With technology, Norfolk Botanical Garden provides safe escape for growing fan base.
In seeking to stay open and best serve the public during the pandemic, Norfolk Botanical Garden staff began to explore new pathways. A seamless shift to advance online ticket sales with Blackbaud Altru® facilitated touchless entry with fewer backups at the gate and should boost membership numbers as well.
Norfolk Botanical Garden became a respite from COVID-19 for its community by continuing to provide outdoor access to its 175-acre property and 15 miles of pathways from the earliest days of the crisis. “As we considered if we could stay open and how we could best serve the public, we were constantly challenging ourselves as to how we get to yes and how we to get yes safely,” Chief Financial Officer Peter Schmidt explained.
Thankfully, staff found answers in Blackbaud Altru’s cloud-based solution for ticketing, fundraising, and membership management, with a critical shift to advance online ticketing—an option the garden previously offered only for special events such as holiday lights. “It was so easy and quick for us to do. It was largely seamless,” Schmidt said.
The adaptation allowed for an admissions experience that was safer and more expedient, with visits in May exceeding 41,000, a 27% increase over the previous May. Just as staff found themselves encouraging visitors to veer off pathways to allow everyone space, they realized they were veering from their usual paths as well, inspired to use technology in new, resilient ways.
“The pandemic forced our hand to some degree and certainly opened our eyes,” Schmidt said. “Blackbaud played a role in our response that was inspirational.
Meeting Challenges with Resilience
Norfolk Botanical Garden seeks to immerse visitors in a world of beauty, lead through environmental action, and inspire through education and connection to nature. The largest botanical garden in Virginia, the nonprofit attraction offers more than 60 themed gardens, including its Bicentennial Rose Garden, 3-acre WOW Children’s Garden, and WPA Memorial Garden honoring more than 200 African Americans, mostly women, who created the original garden during the Depression through the Works Progress Administration.
“Honestly, when you are in the garden, it’s this oasis,” said Kelly Welsh, marketing and communications director. “We have lots of places within the garden where you can escape, and we have something for everyone.” The property is uniquely surrounded on three sides by water and, in addition to its pathways, has a system of canals. Opportunities include sunset kayaking, bike hours, and Sunday Dog Days.
When COVID-19 forced social distancing measures, Norfolk Botanical Garden closed its indoor facilities to the public and sought to boost educational enrichment online but for its outdoor offerings followed the State of Virginia’s lead in keeping parks open. Guests expressing thanks referred to the garden as “a respite,” Schmidt said, “and we embraced that idea.”
At first, the attraction scaled back hours while implementing adaptations to keep visitors, staff, and volunteers safe. “Blackbaud was most beneficial with the ease of setting up our advanced ticket offering for our guests,” Schmidt said. “We reconfigured the online option for special events tickets to use on a daily basis and support ‘touchless’ entry into the garden. Existing systems were reconfigured allowing us to scan both membership cards and the online advanced tickets from a safe distance.”
As Norfolk Botanical Garden got the message out about COVID-19 changes through its website, social media, and email marketing, the percentage of prepaid tickets online grew over the course of six weeks to 70% by mid-April, with the trend continuing in May as the garden returned to normal hours with a jump in attendance.
Converting Visitors to Members
An immediate bonus: Backups at the gate—which could grow to 10–20 vehicles before the pandemic, when most guests paid for admission onsite—nearly disappeared. And the overall positive impact of advance ticketing, which also can be timed to space out visitor arrivals, inspired staff to answer other challenges with technology—for example, shifting an annual spring plant sale online.
As it moves forward, Norfolk Botanical Garden wants to take part in Blackbaud’s early adopter program for Payment Terminal, which provides a touchless credit card experience for those guests who are still showing up at the gate without pre-paid tickets or who want to make other purchases on site. Payment Terminal is a capability that will be offered to Altru customers also using Blackbaud Merchant Services™ for payment processing.
Schmidt is also exploring how Altru applications can amplify membership totals—which are already growing in number, thanks to increased visitation during the pandemic.
A longtime strategy has been to allow guests to put a percentage of their admission cost toward a membership before they leave. With the data provided by online ticketing, staff can use Altru’s email marketing tools to reach those guests who don’t take advantage of that opportunity and remind them of the advantages of membership. “Having the ability of that dataset now is really helpful,” Schmidt said.
In addition, Schmidt said Norfolk Botanical Garden plans to move to an electronic renewal process for members that’s paperless, rather than relying on old-school mailers that require envelope stuffing and postage—a move that fits with the garden’s environmental priorities. “Again,” Schmidt explained, “it all goes back to how the pandemic really challenged us to think about things differently.”
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