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Museums Find Value in Trips for Members

Much has been written in this magazine about travel and how it is used to build member engagement by banks, chambers of commerce and universities. You can add museums to that list. During and after the recent American Alliance of Museums 2015 Annual Meeting and Museum Expo held April 26-29 in Atlanta, I spoke with several museum professionals about their travel programs and what they accomplish for their institutions.

“We certainly don’t do it for the money,” said Henry Moy, director of Museum of the Red River in Idabel, Oklahoma, of his museum’s longstanding travel program.  “In fact, we don’t even use the comps many others do for the leader of the group. My museum prefers to pay my way. We’re traveling primarily to visit other museums. Our trips are intensive — not leisurely at all.”

The common objective expressed by museum professionals for their travel programs is to create greater member engagement through shared enlightenment. Traveling with donors and supporters is used as a means of establishing personal relationships and building bonds to the museum.

“We use our trips, especially those for patrons and leadership circle members, for relationship building,” said Amy Purvis, chief development officer for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “Our director came here from the Met, and it worked there, so he brought it here. He and I go along on the leadership circle trips — it’s about shared experiences and personal engagement with major supporters.”

The Museum of the Red River and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston illustrate well the commonality of purpose for travel programs for museums regardless of size. Moy’s museum is an “ethnographic” art museum that collects Native American art and art indigenous to other parts of the world. Headquartered in a tiny town in southeastern Oklahoma, they do not have members but have developed a devoted following of Native American art enthusiasts from across the country.

Purvis’ museum is one of the largest in the United States and is the oldest art museum in Texas. They currently have 28,000 members and more than 60,000 works of art in their collection. Yet both museums have the same core goals for their travel programs.

Moy’s trips usually attract about dozen travelers, which is a number he likes. He personally escorts his groups.

“I’m the baby sitter,” he said good-naturedly. “I have a core group that travels with me, including friends of the museum from as far away as Connecticut. We’ve been doing this for 20 years or more. We use several travel agents or tour operators, depending on where we’re going. We’ve been to Peru several times, to southeast Asia, did the museums of St. Petersburg and Vienna and numerous others across Europe and Central America.

“We usually sign up 16 or so and will have three or four fall out for health reasons or whatever,” he said. “We just returned from a trip to England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These trips aren’t for the faint of heart. It’s not unusual for us to visit five museums in a day.”

Purvis and her director recently took a small group of influential donors to Paris for a week. Their major supporters want exclusive access; they expect an insiders view of a city like Paris. These are stewardship trips and expense is really not an issue.  As such, these trips never show up on the museum’s website.

But Purvis is also in the process of restructuring an annual series of trips for members of the museum that will not be as customized as those she offers her major donors. Those trips will and already do show up on her website, under a link titled “Members Travel.” Most recently, a group left April 30 for two weeks in Italy.

“We will be offering maybe three trips a year for our members,” she said. “Those will be pre-packaged trips offered by a tour company or companies that won’t be so exclusive,” she said. “We want to offer that benefit to our members for the same reasons we do the other trips — it’s a benefit of museum membership and builds bonds to the museum. They’ll be traveling with other museum members. We’ll probably buy into a tour operator’s trip, and our members will go with a larger group.”