Why Heritage Sites Need Interp.

John Veverka & Associates

#2 JV Logo.jpg (153054 bytes)

Interpretive Consultants

Provoke, Relate, Reveal and more!

For the Cutting edge in Heritage Interpretation

Interpretive Planning, Training, Evaluation and more!

World Wide

5010 Delray Dr. Lansing, Michigan 48910

(517) 899-4548 (we've gone mobile)   jvainterp@aol.com

SKYPE: jvainterp

Pen. Castle - Wales.jpg (159499 bytes) KBS - Bird Sanct. Birds on Lake.jpg (188829 bytes) COE Feb 03 Class.jpg (214810 bytes) KSC Eval#1 Mag. #3.jpg (98935 bytes)

Malta - JV at temple.jpg (205703 bytes) NMC-jv-1.jpg (276796 bytes) Cardif Mus May 07 1.jpg (204232 bytes)

From interpretive planning for castles in Wales for the National Trust and bird sanctuaries in Michigan for the Kellogg Biological Station, to interpretive training in Alabama for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and museum exhibit evaluation in Wisconsin - (bottom row) and critiquing ancient temples interpretation on Malta for Malta Heritage, prehistoric archaeological site interpretation in Utah for Nine Mile Canyon/BLM, and docent/interpretive staff training for the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, we do that - and more!

Heritage Interpretation: Interpretive Planning, Training and Consultation Services

Serving Parks, Museums, Historic Sites, Zoos & Botanical Gardens, Heritage Tourism Sites and Facilities, Commercial Tourism Attractions, and related interpretive sites and facilities -




2011 Projects

2010 Projects

2009 Projects

2008 Projects

2007 Projects

2006 Projects

2005 Projects

2004 Projects 

2003 Projects  Interpretive Services Library Interpretive Planning  Scenic Byways  Evaluation Links         Text Book     Training Video    Home Page



Why Heritage Sites Need Interpretation

For Their Long Term Survival.


John A. Veverka

John Veverka & Associates

Paper developed for the National Trust for Scotland

Interpretation Seminar, October 2000


 Edinburgh Castle & Visitors.jpg (226657 bytes)

(Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland)



So why do heritage sites need interpretation to survive?

In some cases where a heritage site is big enough or well known enough, it might not require as much interpretive effort to attract visitors – people will want to see it or experience it because of other benefits the site provides. Interpretation is a "value added" benefit to the total site visit.

But for most moderate to small heritage sites, providing outstanding interpretive programs and services, and having a good interpretive plan will be required for their long-term tourism success.



Before we look at the reasons heritage sites need interpretation, we should have some definitions to work from.

Heritage TourismVisitors traveling to see, experience and learn about (edutainment) natural or cultural landscapes, sites, features, objects, people, events and stories. It needs to be noted here that the educational component of this type of tourism is the key aspect of it. Visitors want to learn, see, and do!  They travel to heritage sites for a mix of edutainment experiences.

Interpretation – A communication process designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage to visitors, through first hand experiences with objects, artifacts, landscapes, and sites.


Without interpretive services – having trained and skilled interpretive staff present the unique story of each heritage site to visitors, or develop and offer outstanding self-guiding interpretive opportunities for visitors – you don’t have a historic or heritage site – you have an OLD site. It is in the interpretation of the sites story to visitors where the "heritage" of the site is brought to light. Interpretation makes the site come to life for the visitors, giving the site relevance and importance. It reveals to visitors, in powerful and memorable ways, the differences between "old" and historic.



Interpretation is the most powerful communication process any historic or heritage site has available to communicate its message(s) to visitors!

This may sound like a strong statement, but it’s true. This is because of where interpretive communications strategies have come from: marketing, advertising, psychology of the audience, recreational learning theory, consumer behavior and other related professions and disciplines. Every time you see an advertisement on television or see one in a magazine, you are seeing the principles of interpretive communication at work. Here are just a few of the elements interpretation and professional interpreters bring to heritage sites:

Knowledge and expertise in:

bulletJournalism (exhibit label copy, brochures and site guides, news releases, etc.).
bulletMarket analysis and evaluation.
bulletMarket creation and tourism planning.
bulletMarket diversification analysis and development.
bulletWillingness to pay analysis and understanding.
bulletCritical mass for regional tourism development and sustainability.
bulletPsychology of the audience.
bulletPsychology of the visit.
bulletPersuasion strategy development for interpreting critical management issues.
bulletPerception of the experience (experience marketing).
bulletNon formal or recreational learning theory and recreational learning program development (learning for fun or enjoyment).
bulletSite interpretive master planning skills.
bulletInterpretive program, services and media development.


So which of the things on the above list can a heritage site do without having – and be truly successful in reaching its full heritage tourism potential? NONE. From this list, there are required elements that interpretation brings to the total heritage site success equation, no matter how heritage sites define success. Here are three ways that interpretation fits into success equations.



Financial Success

For every heritage site, the first rule of business is to "stay in business". This means that the heritage site has to be financially successful. So the success equation might look something like:

For Financial Success –

        Overhead and Operations Costs            +                       Visitor admission fees and relates sales

Outside funding      a    positive number.                                           

Success can be a "break even" goal, or a goal to make a profit to enable the site to do repairs, add staffing, do restoration work, etc.  Interpretation's role is in helping to bring in the visitors.

A second type of "success" equation for political or community support might look like:


Political and community support = quality interpretation presentation + quality of  site experiences + real or perceived benefits of the site/agency to visitors and the community + evidence of value and benefits.

For this "success" to occur the site must be using quality interpretive communications to maximize the visitors and community perception and value of the site – and support the site mission. It is difficult to accomplish this type of success to its fullest potential without active and powerful site based interpretation (programs and services) and exploiting interpretations powerful "public relations" potential.


A third type of "success" is measured by the level in which the historic site mission and objectives are accomplished:


                 Cost of Interp. Programs & Services               +       Number of visitors that receive the message

The % rate at which the objectives are accomplished   =

benefits greater than the cost of the contact (yes or no).

In other words, if you spent $100 on an interpretive board, and 100 visitors saw and read the message, then the cost per contact would be $1.00. The questions is "what happened as a result of that contact"? If you spent $1.00 per contact and, as a result, had a management objective accomplished at a 70% level – let’s say a reduction in littering or less complaints about a management activity - then a reasonable cost per contact for a high cost effectiveness ratio (getting a real return for your interpretive investment) = success.

In this example as well, professional interpretive planning and design is key to the successful cost effectiveness of the interpretive media or services presentation. The media must effectively motivate, stimulate, inspire, and touch visitors for them to "react" to the message.

So no matter which type of success you are interested in, one or probably all, you cannot ever reach your true success potential in heritage tourism for your site without using quality, professional interpretation (programs, services, media and staff) to effectively communicate to your various target market groups.



Why is interpretive communications so powerful?

The main principles of communication used in developing any ad campaign are a foundation of interpretive communications. Professional interpreters use their understanding of interpretive techniques to develop the interpretive program, service or media to:

bulletProvoke the attention of the visitor.
bulletRelate to the every day lives of visitors.
bulletReveal the essence of the message in a unique or interesting manner.
bulletDevelop objective and outcome based media, program or services plans.
bulletTarget messages to specific market groups interests, backgrounds and feelings.
bulletHave in-depth understandings of their audiences.
bulletCan make the presentations fun, inspirational, memorable and powerful.
bulletPlan for the total visitor experience.
bulletPlan for low cost per contact while getting high cost effectiveness from the communication (media, programs or services).



What benefits does interpretation bring to historic site management – SUCCESS!

bulletInterpretation shows the visitors why the heritage site has value – to them (the visitor), to the community, and perhaps regionally or nationally.
bulletInterpretation can inspire visitors and create a sense of individual and community pride.
bulletIt is the interpretation (programs, living history, guided tours, exhibits, etc.) that visitors come to the heritage site for – the story and site experience. Without interpretation a historic site is, in the eyes of the visitor, just another OLD site.
bulletInterpretation gets visitors to CARE about heritage (theirs or other cultures).
bulletInterpretive services are the reasons visitors come back to heritage sites.
bulletInterpretive programs and services can increase visitation by increasing the perception of BENEFITS tourists receive by going to a particular heritage site.
bulletInterpretive programs and services can produce reductions in site maintenance, and related management issues when used as a management tool.
bulletInterpretive programs and services can make money!
bulletInterpretive programs and services provide added value to any heritage tourism experience, and heritage site marketing efforts.
bulletYou cannot have heritage tourism without interpretation. Heritage tourism is dependent upon the story of the site and the willingness of visitors to want to travel to see, learn about and experience the site.
bulletInterpretation brings in more visitors, more repeat visitors and more income.
bulletInterpretation helps visitors create their own unique choice of ways to experience and learn about a site and its story (mass customization and markets of one).



How do you know when heritage sites need interpretation – warning signs.

Here are a few indicators that heritage sites are in need of interpretive programs or services (new or improved):

bulletVisitation numbers have not significantly increased over the past 2-3 years (and you can’t always blame it on the weather).
bulletVisitation numbers have flat lined (no growth).
bulletVisitation numbers are far below expected numbers in relationship to site location (population bases), and visitation numbers to other similar heritage sites.
bulletVisitation numbers are decreasing (over one or more years).
bulletSite visitor management problems are increasing or remain unresolved (littering, etc.).
bulletYou have very poor community support (image, etc.).
bulletYou are experiencing a reduction in grant aid support from past years.
bulletVisitors do not leave your heritage site truly understanding the story of the site, or the value in preservation of historic sites and landscapes.
bulletMemberships to your organization are flat or declining.
bulletYour agency has poor name (and mission) recognition.
bulletYour heritage site lacks sparkle, excitement, fun, experiences, and BENEFITS to visitors.
bulletYour marketing brochures have pictures of landscapes, furniture or buildings, but no people in the pictures.
bulletYou have to reduce hours of operation due to poor visitation.
bulletIt is difficult to keep guides or volunteers.
bulletStaff begin to move on to other sites.
bulletOn a Saturday afternoon in the summer your site looks "empty".



Interpretation is an attitude.

Interpretation is not just a thing, like a board or exhibit. It is a way of thinking about the quality of the communication and services you will provide to visitors. It is the desire to make sure that the presentation of the heritage site message or story is cost effective, powerful, and gets results (outcome based objectives). It is a love of talking to and with visitors, and getting them as excited about the site as you are. It is a commitment to providing uncompromising quality for the visitor’s experience, and always leaving them asking for more! Without this attitude about interpretive quality and customer care excellence, the site and visit becomes stale, boring and lacks soul. The result - visitors can sense this and register their feelings by not coming back again. Heritage sites need interpretation to help attract visitors – with out interpretation, heritage sites are empty shells of lost opportunities.





Interpretation is an indispensable part of a heritage sites ultimate success (financial, political and educational). Interpretation of the site story and message is the main reason visitors go to heritage sites, and a key element in any heritage tourism site development. Heritage sites can never truly reach their success potential without having interpretive plans, programs, services, media, and staff to relate the site stories and importance to visitors. Interpretive programs and services can help increase site visitation, increase repeat visitation, increase and improve community support, and a variety of other benefits to the heritage site(s) using this powerful communication strategy.




Gilmore, James. H. and B. Joseph Pine III. Markets of One. Harvard Business Review, 1988.

O’Sullivan, Ellen and Kathy Spangler. Experience Marketing: Strategies for the New Millennium. Venture Publishing, 2000.

Pine II, Joseph B. Mass Customization. Harvard Business School Press 1993.

Pine II, Joseph B. The Experience Economy. . Harvard Business School Press, 1999.

Schmitt, Bernd. H. Experiential Marketing. The Free Press, 1999.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. The University of North Carolina    Press, 1957.

Veverka, John A. Interpretive Master Planning. Acorn Naturalists, 1994.


For copies of other related interpretive and heritage tourism articles, visit our web site LIBRARY at www.heritageinterp.com.


John A. Veverka