The trailblazing project is now engaging over 5,000 of the region's families with culture. So what happens next?
Since October 2014, families have been signing up free to Family Explorers North East, receive hand-picked recommendations from cultural venues and sites across the region every fortnight, making choosing days out quicker and easier for busy families.
They have been sharing reviews of their visits through the Family Explorers Facebook Group so others can see honest and unbiased recommendations from families just like them. Research shows that this helps them feel more confident about trying somewhere new.
Where it all began
The first manifestation of Family Explorers North East began back in 2011 as an NGCV project with just a handful of families. Originally named 'Culture Window', the pilot was later scaled up to include 200 families. In October 2014 independent evaluation by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre and FloCulture revealed the project had 'succeeded in promoting ‘cultural confidence' and so it was opened up to all North East families. (Read the whole report here)
Wind forward 2 years and there are over 5,000 Family Explorers and member organisations include all NGCV members' venues, museums, galleries and heritage sites, as well as major venues across the region like Beamish, Woodhorn and ranging from Preston Park in the south to Hadrian's Wall and Berwick in the North (full list below).
How it works
The premise behind the project is on the surface simple. Its aim is to help families become more culturally adventurous. Initial research showed that families felt overwhelmed by the choice of places to visit so they found it easier to stick with those they knew and loved.
They also were put off if there wasn't enough practical information available to plan a visit or if there was doubt about what to expect when they got there. Perhaps most importantly, their strongest incentive to try something new was recommendation from a trusted peer. Harnessing peer-to-peer recommendation is the cornerstone of Family Explorers North East. Through the Facebook group, families can recommend days out to one another and give warts and all reviews of anything they've tried.
We help them with their choice of cultural experiences by recommending venues and events on the group and through a fortnightly e-newsletter and there's a website that lists the member organisations and the sites and venues people can visit (we call them 'Brilliant Places'), as well as providing the practical information families need to plan their visits.
What we know so far
So is it working? Are families really becoming more culturally confident? Who are these families? This is what we want to find out for sure in the next phase of the project. We're applying for funding to carry out intensive research on how the project's doing, look at options to scale it up further and see what we can learn from conversations the families are having.
Kate Edwards, CEO of Seven Stories and Chair of the project's Steering Group said: "Family Explorers North East is a fantastic example of partnership working leading to excellence and efficiency in broadening cultural engagement with a vital audience. The strength of the partnership does enable us to innovate and we have heard that the Family Explorers model is envied in some other regions."
The anecdotal evidence is strong. Since the project became public, there is no evidence of reduced engagement - despite the hugely increased audience, newsletter open rates remain the same at over 30% (above the 'industry average').
The Facebook Group is vibrant, busy, mutually supportive and fast becoming THE place to ask questions about north east family days out and see independent recommendations from others.
There are plenty of posts recommending activities by the member organisations and lots of examples of people acknowledging in posts that they discovered something new after hearing about it on the group or the e-newsletter. For example:
"I can honestly say that a theatre trip (other than panto) as an activity for us as a family had never really crossed my mind but I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Thank you so much..." Kerry O'Dowd on The Savage at Live Theatre
"...my weekends would be so dull without your fab suggestions." Catherine Lewis
"...wanted to say thank you. Based on recommendations here we spent the day at Preston Park and had an amazing time...' Hannah Sorley on Preston Park
"Thanks everyone for the suggestions. We went to the Baltic. It was great in the playground area and I have lots of ideas for other days now too." Emma Daglish
"I read about the Dance City Easter school in one of the Family Explorer emails so I booked it for my 2 daughters. They absolutely loved it - so much so they want me to book them in for one of the summer weeks too." Amanda Jamieson
"...I'm going to book it, sounds perfect... Brilliant that I can use this page to ask and get great responses so fast, thank u x Lucy Judge on Stephenson Railway Museum's Santa Specials
"Family Explorers is a brilliant resource and the families tell us it makes them feel much better connected." Hannah McKay Jackson, Project Coordinator, Shipley Art Gallery
It is great to now see evidence emerging of the Facebook Group users becoming more confident over time - there are conversations that show people discovering something new on the group, then making repeat visits to the venue or event and recommending it to others.
This includes some of the families involved at the very beginning who we know for sure were not confident about visiting new places, now keenly discovering many cultural experiences, urging others to go and becoming 'Family Explorers' in its truest sense.
Spreading the benefit
Member organisations are also offering positive feedback after seeing clear evidence of families visiting because of the project. And we're grateful for the support we've had from like-minded organisations. Through dialogue with them we are working to ensure learning is shared, activities are joined up, no wheels are reinvented and we can make the most of opportunities to work together.
Thanks to advice from Culture Bridge North East, Family Explorers North East is now an official 'Arts Award Supporter'. We are drawing up plans to work with the region's Creative People and Places projects and are recommended by Newcastle City Council's Families Information Service .
Word is getting out beyond our immediate networks too and we're seeing frequent approaches from other organisations who've heard about its effectiveness and want a piece of the action - English Heritage North East were the latest example, now a member.
There have been enquiries from several cultural engagement initiatives outside of the region, interested in how we do it, from Bristol down to Kent and over to Brussels.
Back at home, Arts Council England (ACE) have admired this example of partnership working and cited the project as a model of best practice for digitally engaging families. We were pleased to be on the panel of keynote speakers at the Family Arts Campaign national conference. We work closely with the national Family Arts Campaign and all member organisations are obliged to sign up to the Family Arts Standards.
The signs suggest the project is a national trailblazer and proving to be a powerful tool for widening the reach of our region's outstanding cultural offer (At the time of writing, familyexplorers.co.uk is top of the Google rankings for the search term 'Brilliant Places').
But we're very much looking forward to delving more deeply to find out what Family Explorers North East will reveal.
To get in touch, contact project coordinator Sallyanne Flemons at mailto:email@example.com
Members, venues and heritage sites involved in Family Explorers North East (up to September 2016)