Main house: 39 rooms, 27,000 square feet; 15 bedrooms, 15 bathrooms
Grounds: 12 acres
Buildings: 5 (mansion, cottage, maintenance building, carriage house, boathouse)
Revenue from paying visitors: $1.6 million from July 2014-June 2015
Like most “historic house museums” across the country, Glensheen in Duluth has seen its attendance steadily decline over the past three decades. When Dan Hartman became Glensheen’s executive director in 2013, he was eager to reverse that decline.
And he has. If you’ve visited the elegant mansion and spacious grounds on Lake Superior recently, it’s probably because you’ve been beguiled by Glensheen’s marketing. In the past three years, the number of paying visitors almost doubled.
To make that happen, Hartman treated the challenge of decline “like a marketing campaign,” he says. But his budget for marketing this grand old manor was modest.
When the Chester and Clara Congdon estate was bequeathed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1977, the family stipulated it had to pay its own way, and to this day nearly all Glensheen revenue comes from paying visitors. But Hartman and his marketing team found that visitors aren’t who he first imagined they’d be. Despite rather meager data-mining capabilities and market research resources, Glensheen has learned enough to reposition itself.
Hartman assumed leadership of Glensheen after a career at the St. Louis County Historical Society. (He also served on the Duluth City Council.) Glensheen attendance peaked at 139,871 in 1981, not long after it opened to the public. When Hartman came on board, attendance had been flat for many years, after a low of 56,450 in 2007.
To halt that trend, Hartman and his team began to dig into whatever data they could find. “We initially believed it was a fairly large Duluth audience—maybe 30 to 40 percent of visitation [and] primarily [people] over 55,” Hartman recalls. “It couldn’t have been any further from that.”
Credit card data revealed that less than 4 percent of people came from all of northeast Minnesota. That was a “huge surprise,” he says. In fact, 40 percent were Twin Cities metro residents. The audience also was much younger, primarily in their 20s and 30s. It also was predominantly female.
But why were these visitors coming? And how could Glensheen get more of them?
Visitor surveys and intelligence gleaned by staff revealed that Glensheen’s appeal was more than the grand old home. The estate includes several outbuildings, gardens, grounds, a boathouse and walking trails along a bucolic creek. Perhaps its most compelling attributes are an interior that has changed little over the decades and luxurious views of Lake Superior.
Glensheen chose to focus on the Twin Cities market and shifted from billboards and other traditional ad platforms to social media, particularly Facebook. Discarded, too, was the sepia-toned slogan “Feel the Presence of the Past” in favor of the livelier “Get Wow’d,” which Hartman says has a “much more youthful appeal.”
Hartman and his team also cut out things that weren’t working. The house had hosted a number of paid events, such as brunches and festivals. “Glensheen wasn’t making money off most of [them],” he says. Because 90 percent of Glensheen’s income comes from tours, “that’s what we probably should be selling,” he concluded.
Since Hartman came on board, Glensheen has added several themed experiences, including Halloween and Christmas tours. In 2014, it launched a “nooks and crannies tour,” which looks at little-known or recently opened parts of the house and outbuildings. One of those revealed spaces is the second floor of the carriage house. Once an abundance of boxes and unused equipment was removed, it revealed several Congdon family horse carriages. This year, Glensheen will add a new “servants’ tour,” which, Hartman says “will tell a whole different story of this estate that people don’t know about.”
Bob Beatty, chief operating officer for the Nashville-based American Association for State and Local History, says that historic house museums that continue to draw visitors have found ways to combine historic interest with modern relevance. Successful museums, Beatty says, “have a message that is bigger than just ‘look at this old house and this old settee and the tea set.’ ” He emphasizes getting to something deeper about what that particular house means or meant.
Hartman has used promotional ideas from other house museums that have kept their appeal, such as Jefferson’s Monticello and St. Paul’s Alexander Ramsey House. While the new tours and social media campaigns all have played their parts, he’s still not positive why Glensheen continues to fascinate. A Downton Abbey-themed Facebook campaign didn’t get much traction. A “Big and Beautiful” campaign that emphasized Glensheen’s size and aesthetics did do well.
“We really need to dive into the question of what exactly about ‘Big and Beautiful’ is so striking,” says Hartman, who’d like to use focus groups to address this and other issues. His current take: “I think a lot of people come to Glensheen because it’s not a place they’re going to see in their daily lives. It represents something that is almost a mystery, something that they’re intrigued to see.”
Hartman hopes to shed more light on that mystery.
Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.