Cultural Heritage Tourism Marketing: 10 Tips for a Higher Profile

Joslyn McIntyre

October 21, 2021

The most well-known cultural heritage sites are famous for their grandeur: Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat. In fact, they’re so famous they need little introduction, never mind cultural heritage tourism marketing. Many of them (1,154, in fact) are UNESCO sites, designated as legally protected landmarks by the United Nations because they are “of outstanding universal value to humanity.”

But most cultural heritage sites can’t rest on recognition alone. Beyond the UNESCO badge lie plenty of incredible historical sites with rich, fascinating legacies of their own. Peru boasts 100,000 sites of archaeological significance, and only 13 are officially “World Heritage Sites.” Rome has plenty of incredible ruins to see beyond the Colosseum. 

So while your venue might be a cultural heritage site with a captivating history, without the right marketing, few people will get to enjoy it. With countless other archaeological and culturally significant sites vying for the public’s attention, you need to stake your claim in their itineraries. And now is particularly good timing to reach people hungry for meaningful travel experiences. After a year or more of being grounded, people are on a quest to create poignant memories.

Most cultural heritage sites rely on marketing to reach the right audiences at the right times. Here are ten unique ways to help you illuminate the sites and experiences that are significant to our collective and individual cultural identities.

1. Tap into rich storytelling

As archaeologist Thomas Dowson says, real historical tourism is “getting a more realistic picture of what history was, not trekking across the world to see just one example of it… Sites beyond the obvious can give you a more complex view of history.”

For travelers interested in exploring the nuances of culture and history, smaller, out-of-the-way heritage sites are incredibly appealing. If your attraction falls under this banner, your cultural heritage tourism marketing strategy should play up the eccentric, quirky, secret, or mysterious aspects of your story. 

Experiment, too, with different types of marketing mediums to tell your story. Podcasts and webinars are two longer-form marketing formats that allow you to delve into the details of your site’s cultural heritage and history in imaginative ways. 

Here are a few podcasts to check out that might inspire you:

The English Heritage Podcast – Explore Darwin’s living laboratory, delve into the history of Roman bathing in Britain, find out about England’s rich monastic history, and more stories of the 400 historic buildings under this organization’s domain.

How to Be American – The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York tells stories of the rich immigrant, migrant, and refugee experience throughout U.S. history

Sidedoor – The Smithsonian in Washington DC hosts this podcast about all the stories beyond the public exhibits – those buried in the vaults of the museum’s permanent collection.

Along with telling stories well, the next tip is about how your visitors can experience those stories. 

2. Create experiential marketing moments

When visitors choose your cultural heritage site, what type of experience are they signing up for? Dioramas and guided tours are fine, but for fans to feel compelled to share their experiences with others, your heritage site needs to create lasting impressions.

Experiential marketing offers true immersion into an experience. Some heritage sites accomplish this naturally – think of the mock witchcraft trials at the Salem Witch Museum, where visitors are led through a realistic reenactment of the events of 1692. Or an archaeological site where visitors are invited to witness the action of the “dig,” adding a sense of excitement and suspense to their visit. 

“​​There are sites that are being excavated as part of current archaeological research projects. You can only visit these when archaeologists are working there. Archaeologists will often take time out from their excavations to show you around.”

— Archaeologist Thomas Dowson

When you invite visitors in on the action (safely, of course), you create opportunities for them to create and share more compelling memories of your cultural heritage site.

The Real Mary King’s Close, a centuries-old underground alleyway in the historic Old Town area of Edinburgh, Scotland, has a long-standing reputation for being haunted. This cultural heritage site now capitalizes on this reputation by telling an exciting interactive story with actors that lead visitors around the venue. 

As a tease to this evocative experience, the Real Mary King’s Close Instagram page habitually introduces the characters that “inhabit” the close, including Laing Meg, who was a  “foul clenger” or plague cleaner during the last plague outbreak in 17th-century Edinburgh.

By combining a compelling (and pretty creepy) immersive experience with savvy social media marketing, the Real Mary King’s Close draws in curious visitors. The proof is in the pudding: the venue has nearly 30K followers across social media channels, over 21K on Facebook alone.

3. Market your region, not just your attraction

Many cultural heritage sites stand as a symbol for a greater regional culture. In Salt Lake City, founded by Mormon pioneers in the mid-1800s, This Is the Place Heritage Park is the aptly named historical monument to Mormon leader Brigham Young’s pronouncement that the pioneers had finally found a place to settle.

While there is plenty to do at This Is the Place, including an extensive tour of Heritage Village and horseback trail rides in the surrounding Emigration Canyon, the monument also serves as a hub of information about the entire greater Salt Lake Valley. This includes not just its Mormon history and culture but respect to the five indigenous tribes that once populated the area: the Ute, Navajo, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone.

When you choose to celebrate the unique legacy and culture of your greater community, you attract visitors who don’t just want to spend an afternoon at a historic site, but are looking for an in-depth understanding of a region’s cultural history.

Your business doesn’t have to stop at your four walls. If you have creative ideas to spread the mission and story of your business as it relates to a greater regional history or culture, by all means, act on them.

4. Become known for an annual event

Did you know you can run a marathon along the Great Wall of China? Depending on your personality, this might sound like a nightmare or the experience of a lifetime. Some people enjoy visiting historical sites for the everyday opportunity to learn more about history or culture. Others prefer an infusion of adrenaline.

The Great Wall of China isn’t only a spot for walking, but for running too.

Hosting an exciting annual event like a marathon, a masked ball, a parade, or a culture-specific holiday celebration can be an invigorating way to attract visitors who might otherwise be ambivalent about your heritage site. 

Festivals are one of the most culturally on-brand ways to make a big impact with an annual event. Just visit UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Festivals page to see the breadth and diversity of festivals held at heritage sites around the world: the Gjirokastër National Folklore Festival at Gjirokastër Castle in Albania, widely regarded as the most important event in Albanian culture; the Elephanta Festival at the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, commemorating the heritage of dance, art, and sculpture in India; the Omizutori festival at the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara in Japan. The list goes on.

5. Make headlines

Most people are addicted to news, and there’s a lot of bad news out there. Your cultural heritage site can be an antidote to all the sorrow and strife by making headlines about new discoveries, refurbishments, and research.

Just recently, Stonehenge announced that the Neolithic ancestral site will be undergoing its first restoration activities in decades to repair cracked and toppled stones – particularly “Stone 122, a horizontal piece that fell and cracked in 1900.” Why the level of mundane detail around this announcement? History buffs adore facts and love to be let in on the current events of the timeless site.

Stonehenge leverages restoration activities to promote itself as a premium culture heritage tourism site.

To get those headlines published often requires good old-fashioned PR, but other marketing tactics include social media marketing, website copy, and email newsletters.

6. Jump on the hashtag bandwagon

In general, social media is a profound marketing resource for cultural heritage sites, because it provides a built-in audience even beyond your own fans and followers. Hashtags are an excellent example of the “bandwagon” approach to social media marketing. 

Royal Collection Trust, a charity organization originally founded by Queen Elizabeth II and responsible for looking after one of the most important art collections in the world, didn’t brand the hashtag #AskACurator. But when the organization enrolled in this global Twitter-based event, it joined over 1,500 other museums from around the world. Art aficionados and Anglophiles flocked to Twitter to ask the Royal Colletion’s curators questions like “What’s your favourite item in the collection?” and “Which paintings were the first in the collection?”.

For a list of some of the tweeted questions and the Royal Collection Trusts’s answers, visit their website.

Fans love the opportunity to probe the minds of curators and get “inside info” about their favorite cultural heritage sites. The hashtag #AskACurator, which had already built a sizable following thanks to other participating museums, offered the Royal Collection Trust an opportunity to reach that enormous audience in a friendly, intimate way.

There are several ways to find out which hashtags are trending on Twitter. 

– Simply by opening Twitter, you can see what general hashtags are trending right now. While these won’t always be relevant to the type of social media content your heritage site brand posts, you might be surprised how often opportunities come up to create content around existing trends. 

– Social media tools such as Hootsuite regularly aggregate the most popular hashtags and offer ways to take advantage of them.

– But by far the best way to find effective hashtags relevant to the tourism industry and your heritage site in particular? Follow other sites and influencers in your industry to see what they’re posting about. 

7. Encourage user-generated content

You can also capitalize on your existing social media audience by encouraging visitors to post about their personal experiences at your heritage site. UGC, or user-generated content, refers to anything that your fans and followers post about your attraction: selfies, videos, Facebook Live moments, Instagram stories, written tweets, blog posts.

Of course, at some sites, like Auschwitz, taking selfies is forbidden. Respecting the history of historic sites, in general, is paramount. But while some aspects of the experience folks have on-site might be sacred, others are likely shareable. Encourage visitors to share their personal stories of being at your heritage site by providing them with sanctioned backdrops, suggested vistas, and perhaps even photo stands.

If you’re curious what sort of UCG visitors are already creating and posting about your site, rely on reporting technology. Visit Facebook and Instagram analytics, for instance, to see an aggregated view of posts in which your site has been geotagged, your brand hashtags have been used, or your account itself has been tagged.

Facebook and Instagram analytics can also help you drill down into what days and times of day your intended audience is most active. With this information, you can deduce the best times to make organic posts of your own. These platforms – and most social media platforms today – offer highly advanced targeting capabilities so you can use paid ads to reach specific audiences. 

8. Team up with a ticketing partner or OTA

An online travel partner, or OTA, like Tiqets can offer powerful marketing means that amplify your own efforts.

For instance, the Enryaku-ji temple near Kyoto teamed up with Tiqets to tell the story of the 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple and the monks who train there. The temple’s overseers sought to create a balance between the sacred nature of the temple and the desire to share its history with visitors, who are invited to travel to the temple for spiritual contemplation and to pay respects to their ancestors. 

The stunning Enryaku-ji temple near Kyoto that teamed up with Tiqets to tell a unique story.

Aligning with Tiqets allows the temple’s administrators to invite more global visitors while controlling the parameters around visitors. In general, when you work with an OTA that has a lot of experience marketing attractions, you can take advantage of their marketing expertise, their built-in reach, and their broader industry insights. 

9. Become known as “the place …. was filmed”

Heritage sites have a particular advantage in the marketing arena: They make great film locations. Without too much effort, you can probably think of five or ten sites that have been prominently featured in massive feature films and TV shows. 

– In the ten days after the 2007 release of the movie Night at the Museum, for instance, attendance at the American Museum of Natural History jumped by 50,000 visitors – even though the movie set was technically rebuilt on a soundstage.

– The James Bond franchise has made many a heritage site more famous – the Amsterdam canals, Xochimilco in Mexico, the Taj Mahal, to name a few. 

Game of Thrones made the medieval walled city of Old Town Dubrovnik in Croatia a sudden destination site for global tourists wanting to see “King’s Landing” in person. 

Would your heritage site make the perfect setting for a film or TV show? Location scouts are responsible for finding the places filming will take place. Advertising your heritage site in an industry publication like Variety is one way to get their attention.

The American Natural History Museum is one of the museums that benefited from being featured in a film.

10. And finally, consider demarketing

The great conundrum of heritage tourism is that many historical sites are fragile. Fragile exhibits cannot handle massive hordes of people. As Thomas Dowson says, “Having millions of people trample over some of our most treasured historical sites was never sustainable. When we visit ancient sites like the Acropolis or the Colosseum, we must remember that it’s a privilege to be able to do so.”

Heritage sites encounter a unique phenomenon in the tourism industry: While they aim to raise their profile and attract more attention and visitors, too many visitors can often be at odds with efforts to preserve the integrity of the site. For this reason, they sometimes practice “demarketing,” which means narrowing in on the most valuable audience and specifically excluding others. In this way, they attract the most interested, respectful audience and leave the rest.

One effective way to institute demarketing is to raise entrance fees, a technique that has been shown to work well in certain cases. Charging a higher fee raises the stakes on entry, but interestingly, studies have shown that visitors who pay (or pay more) to visit museums are also more likely to spend money at shops and cafes inside the site.

Given this last tip, the first thing you probably want to consider when evaluating the way you’ll market your heritage site is exactly how many more people you’d like to attract. Once you have that decision made, you can consider how each of the other nine marketing tactics aligns with your mission and marketing resources.

Regardless of your specific approach, your heritage tourism marketing will help tell the stories of your cultural or historic site to more people in better ways, and ultimately, that’s the goal of any heritage site.

For more marketing ideas specific to re-launching post-pandemic and capitalizing on people’s desire to explore the world, read 5 Creative Marketing Strategies For Reopening Museums And Attractions.

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