News

Are Gettysburg's visitors getting older?

Written by Lillian Reed/Hanover Evening Sun | Jan 26, 2016 8:06 AM
gettysburg_eisenhower.jpg

The farmhouse at the Eisenhower National Historic Site on Jan. 22, 2016 in Cumberland Township. Park officials estimate that visitor numbers to the former home of President Dwight Eisenhower have declined in recent years. (Photo: Shane Dunlap, The Evening Sun)

(Gettysburg) --  Adams County's tourists are getting older.

It's a concern that Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman for Gettysburg National Military Park, admits she has heard uttered several times in recent years.

The nonprofit Destination Gettysburg, which seeks to attract visitors to Adams County, has collected demographics on tourists since 2007, when the average visitor was age 47.

That average steadily climbed to 53 years old by 2012, and has remained there since then.

An aggressive marketing campaign from Destination Gettysburg and increasingly creative events from Gettysburg National Military Park are attempting to thwart that trend.

Data suggest these efforts are working, officials say.

A change in the way people take trips

At first glance, the number of people visiting Gettysburg National Military Park appears to have decreased over the past 10 years, from 1.7 million in 2005 to 1.15 million in 2015.

However, the formula used to calculate some of those early figures was probably inaccurate, Lawhon said.

The Park Service estimates visitation at the park by counting the number of vehicles that enter and multiplying by the average number of passengers per car. At best, officials can only generate an estimate each year because Gettysburg's park has numerous entrance points, Lawhon said.

In 2009, officials adjusted that formula to account for the fact that the average number of passengers per car had likely decreased since 1992, when that number was last calculated, Lawhon said.

Smaller families, less vacation time and an increase in spontaneous trips over planned ones could contribute to this downward shift, she said.

"Because people have very good access to events and programs online or mapping on their iPhone, I believe there are more spur-of-the-moment visitations to the park," Lawhon said. "So there are less likely to be friends and family coming along."

Gettysburg National Military Park has actually seen steady increases in visitors in recent years, with 2015 showing a 5.4 percent increase over the prior year.

The same can't be said of Eisenhower National Historic Site, Adams County's other national park.

The Cumberland Township site, once home to President Dwight Eisenhower, has experienced declining visitation, Lawhon said, possibly because Eisenhower has faded from familiarity.

In 1980, the Park Service reported about 164,000 visitors came to the site. That number steadily dropped over the next several decades, leaving visitation totals at about 58,000 in 2014.

"Eisenhower is not the household name it was 20 to 40 years ago," she said. "Your average student may not know the name."

An effort to attract younger people

Hosting trendy paint and wine parties at the Eisenhower site and using the social media app Periscope to stream history lectures at the battlefield visitor center are just a few examples of the way officials are working to attract younger visitors to the parks.

The parties have been wildly successful, with a majority of participants saying they were first-time visitors to the site, Lawhon said. The site also saw astronomical visitor increases around winter holidays in the past two years after Gettysburg National Military Park began placing advertisements for the Eisenhower site's seasonal nativity scene in the visitor center, she said.

Destination Gettysburg has launched its own marketing campaign for Adams County, targeted at bringing more young people into the area, said Carl Whitehill, director of communications for Destination Gettysburg.

"We are now marketing in a much younger way that is outside of the history component," Whitehill said. "We expect people to see the visitor's center, so we are highlighting things like wineries and restaurants."

There is evidence to support that the campaign is working.

"The number of booked hotel rooms was up 6.4 percent since 2014," Whitehill said. "That's significant."

Though Destination Gettysburg has documented an increase in the age of visitors since 2007, the average age has held steady at 53 since 2012. From a marketing standpoint, this confirms that more young people are visiting Adams County, keeping the average age fixed at 53, Whitehill said.

"If you watch the age of your visitor get older and older, that's something that should be worrying for any destination," he said. "You want to be replacing the older visitor with young."

Looking ahead, the National Park Service will celebrate its centennial in 2016, which has been themed "Find Your Park," Lawhon said.

The parks will host even more first-time events in celebration of the milestone. These include a "BioBlitz," where students can participate in biodiversity discovery activities around the park, and expanded artists-in-residence programs, where artists can create work inspired by the Gettysburg battlefield.

Lawhon is optimistic about the coming year, but in the end, the National Park Service's job is also to preserve and protect its resources, she said.

"We're concerned about visitation trends, but they are only one part of the park's mission," she said.

Adams County tourism

Destination Gettysburg's estimated average age for visitors throughout Adams County:

  • 2007 - 47
  • 2008 - 48
  • 2009 - 51
  • 2010 - 49
  • 2011 - 52
  • 2012 - 53
  • 2013 - 53
  • 2014 - 53

The National Park Service's estimated number of visitors to the Gettysburg National Military Park:

  • 2005 - 1.71 million
  • 2006 - 1.67 million
  • 2007 - 1.65 million
  • 2008 - 1.46 million
  • 2009* - 1.01 million
  • 2010 - 1.03 million
  • 2011 - 1.12 million
  • 2012 - 1.13 million
  • 2013** - 1.21 million
  • 2014 - 1.02 million
  • 2015 - 1.15 million

*The Park Service changed its formula for calculating visitation in 2009.

**The park recognized the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2013, drawing in significant crowds.

The National Park Service's estimated number of visitors to the Eisenhower National Historic Site:

  • 2005 - 68,000
  • 2006- 70,000
  • 2007- 70,000
  • 2008 - 71,000
  • 2009 - 64,000
  • 2010 - 61,000
  • 2011 - 58,000
  • 2012 - 53,000
  • 2013 - 59,000
  • 2014 - 58,000

*This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Hanover Evening Sun.

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