BLOG 4th April 2022

Reaching a new and unusual audience post lockdown, of the 4-legged kind

This blog is a guest blog written by Beth Frazer. Beth is a museum professional in Northern Ireland. She has current experience in National Museums, local government museums, visitor attractions and as a freelance museum practitioner. Beth previously designed and delivered ‘Playful Museums’ and ‘Ways of Seeing, A Sense of Place’ initiatives across the country. This included being the first project to engage visitors in museums through Minecraft in the province. Winner of the MARSH Award for excellence in gallery education, NI Kid's award for Family Event of the Year and participant in the Space Exchange reverse mentor programme, Beth has been involved in community engagement, gallery education and visitor experience across her career.

This series of guest blogs is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

As most of our audience and visitor-driven sector experienced, lockdown meant a complete shutdown of our sites for museums, heritage and culture for safety reasons. Post lockdown most of us emerged into a socially distanced, mask-wearing, hand sanitising, government restricted, vaccinated work-life and lifestyle. This came with many sector challenges operationally and logistically. Core programming was impacted which meant cancellations, moving to online programming and adapting delivery.

In some cases, challenges can bring opportunities and with new energy post furlough, creative industries rose to the challenge to meet the appetite and needs of their audiences. One of the peak seasons impacted was Christmas. Due to the social distancing, traditional Santa visits and Christmas events were not deliverable for many locations. With this in mind, I proposed an event to fill the gap, reach a new audience, generate income and have Santa visits with a difference.

Santa Paws developed from this audience knowledge, the ‘pawfect’ opening to tap into a new trend, appeal to a new demographic, increase visitor interest and add to our Christmas programme. Dogs are welcome at many, but not all, outdoor sites in Northern Ireland. The USP of an outdoor site had the advantage of being safer outdoors and gave the opportunity for the new puppy audience to be explored. With the new idea and planning in place, unfortunately Northern Ireland went into another circuit breaker lockdown pre-Christmas and with the risk high, the event planning was paused.

Thankfully with changes in government restrictions due to the vaccine rollout, Christmas 2021 was a much more normal affair. The theatre was open, panto was back, visits to Santa were on. Christmas traditions and seeing family and friends was enjoyed by many. Core programming had returned, but Santa Paws remained a viable event. So many dogs are a big part of the family and we know that during lockdown and with people working from home, Northern Ireland saw a huge increase in dog owners. The event proposal was further developed to include other areas of the visit to be dog-themed and dog friendly. Water stations were located all around the large site, poop bags were provided, the cafe became dog friendly for the event duration, retail had more dog-themed lines for sale, dog-themed interpretation was introduced and of course, puppacinnos were available.

So, what did our VID’s (Very important Dogs) and their families experience at Santa paws? Delivered over the first weekend in December, time slots to visit Santa were pre-booked on the website. Timing for each dog slot was calculated at 3 minutes per dog -although some dogs came as a pair, triplets or even more. Normal admission charges applied and a visit to Santa was £6 per dog. Once Santa Paws was advertised on social media it was shared and shared, gaining the highest engagement recently- Santa Paws sold out overnight!

Upon arrival, dogs and their families were welcomed at admissions and provided with a map. Our curator developed a trail around the venue telling the stories of dogs from the collections, heritage buildings and site. Owners were directed to the outdoor heritage building and yard, which lent itself perfectly to the event, where Santa was waiting to give strokes, ‘boops’, cuddles and treats to all the dogs on the nice list. Decorated traditionally for that perfect insta photo, families could keep warm by the fire. Every dog received a goodie bag with a certificate to say they had visited Santa Paws, natural dog treats and eco poop bags. Along with the Santa Paws visit, families enjoyed a walk around the 200-acre grounds and received lots of attention from all the team. Many finished the day with a hot drink and puppacinno.

The excitement of the dog's seeing Santa was something I had not predicted. This was likely increased by the dog sensing its owner's excitement at the event, our amazing dog-friendly Santa and of course, treats. The event was a success and is planned to be part of core Christmas delivery in 2022 with further dates added to meet demand. The new audience that we have attracted now knows that our location is dog-friendly and through word of mouth and repeat visits this will increase visitor numbers and potentially membership sales. Other outcomes included connecting the people, places and collections through unique dog stories. An increase in social media interaction. Utilizing underused locations in the museum. Departmental self-generated income and secondary spend. Excitement for the team with so many cute dogs on site - always a mood booster!

I would like to encourage you to branch out and try new things. We know Northern Ireland had a baby and puppy boom during lockdown. We know that our audiences value safe events where they can make up for the years we couldn’t enjoy our usual events. We have seen the appetite they have to get back to their favourite places and to events with friends and family. New and core events are always expected but the opportunity is here to pilot new projects and reap the rewards. I encourage everyone to rethink during what continues to be described as our new normal - what could your new normal be for your audiences?

A big thank you to my dog loving team who made the event possible. One of them described it as “the best day of my life”.

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