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June 29, 2014

Visitors Count! Surveying at the Folklife Festival

Volunteer Alex Lederer surveys a Festival visitor. Photo by Betty Belanus

Volunteer Alex Lederer surveys a Festival visitor. Photo by Betty Belanus

For the past two Smithsonian Folklife Festivals, I have been in charge of “counting and surveying” at the event—getting a sense of how many visitors we attract, who they are, and what they learned.

“Counting” involves gathering a rough estimate of the number of visitors at the Festival each day.  Volunteers use mechanical clickers to count the visitors who pass by an imaginary entry point into our very open event.  People exiting the Smithsonian Metro stop and heading into the Festival are usually the base line of the numbers, along with a few other points around the site.

This year, for some as yet unknown reason, the walkway near the National Museum of Natural History is racking up visitor numbers rivaling the Metro stop numbers.  The count is recorded by the volunteers on a form, and at the end of the day lead counting volunteer Katie Fernandez “does the math.”  Because there are never enough volunteers to click at all entrances of the Festival on any given day, percentages are calculated to account for numbers coming from the areas not counted.

Counting at an event as open as ours is not an exact science by any means.  Even professional companies hired by events to do counts with much more sophisticated measuring techniques claim a ten to twenty percent margin of error.  This year we are trying to corroborate the accuracy of our present counting system by trying a few experiments, including crowd density research.

“Surveying” is the process of gathering information from a random sampling of visitors for useful data, including where people come from, what form of media they use to get information about the Festival, which program they preferred, and other short questions.

For the past two years, we have been using electronic devises to administer the survey.  This serves a number of purposes, including going paperless and therefore adding to our sustainability efforts, and being able to crunch the numbers instantly instead of relying on our poor post-Festival interns to go through hundreds of surveys to compile the data.  This year Alex Lederer is our lead surveying volunteer, and we will be working with an outside analytics company to assess our data.

At the Folklife Festival, every visitor counts, not only literally but as a source of valuable information that will help us make the event even better in the future.

Betty Belanus is an education specialist, curator, and folklorist who has been on the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage staff since 1987 and has the Festival T-shirts to prove it.  

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