Conversation: Building Relationships Through Adult Programming
Coffee and Conversation:
Through Adult Programming
By Joan L. Parrett
growing, active senior population (people aged 60 and up) would seem to
be an ideal museum audience, yet attracting this group to science centersand
keeping them coming backis no easy task. At the North Museum of
Natural History & Science, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we faced two
major challenges in our efforts to create successful educational programs
for this group.
The first was competitionlocal,
county, and regional. In the city of Lancaster alone, a weekly newspaper
insert lists dozens of long-standing senior program opportunities. The
county's tourist industry works hard to draw residents to traditional
"Pennsylvania Dutch Country" venues. And nearby Philadelphia,
New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., vie for their share of
retirees' time and dollars. We were entering a crowded marketplace.
A second challenge was relevance.
What were the needs of this new audience? Were we prepared to meet those
needs through programs tied to older visitors' interests and abilities?
Rather than opinions, we needed
databoth to determine feasibility and to guide decisions. This article
will describe how we tackled the challenges and devised a program that
has garnered an increasingly loyal following.
The research phase
Our effort started in early
2000, when the museum's board of directors, looking for ways to expand
audiences and programs, authorized a full-time education position responsible
for (a) comparing current opportunities at the museum with the interests
and needs of specific city, county, and regional populations, and (b)
developing and pilot-testing new informal science programs and events
based on the resulting data.
The position was filled in
October 2000. Within a few months, we had a plan in place to assess the
existing situation, explore the competition, complete a market analysis,
and begin to build successful programs.
Internal audit. We
began by examining our museum records for indicators of previous success
with seniors. Although in the past five years we had not piloted in-house
events aimed specifically at older audiences, we saw that the museum's
Rambles program (first-class vacations with a natural history emphasis)
had been popular with community retirees. Older adult memberships were
also usually renewed.
Next, we gathered data about
our current older members. What were their membership patterns, special-event
attendance patterns, and levels or kinds of volunteering? Did we show
concentrations of retirees from certain industries? (This might inform
decisions about topics.) Were residents from only a few retirement homes
represented? Did a certain educational level predominate? Did we have
many retired or active baby boomers on our rolls? Were our older members
visiting throughout the year, or did they disappear in certain months?
(The local tradition of "going south" for the winter could defeat
programs scheduled from November to March.)
Finally, we checked our facility
for barriers that might discourage seniors. We added an accessible restroom
on the lower level and more benches throughout the museum, and we made
sure program materials were available in large-print format. (Areas we
hope to address in the future include curbside drop-off and additional
Scanning the competition.
Next we undertook a survey of local program offerings for seniors.
Such data exists in every community. Our information was gathered from
senior center bulletin boards, newspaper ads, retirement homes, recreation
centers, the "yellow pages," church event lists, commercial
tour operators, and "senior expos" at local malls.
We looked for patterns, seeking
to match strengths in our collections, events, classes, and exhibits
to "holes" that other organizations had missed. (Were there
plenty of crafts classes for seniors, but no computer training courses?)
We looked to see if popular programs usually fell on a certain day of
the week, or at a certain time. (Early risers, seniors like to "get
up and go.") What other schedule-specific patterns could we find?
Market analysis. We
did two types of market analysis. The first involved direct feedback
from other providers. Contacting people like activity directors at retirement
centers, pastors of large churches, and adult education program directors
at community colleges, we asked what kind of difficulties they faced.
Did participation fluctuate seasonally? Was there an accepted ceiling
on fees? Were some programs too popular to compete against? By using
these conversations to explore potential partnerships, rather than presenting
ourselves as a competitor, we kept the way open for future collaborations.
Though our window for market
analysis was limited, in the future we plan to look also at U.S. Census
data that might affect long-range planning.
Our best marketing source
was the seniors themselves. By surveying those who already had direct
or indirect connections to the museum, we not only expanded our pool
of stakeholders but also learned that older visitors value non-threatening
educational situations as a way to "stay sharp," and that
they prefer to attend "adult education classes" rather than
"senior citizen programs." Using the adult ed designation
would produce unexpected benefitsattracting, along with retirees,
adults from 32 to 59 who were currently unemployed, working on rotating
shifts, or able to use midday flex time to drop in.
The most important guiding
principle for our new programs came from a retiree's perceptive comment:
"Older adults need ways to build new relationships." Seniors
are often separated from family and friends through relocation, death,
or illness. In designing our adult programs and events, we made sure
to include opportunities for relationship building.
Planning for success
Our data revealed a number
of factors that could affect our new programs:
- Retirees in Lancaster traditionally
reserve Mondays for medical appointments and Fridays for barber and
beautician appointments. Our largest competitor met on Thursdays. We
picked Tuesdays for our sessions.
- Many local seniors go out
of town in winter and summer. Eight-
to 10-week semesters in spring and fall accommodate these travel periods.
- Retirees often have standing
breakfast and/or lunch dates. A mid-morning time slot fits their schedules.
counts. Attendees appreciate the availability of an elevator and a double-doored
classroom. Padded chairs add to their comfort.
Based on our
research, we launched our weekly "Coffee and Conversation"
(C&C) program in March 2001. Each Tuesday-morning session begins
at 9:30, with 15 minutes of coffee and visiting time, and continues
with 60 minutes of conversation on a scheduled topic. We run two semesters
a yearmid-September to October 31, and March 1 to April 30. Classes
are open to all interested adults, although most of our regulars are
in their 60s and 70s. Museum members attend free; others pay general
admission. For mailing-list purposes, we maintain a sign-in sheet, but
there is no formal registration.
All of our programs
highlight Lancaster County and the North Museum collections. Honoring
our members' requests for in-depth programs, we focus on one topic per
term and intersperse on-site sessions with short field trips. Programs
are led by a single expert or by a weekly guest chosen by the education
staff. Topics to date have included the Geologic Tourist, the Archaeological
Tourist (based on local Susquehannock Indian sites), the Ornithological
Tourist (county bird-watching), the Arboreal Tourist (local trees, nuts,
and woods), and the Historical Tourist (Lancaster's connection to the
Lewis and Clark Expedition). Tie-ins with museum collections or current
exhibitions foster extended learning.
What I have
described may seem like a lot of details, but the rewards are evident
in the responses we get from C&C participants: "Thanks for
taking care of us. Usually things are just slapped together for seniors."
... "I never have to worry on [field] trips. We're never rushed,
and you help us into the van."... "I've lived here 35 years
and never knew this vast tree collection was 20 miles away. I'll come
back here to hike."... "I meet such great people at these
programs. Some of us are even beginning to meet for lunch."
C&C participation has increased. We began with six attendees in
2001; our last session numbered 25 regulars. C&C brings repeat visitors
into the museum and adds more names to our members list. The Spring
2003 session produced 11 new memberships, and two participants recently
became volunteer docents. At weekend events, we often spot C&C participants
roaming the galleries with grandchildren in tow.
has even spawned an informal offshoot. On the final day of the Lewis
and Clark series, participants decided to continue the interest group
on their own. Using the C&C format, they will go on summer field
trips to Lewis and Clark events and start meeting regularly in September.
of Coffee and Conversation demonstrates the validity of our mission
statement, which reads, in part, "to generate interest in lifelong
learning and to foster strong community involvement." One C&C
participant recently asked a staff member, "You'll never stop these,
will you?" She needn't have worried. The relationships we have
built through the program have become important to the entire North
Museum family, not just to our valued older visitors.
Joan L. Parrett is education programs manager at the
North Museum of Natural History & Science, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For more information about the museum, visit www.northmuseum.org.
SUCCESS IS IN THE DETAILS
Research got the
North Museum's Coffee and Conversation program off to a good start,
and our first semester provided some additional "rules"
that remain relevant, regardless of the percentage of new participants.J.P.
Be punctual and predictable.
Begin and end on time, or participants will start to leave.
Longer sessions are acceptable, but must be advertised in advance.
Field trips, including an inexpensive, optional lunch (preferably
with a menu available ahead of time), should end no later than
Keep it participatory. Since "conversation"
is advertised, straight lectures are met with gracious
intolerance. Attendees expect unhurried time for both
coffee and conversation. Remember, it's about building
relationships. With that in mind, we also try to use
15-passenger vans for field trips and arrange restaurant
seating at connected tables.
Be consistent with
staffing. The regular host should be a staff member, not a volunteer.
This reflects the museum's commitment to the program. The staff
member is responsible for dealing gracefully with any problems
Make it a special
occasion. C&C participants appreciate a beautifully arranged
table with tablecloth, colored napkins, themed centerpiece,
cutlery, and glass serving dishes. (Note: If staff fail to keep
the table tidy, women participants will clean up. This can lead
to bad feelings.) Coffee must be decaffeinated, hot, plentiful,
and immediately refilled. Flavored coffees are OK with Lancaster
baby boomers, but not with our older visitors. Though powdered
creamer is acceptable, real milk is appreciated. Pastries (coffee
cake, nut breads, Danish, homemade cookies) are essential; precutting
into pieces of varying sizes makes serving easier and accommodates
Put it in writing.
Weekly "Conversations" for each semester are advertised
three months or more in advance. Printed schedules are always
set out on the coffee table, and changes are announced at least
three weeks ahead. The museum host brings the sign-up sheets,
which include phone numbers, on the field trip bus in case of