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By Miriam Grinberg, 2010 Festival Surveyor

Surveying can seem like a really dull process.  But the end results are fascinating:

In 2010, more than 22,000 people visited Gettysburg Festival, hailing from at least 30 states.  51% of those who visited the 2010 Festival were doing so for the first time.  And the average guest rating for Festival events was a 4.88 on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being “excellent.”

The All-American Brass Picnic recorded its highest audience ever in 2010

How did we attain those figures?  It all begins with a survey.

You grab the clipboard and a stack of blank surveys, leave the office, and proceed to cautiously weave your way through a crowd of people – all of which would prefer to watch the show than answer your questions. You approach with a smile, acting as non-confrontational as possible, and record their answers. Repeat this process X number of times, at X number of events, and hope that no one takes too much offense at the questions you’re asking (especially the ones about age). Most would probably wonder why you would even bother surveying in person at all in this day and age of computer technology; why not just post a survey on the website and collect results there?

What is not often understood about surveying, as my friend, mentor and former Festival Head Surveyor Carolyn Greaney put it, is that this process is the “basis for all research.” They directly influence the organization which collects them, whether through comments or general demographic data, informing the researchers as they set out to explore their base of data and the meaning of their results as they relate to “the big picture.” The type of surveying conducted at the Festival, intercept surveying, first became extremely popular beginning in the 1980s with the birth of the shopping mall. In malls, surveyors were finally able to gauge the reactions of a significant number of people in the same space in regards to customer satisfaction, ease of accessibility, and other important quality control information. Over the years, however, this type of surveying has acquired a reputation more for annoying people than for contributing to a bigger research project.

The Caribbean Cookout was one of the highest-rated culinary events for 2010

Even I admit that when I was first assigned the task of surveying at last year’s Festival with Carolyn, I wasn’t so sure that I would enjoy doing it. I was afraid that people would refuse to talk to me, or that they would get angry with me for asking them their age or taking up too much of their time. I had all the preconceived notions about intercept surveying stuck in my head, but when I finally did a few, I found that many of my prejudices were completely wrong. Festival attendees were very gracious and generous with their time, answering my questions to the best of their ability and then some. After the first two or so events I was settled into the job, and started to understand the importance of this interpersonal communication.

Unlike a web survey, the persona, face-to-face interaction of an intercept survey enables a surveyor to elicit responses from attendees which they otherwise might not have mentioned in an automated survey online. Of course, the way in which a surveyor approaches their task is critical to the success of the intercept survey method; simply walking up to people and asking questions in a plodding and uninterested manner will discourage their full engagement in the process. It is vital that surveyors appear enthused and refreshed with every new person they survey, and appear willing and ready to record any additional comments which that person may have at the end.

Summer Intern Rachel Wynn surveyed attendees to the Culinary Food Fair

Just as critical as the interviewing process is the final survey report, written after meticulous hand-tabulation of all the survey results. Everything has to be counted, and then counted again, so as to be able to report any discrepancies in the data in as full detail as possible. Working on this year’s report has taught me not only how to tackle another form of formal writing, but also the importance of acknowledging every visitor’s comment as a means by which the Festival may be improved upon in coming years. Simple demographic data, while not as telling, is still very interesting to inspect. From gender to age to zip code, all these categories have something important to say on a surface level about the kind of attendees the Festival currently attracts – and what kind of attendees it has yet to capture.

What is most fascinating to me about the entire process of surveying is simply this: regardless of how how big or grand a public Festival may be; if it’s in New York City or in Gettysburg; if it’s funded by hundreds of grants or just a handful; or if it attracts millions or just hundreds of people, surveys show that there is always something which can be improved upon. Furthermore, they showed this year that people hope the Gettysburg Festival will be an engine for growth and change in the Gettysburg community and beyond, ensuring that an organization such as the Festival will never be a static, monotonous entity.