Research Summary

Why do they come? Understanding attendance at ranger-led programs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Rangers’ and Visitors’ Perceptions Not Always in Line

Journal of Interpretation Research

Research has demonstrated that live interpretive programs at national parks can help visitors create emotional connections to the land, educate visitors about a park’s natural resources, and influence visitors’ environmental attitudes and possibly even behaviors. However, these benefits are contingent on program attendance, which, according to recent estimates, includes between 12 and 30 percent of total park visitors, depending on the specific park. This research examined visitor incentives and motivations at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM), the most-visited national park in the United States, in order to improve understanding of interpretive program attendance. The authors addressed three specific questions: (1) What do GRSM rangers think are people’s primary motivations for and barriers to program attendance?; (2) What do visitors report as their reasons for attending (or not attending) interpretive programs?; and (3) How can the answers to the previous questions increase program attendance and inform interpretive program management?

These research questions were addressed using surveys with three populations: GRSM interpretive rangers, park visitors, and interpretive program attendees. In the first survey, 13 GRSM interpretive rangers were asked to rank perceived motivations or barriers for visitors attending interpretive programs. The general visitor survey and the program attendee survey (with 617 and 276 respondents, respectively) also asked about motivations for visiting, but also collected information on attendance patterns, group characteristics, and reasons for visiting the park. Additionally, both the ranger survey and the program attendee survey inquired about the information sources visitors used to learn about park programming.

The survey results revealed that rangers perceive the strongest drivers for program attendance to be a specific interest in a place or topic, tangible rewards (e.g., Junior Ranger Badge), and a chance encounter with an interpretive program. In contrast to rangers’ perceptions, visitors stated that entertainment, a better opportunity to see park attractions, and providing a good group experience (particularly for families) were the top factors influencing attendance, in addition to those the rangers named. Rangers and visitors agreed on prominent barriers to attendance: lack of awareness of the program, inconvenient time or location, and desire for a solitary experience. Finally, rangers believed that their personal invitations, followed by visitor center information boards, are the most effective sources of information about interpretive programs, while program attendees cited the GRSM visitor guide followed by visitor center information boards as their top sources.

Overall, this new research offers valuable insight into methods for increasing interpretive program attendance at Great Smoky Mountains National Park based on an analysis of ranger predictions, visitor motivations, and effective sources of information. By analyzing discrepancies between visitors’ interest in programs and their actual attendance, together with the barriers to participation, the authors believe that parks can capture more visitors in their interpretive programs. They explained, “We might assume that up to one-third of those not attending interpretive programs might actually have been interested in doing so given better marketing, locations, or timing of programs.”

They explained that one way to capture these visitors might be to “take advantage of the belief that ranger-led programs might expose the visitor to something he or she might otherwise not get to see and build off interests in scenery enjoyment, social experiences (particular for family groups), and wildlife by using words and phrases like ‘reveal,’ ‘glimpse,’ ‘behind the scenes,’ ‘secrets,’ ‘best views,’ ‘chance to see wildlife,’ ‘fun,’ ‘great for kids,’ and similar themes.” The authors also recommended continuing certain successful approaches, such as the use of the park’s visitor guide to advertise interpretive programs. They also suggested reaching out to visitors who stay in the park for the shortest amount of time, and are the group least likely to attend a program, with messages such as, “If you only have a few hours (or one day) in the park, don’t miss ...”

The Bottom Line

While rangers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park know what often keeps visitors from attending their interpretive programs, their visitors are motivated by a broader range of benefits than the rangers realized. The rangers correctly predicted some motivations, such as an interest in a specific topic, but they didn’t predict that people are most commonly motivated to attend a program for entertainment, a chance to see the park’s unique attractions, and the hope that an interpretive program will be something that everyone in their group can enjoy. This study serves as a reminder that educators’ perceptions don’t always match their audiences’ perceptions, and that knowing your audience can help you refine messages that will attract your audience’s attention.