 hours.”

She said she has reached out to local chambers of commerce to help spread the word about the site, which has been up for three years, but many chambers require members pay annual dues, an expense some organizations and businesses can’t afford.

Wesner said she relies on local newspapers and patrons to promote the museum and its events.

“It’s hard for small non-profits to afford advertising,” she said. “We really rely on word of mouth from people who have been here before.”

Weller said social media is becoming an increasingly effective and cost efficient way of promotion.

“You have to find the best investment with very limited dollars. I think we’re doing a very good job with a limited budget,” she said.

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