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Marketing, Visitor Experience and Business Development Vision for the Chicago Botanic Garden
This document addresses the continuing effort to develop the Garden as an institution that 1) welcomes its visitors warmly, 2) provides beauty and enjoyment for those visitors, 3) educates them about and gives them appreciation for plants, 4) increases their awareness of the full scope of the Garden mission, 5) builds loyalty to the Garden, and 6) inspires them to take action in some way that preserves or improves the natural world. It was developed to correlate with the 2010-2020 Strategic Plan and provide a future-state vision of brand standards, guidelines, and recommendations for those who create the Garden’s programs and disseminate its messages.
Central to this paper is the Garden’s mission:
The mission of the Chicago Botanic Garden is to promote the enjoyment, understanding and conservation of plants and the natural world.
This statement, adopted by the Board in 2004, grows out of a long tradition that began in 1867 when the Chicago Horticultural Society was organized. At that time, when the city was assimilating tens of thousands of new immigrants and coping with the social problems of tenement neighborhoods, the founders of the Chicago Horticultural Society envisioned an institution that would bring the beauty of plants to the people of the city and enrich civic life. As the years passed, Chicago grew; the Society matured; and its leaders expanded the mission to include an educational component. When the Society and the Cook County Forest Preserve District officially opened the Chicago Botanic Garden in 1972, the Society became a place to visit and broadened its efforts to build public understanding and appreciation of plants and horticulture, and then in XXXX added research and conservation to its mission.
The Garden will convey the following principals to visitors.

  • The Chicago Botanic Garden is internationally recognized and respected as one of the world’s great botanic gardens.

  • The Chicago Botanic Garden is a leader in global plant science conservation, including research, training and education.

  • This is an institution that values beauty.

  • This is a welcoming place, a place for the public, a place for all ages and backgrounds, a place to find enjoyment -- the Garden is fun.

  • This is a place for quiet moments – for awe and reverie.

  • This is a showcase for cutting-edge horticultural practices.

  • This is a conservation institution that values environmental sustainability.

  • This is an institution that builds connections between people, nature, science and the arts.

Many initiatives have allowed the Garden to become a major force in the national and international efforts to help people understand and enjoy plants and encourage them to become stewards of the earth’s botanic heritage.

We have come far, but we believe that we can be even more effective if we renew our focus on the messages that we provide and the manner in which we present them. We want to:

  • Be more consistent and persuasive in uniting messages with mission and insuring that the Garden’s mission is reiterated often and in various formats.

  • Package those messages in such an appealing and relevant fashion that they will reach and impact more people and a more diverse visitor and member base.

  • Use the messages more effectively to educate our various audiences on the full depth and breadth of the Garden’s offerings.

  • Track how the Garden’s messages build loyalty and inspire action.

Vision Statement for Marketing

The Garden’s marketing efforts will establish it as a recognized and respected leader for its visitor experience, horticulture, plant conservation, and community education. Through the Garden’s onsite, offsite, and online innovative offerings and experiences, donors, members, visitors, and general public will be motivated to 1) visit the Garden; 2) become or remain members; 3) financially support the Garden; 4) enroll in Garden programs, classes, and volunteer opportunities; and 5) take action toward saving plants and the planet.


    1. The Garden will be top-of-mind as one of Chicago’s foremost cultural institutions.

  • As the Garden brand broadens and strengthens its core functions of beauty/horticulture, science, and education, various prospect audiences will interact with the Garden in many different ways before visiting the physical Garden. They might read about us in the newspaper, see an event listing on the web site, or find out their neighbor is a master gardener who volunteers at the Garden.

  • Every year, more and more visitors plan their vacations, weekend trips or day-trips by first visiting the web site of the museum, attraction or park they are considering. All these are Garden-brand touch points that will create a first impression, before an individual comes to the Garden. Key to this is all Garden-branded media, especially its web site. Thus, the web site needs to:

    • Communicate to potential visitors the awe, wonder, surprise, and beauty of the Garden, as well as the Garden's mission, educational, and research activities.

    • Continually be refreshed and updated to convince a potential visitor to come to the Garden.

  • Given the growing use of the web and social networking, we need to ensure that our web site is consistent with the gold standard we hold for the physical Garden. The web will undoubtedly grow to be our No. 1 channel for reaching, influencing, transacting, and adopting visitors and members.

  • As the Garden membership eclipses 50,000 and grows to possibly 65,000 in ten years, we will need stronger capability to capture membership demographic, attitudinal, and behavioral data within a customer relationship management system in order to shape future marketing and program efforts for long-term loyalty.

    1. The Garden’s marketing efforts will increase loyalty and cause people to take action: increase their visits to the Garden; become or remain members, increase their enrollment in Garden classes, make or increase their donation to the Garden, and, at home, take action to save plants and the planet. However, we realize that not all members or visitors are the same and some will be motivated by certain messages or aspects of the Garden more than others. As we evolve beyond just a pretty garden, we believe this expanded Garden will generate new visitors, members, and donors.

  • Five core messages are key to convey to the public about the Garden through marketing and messaging:

    • All life on Earth depends on plants.

    • The Garden is a global leader in plant science conservation.

    • The Garden is one of the world’s great botanic gardens.

    • The Garden is committed to learning about plants, teaching about plants and conserving plants for generations to come.

    • The Garden is a leader in horticulture, plant breeding, plant evaluation and design, and education.

    1. The Garden will be recognized as a leader in plant conservation science.

  • Marketing the Science Center to parents and schools will grow in importance so we can become a stronger source of education for children and instill the future need for scientists. These efforts should also drive donations to the Garden as knowledge and appreciation grows for these important efforts.

    1. The Garden will be broadly recognized for its children’s, community gardening, and horticultural therapy programs

  • The Garden is becoming more than just a pretty place, so there are now different motivations for interacting with the brand – how to become a gardener or land manager, how to create your own sustainability plan, how to grow organic vegetables, how to become a scientist, etc. The Garden’s reputation for best-in-class education will transcend all age ranges, from student to scientist.

    1. The Garden’s marketing efforts will reflect the high standards of the Garden and will affect visitors before, during and even after they have visited the Garden.

  • The same Garden-standard experience needs to be conveyed in advertising, direct mail, collateral, customer service, volunteer, and any other touch point from which a prospect can be influenced.

  • As traditional media becomes more fractious, it will put significant importance on strong public relations to be able to achieve placement in traditional as well as new media including social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as growing blogs. Public relations will continue to play a critical role to demonstrate the interest in Garden’s events as well as leadership position in conservation science.

    1. The Garden will be instrumental in creating a new North Shore “cultural corridor” collaboratively with the Ravinia Festival, Writers’ Theatre, Kohl Children’s Museum, and other institutions, visitor and tourist bureaus, and the Village of Glencoe, City of Highland Park, and other municipalities.

  • By working collaboratively, the Garden can leverage itself in terms of tourism, as well as, donors.

Vision Statement for Visitor Experience and Business Development

The Garden will deliver a profound and inspiring experience, either onsite or online, to visitors of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. This Garden experience will place the visitor and their needs and desires first and foremost. The visitor is at the center, and the Garden and its staff will create a sense of pleasure, relevance, and belonging that will bring visitors back to the Garden or to its web site time and again and build the Garden’s effectiveness at generating loyalty, driving attendance, increasing earned income and membership, and motivating efforts at conservation.


    1. The Garden will provide a “five-star” visitor experience that excels in customer service, hospitality, amenities, and overall value.

  • At every step of a person’s experience with the Garden, whether calling to register for a class, at the Information Desk to buy a membership, or buying a gift at the Garden Shop, staff should be able to assist them with their needs in a friendly and courteous manner.

  • The software integration of PatronsEdge and Raisers Edge will allow for the formation of a Call Center which will allow for cross-trained staff to assist any customer, with any need or service. Additionally, this will allow opportunities for increased revenue as staff up sells and cross sells in one transaction a myriad of Garden services and amenities (i.e. renewing a membership while registering for Camp CBG). This up selling and cross selling can also occur at the Information and Membership Desks.

  • An RFID chip imbedded within the member vehicle sticker will allow for tracking of each individual member that comes to the Garden allowing the Garden to know who visits and how often. Member behaviors will be further tracked through various purchases they make at the Garden via the barcode on their membership card. All of this will allow the Garden to know more about each member, and thus, allow the Garden to better customize our service for them.

2.8 The Garden will be a four-season destination by creating year-round programs that give visitors the opportunity to experience and understand nature and the natural world, indoors and out.

  • Visitor events must meet the following four criteria in order to be viable at the Garden:

1) Advance the Garden’s mission

    • All visitor events should be mission-based in that they should relate to the Garden or at least showcase the wonder and excitement of the Garden, encouraging visitors to engage more fully.

    • Mission-based events should bring new audiences, engage existing audiences, bring repeat visitors to the Garden and, in the most basic fashion, help them to enjoy and understand plants and the natural world.

    • Examples of mission-based events are flower shows. These have a long history at the Garden. The program is be presented as a yearly series called the American Flower Show Series, with many key anchor flower societies, such as bonsai, orchid, and dahlia, promoting their horticultural displays. The Garden has already been host to several prestigious national flower shows, such as the National Daffodil Society Show in April 2009 and WAFA (World Association of Flower Arrangers) in October 2009. These prominent shows speak of the stature the Chicago Botanic Garden has gained as a nationally and internationally recognized location for high horticulture standards and displays. The Garden should look to expand its influence in this arena in the following ways:

      • Chicago Horticultural Society Handbook - A handbook is used as a guide for judging horticultural competitions, such as those seen at Chelsea and the Philadelphia Flower Shows. The Chicago Botanic Garden is the steward of the history of the Chicago Horticultural Society and thus, should develop a handbook. This handbook can either be used for judging horticultural competitions at the Garden or at other Chicago-area shows, such as the Chicago Flower and Garden Show.

      • Chelsea-like Flower Show/Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden – The Garden should work towards putting on a high horticultural display, similar to that of the Chelsea Flower Show, with a wide variety of horticulture displays. This can also take the form of a world-class orchid show. Both of these would require the development of the Plant Science Campus so that there would be production greenhouse capability to grow the plant material on-site to put on these types of shows. Either type of show should rival others in the country and become one of the premier shows in the world.

  • Plant sales are another mission-based event which encourages home gardening and help develop an appreciation for plants and what they can do for people by offering seasonally appropriate plant materials for sale to the public and offer expert information about growing them. The Garden should be one of the premier locations where the public can purchase and obtain information (on-site or online) about native plant materials and how they can grow them in their own gardens. In addition, plant sales represent the nucleus for the activities of the Woman’s Board and we will continue to evaluate the programming elements of these plant sales so they reinforce our mission, expand plant sales to a wider, more inclusive audience, and generates positive net revenue.

2) Increase attendance and build new audiences

    • Visitor events are designed to showcase the Garden, to please existing audiences, and introduce the Garden to new audiences, including those representing ethnic and geographic diversity.

    • Attracting new audiences is an ongoing Garden imperative. There is special interest in reaching out to diverse audiences from throughout the metropolitan region, and a proven way to do this is to offer events that celebrate the various cultures within the Chicago community. The Garden has been successful in the past with Swedish Day, JapanFest and the Malott Japanese Festivals.

    • Additionally, we want to foster a greater sense of community and inclusion to our immediate region, especially in Cook County, which helps support us financially. With opportunities to invite and educate our local communities on conservation and the natural world we will generate a genuine feeling of good will and civic responsibility which is part of the culture of the Garden.

3) Increase earned revenue

    • Of great importance to the success of visitor events is financial feasibility. The slate of public events as a whole should not financially burden the Garden, but rather contribute positive net revenue over expenses.

    • There should be three signature events each year, one in the spring, summer and fall/winter which round out the visitor event program calendar. These three events should each be financially sound and thus form the financial backbone of the visitor event program area. In order to grow the organization, we will need to continue to grow top line revenue with innovative, current, impactful events.

    • Some events, on rare occasion, may lose money, but should still be put on if thought of as meeting one of the four criteria for visitor events, as long as the public event program slate as a whole is financially sound.

    • Not all events are created equal and not every event will accomplish all of these goals. They are designed to work in conjunction with one another.

4) Raise awareness of the Garden through public communication

    • When visitor events are conceived, the investment needs to include adequate proactive marketing to ensure strong awareness is achieved. Effective marketing will be critical to the success of Garden events to drive demand for them; events will not drive traffic on their own. Thus marketing, especially for the three signature events, needs to be considered in the financial modeling.

2.9 A visit will inspire general audiences to create a relationship and affinity with the Garden, driving them to become members, engage further, and support its mission to educate people about plants and the natural world.

  • There are several ways in which the Garden can engage and educate visitors – either passively or actively – while they enjoying their Garden visit. These include:

  • Signage

All signage must adhere to the Garden designs its signs carefully and uses them judiciously so as to not intrude on Garden aesthetics. Signage can take the form of:

    • Plant identification labels which are primarily collection and science tools, yet they function also to identify plants for the visitors.

    • Interpretive signs which provide a variety of messages. There are:

      • Signs to identify and introduce display gardens.

      • Permanent signs which are low-profile. In the native habitats they combine text with illustrations and are designed to teach people about natural systems, alert people to Garden conservation efforts, and encourage visitors to become good stewards of the Earth. Where the signs appear in display gardens they address specifics of each site.

      • Ephemeral signs which attract the attention of the visitor to short-term plant highlights and Garden conservation efforts. This is a highly effective way to communicate with visitors.

  • Brochures and Guides

In an effort to be sustainable in our practices, the Garden should limit the number of on-site printed materials used for distribution to visitors. All information about the gardens, their collections and design should be easily found on the Garden’s web site and easily printable for visitors from home. Information about the Garden’s programs and upcoming events should be consolidated in a user-friendly, sustainable format, which ideally is primarily funded through alternate sources (i.e., advertising sales).

  • Interpretive Volunteers

Person-to-person interaction can be the most potent strategy for disseminating the core messages and information about the Garden, the quality of its hospitality, and its mission. Their offerings are among the most important of our educational strategies. It is a goal of the Garden’s to make it possible for every visitor to meet at least one interpretive volunteer during a visit. Such contact greatly enhances the quality of a visit, and, by making it available, the Garden is providing one of the premier visitor experiences in the nation.

The issue with volunteers is the number and lack of diversity amongst them. The Garden could greatly enhance the quality of the visitor experience if there were a larger corps and more diversified group of interpretive volunteers. While it is necessary to increase the number of volunteer interpreters, it is also necessary to advance their training, especially as the Garden expands its offerings. Planning will be initiated to develop strategies for recruiting and retaining key volunteers.

  • Tram tours

With its vehicular tours, the Garden is made accessible to all visitors. Trams offer additional opportunities to reinforce the messages of the Garden, delivering them in a friendly, person-to-person fashion, while also being a leading source of earned income at the Garden. Moreover, as the population continues to age, it will be critical to have a strong transportation infrastructure to support this important demographic.

    • The Grand Tram rides allow a large number of visitors to travel at once around the periphery of the Garden. Drivers note Garden highlights and provide information about plants, the Garden’s work in plant conversation, and the connection people have to plants.

    • The Bright Encounters Tram tours of the Main Island take place on smaller vehicles and offer a more focused exploration of the gardens in this central location. These tours are particularly useful in providing access within display gardens for people with limited mobility. They, too, should be closely tied to the core Garden messages.

  • Permanent and Temporary Exhibitions

Exhibitions at the Garden are conceived as features that add value to the general visitor experience, are in line with the Garden’s mission and aesthetics, and either enhances the Garden’s earned income opportunities or at least, do not place a significant burden on the Garden in terms of finances and/or staff resources. Major destination exhibitions that require extensive resources of finances, staff and space can be presented only when they are on mission and fully funded in advance or if financially warranted by the return.

2.10 The Garden will create new or enhance existing programs, amenities and services (on-site, online, or offsite) to increase revenue, improve visitor experience, and expand the opportunities for environmental education.

  • McDonald Woods

The trails throughout the McDonald Woods offer a very different Garden experience for visitors. With the creation of the Council Ring and Entry Shelter in 2007, the McDonald Woods gained a new presence and allowed for expanded interpretive and educational programming. In the future, the existing walking trails will be enhanced to better allow for access through the Woods by all. And additional walking trails will be added, allowing visitors to further explore the beauty and wonder of the Woods. A Children’s Discovery Area will further enhance this experience for families. This area will be a whimsical playground of sorts, allowing children to play amongst structures made from natural materials, while educating them about the eco-system in and Garden’s conservation work in the McDonald Woods.

  • Children’s Campus

In order to help children develop a close and sympathetic relationship with nature – something much more easily achieved in past generations – the Chicago Botanic Garden has developed an ambitious plan to create the Children’s Learning Campus.  This 4-acre campus will afford school groups, teachers, youth and families with a genuinely immersive experience of nature that includes opportunities to grow flowers and vegetables in the spacious and accessible Growing Garden, a greenhouse for cold weather learning and plant propagation, a boardwalk for aquatic exploration and discovery, grassy areas for play and exploration, and secluded teaching zones that accommodate a wide variety of classes and programs.

The Learning Campus will reflect sustainable energy solutions and practices, e.g., solar panels on roofs, rain garden, a green roof and other features.  The goal is to help spark children’s respect for nature’s ingenuity and beauty, help them develop real science literacy, and better prepare them to be effective, passionate stewards of the environment.

  • Barbara Brown Nature Reserve

This area at the Southern end of the Garden will allow visitors the opportunity to enjoy a bird sanctuary that was overgrown and not easily accessible. This reserve will introduce a new area of the Garden and the hobby of birding to many, building upon the Garden’s commitment to educate and expand visitors’ knowledge of nature and the natural world.

  • Bridge from Evening Island to the Plant Science Center

The science at the Garden helps visitors understand the role plants play in their daily lives – from medicinal purposes to water conservation. A bridge connecting Evening Island to the Evaluation Garden will provide greater access to the Plant Science Center. The Science Center allows visitors the opportunity to see science and to understand how the Chicago Botanic Garden is not just a pretty place, but a one that is vital to the survival of the planet. The Science Center will expose more visitors to our conservation science position and will encourage visitors of all ages to participate in more Garden-based education and conservation programs.

  • Gift Cards

By instituting an electronic gift certificate program, the Garden will no longer issue any refunds, but rather credit on a gift card (like a retail store) which can be used towards future purchases of items, memberships, classes, etc. This system will allow the Garden to keep more of its earned income, since often the percentage of gift cards issued is higher than those redeemed.

    1. The Garden will make notable advancements toward making its visitor operations 100% waste- and emissions-free and will serve as a leading educational resource by conducting programs that visitors can participate in, learn from, and model at home to live more environmentally conscious lives.

  • The Garden should be educating the public about its own on-site conservation procedures. We want visitors to understand that the Garden uses horticultural techniques, recycling practices and water, energy and fertilizer protocols that are environmentally friendly. We should encourage visitors to incorporate many of these practices into their own life style. We should also include this information on signs, brochures, and tours and through other programs. The following visitor events and programs will help to do all this:

  • On-Site Transportation

Sustainable visitor/staff transportation methods should be a focus as the Garden seeks to supplement the current tram offerings or replacing them. For example, the solar shuttle utilized during the first few months of the Plant Science Center (Sept. – Oct. 2009) is an example of a sustainable vehicle which met the needs of acting as a complimentary shuttle transporting visitors to and from the Visitor Center and Science Center. While it only holds thirteen passengers, the size and ease of use met the demand without wasteful practices. For staff, the creation of a bike check-out program should be put in place so that staff can check out a bike for use on the grounds for getting to/from the North and South ends along approved bikeways.

  • Farmers’ Markets

This visitor program exemplifies the Garden’s message that buying locally grown food, utilizing sustainable methods is healthy for your lifestyle and the environment. This simple program brings in various vendors, including the Garden’s own Green Youth Farm, who sell produce, herbs, flowers, meats and baked goods from within a 125 miles radius of the Garden. By making it easy for visitors to access these items, the Garden is exposing and educating visitors about a different way to live their lives, which in effect, has a positive impact all around.

  • Plant Pot Container Recycling

This program allows people to bring in their plant pots to the Garden after the spring planting season to be recycled. This is an educational experience as well as a type of community service. Many people do not know that their local collector of recycled materials will not take most plastic plant pots. In addition, there are not many places where people can them take these materials. Through other Garden programs, like the Bloomin’ Sale, we promote this event and educate the public.

  • Conservation Events

Ideally, a “Conservation Day” at the Garden will invite visitors to participate in a variety of fun conservation activities which will reinforce our position on conservation science.

  • The Garden Café

With the movement to eat local and sustainably grown foods, the Garden Café should not be looked at as visitor amenity, but rather as a teaching experience. Visitors should be eating food that is either grown by the Garden’s own programs (i.e., Green Youth Farm) or purveyed, whenever possible, from local farms. By not selling bottled water or giving visitors straws or lids for their cold drinks, the Garden Café is leading and educating by example. Signage indicates the reasons for the Garden’s actions. These teaching moments are meant to help visitors mimic these behaviors their own lives. When the Garden is able to compost food scraps and disposable service ware, this will further educate visitors about these environmentally sound processes. We also aspire for a renovated Café commensurate with the high Garden standard we are setting.

  • The Garden Shop

With many items made from natural or recycled materials, the Garden Shop is no longer just a place to buy gifts. Instead it is a place for visitors to see and learn about the numerous products that are in the marketplace which are sustainable or are made with sustainable practices. Whenever possible, and as much as possible, all items sold in the Shop should keep the environment top-of-mind in that they are made from a high level of recycled content (i.e., greeting cards made from 30% recycled content), natural materials utilizing sustainable methods (i.e., organic cotton T’s), locally , or educate about the environment (i.e., books).

2.12 The Garden will develop more ways to generate earned revenue outside of on-site visitor programs to add to the long-term financial security of the Garden.

  • Product Development

  • Chicagoland Grows – expansion of this successful Chicago Botanic Garden/Morton Arboretum/Ornamental Growers’ Association

  • Product licensing of rare book images in consumer goods (i.e., home goods)

  • Branded products with Garden photography (i.e., personalized calendars and note cards, mugs, etc.)

  • Services Development

  • A Garden branded flower stand at Chicago’s major airports.

  • Development of a partnership with funeral homes and the Private & Corporate Events department for memorial services, etc. (this could link to the Garden’s Tribute program)

  • Expansion of current successful Garden horticultural therapy services to senior living facilities.

  • Expansion of Corporate Campus gardens/food growing sites, utilizing the Windy City Harvest model.

  • Expansion of the Garden’s successful wellness programs to include other audiences (i.e., yoga for young moms or kids, mat Pilates).

  • Chicago Botanic Garden branded “green roof gardens” – utilizing the expertise that is being developed from the Garden’s green roof garden (could link to Chicagoland Grows in above section).

  • Garden branded organic compost, made from the Garden’s own Café waste.

  • Retooling of Green Youth Farm to develop a more sustainable financial model, whereby sales to various populations and retail entities make up a larger portion of the program’s sales, and thus reduce the need for other operating dollar support.

  • Expansion of the Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest programs so that the social well-being focus of the program can be funded through for-profit activities, like selling produce to restaurants.

  • Garden-licensed courses and certificate programs offered online. 

  • Publications/Video Development

  • Book about the Chicago Botanic Garden bonsai collection

  • Book on the history of the Chicago Botanic Garden

  • History of the Chicago Botanic Garden video

  • A television series for PBS, called In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens of the World

  • Garden branded cookbooks

  • Garden photo contest that could result in development of a book of the winner’s work


By creating strong mission-oriented programs, amenities and events, delivering them with the high standard for which the Garden is known, and executing effective marketing campaigns to drive traffic and loyalty, the Garden will become even more popularly cited as one of the great gardens of the world and a must-see treasure of Chicago.

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