While heritage tourism development had been an eligible activity for the Historic Site Management (planning) grants since 2000, the Historic Trust had not funded a single proposal that contained a substantial tourism component. When the Trust designated heritage tourism as one of its special “initiatives” for the 2005 grant round, it received several proposals that had tourism components, but the Camden proposal was the only project that was specifically designed to create a public tour experience.
The $24,000 grant from the 2005 grant round of the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund helped fund the planning, development and implementation of a bus tour that included the state-owned Whitman House in Camden, privately-owned Harleigh Cemetery and nonprofit-owned Pomona Hall, an early Quaker residence and home to the Camden County Historical Society and its substantial collection of Camden history.
Of additional interest to the NJ Historic Trust is that two ofthe sites, the Walt Whtman House and Pomona Hall, had previously received grants from the Trust for restoration work.
SJTC, a marketing and tourism specialist, coordinated the activity among the three sites and with a varied group of consultants that included a project coordinator, two graduate researchers, a professional script writer and several professional tour leaders. The challenge of the project was to create an entertaining, informative, and tangible tour experience that would allow visitors to appreciate the historic buildings within the overarching theme of Whitman’s life and poetry, and within the context of the rich history of the city of Camden.
Test Tours and Responses
The overall experience as evaluated by the visitors who took the tour was overwhelmingly positive and rewarding. Consistently, the visitors rated the tour as "better than expected” and would unanimously recommend it to others. The first phase of the project implemented four test tours, one of which coordinated with the Historic Preservation Office's Camden conference on heritage tourism in New Jersey.
Highlights of the visitor experience included:
- Knowledgeable site guides at the restored Walt Whitman house
- Dramatic appearance of a Walt Whitman reenactor at the Whitman mausoleum in the cemetery – visitors enjoyed the photo opportunty and interactive experience
- The Historical Society’s exhibits of Whitman-related memorabilia
- Enthusiastic and professional tour guides.
Of course, there were also challenges both in the planning and implementation of the tours. Coordinating the presentations at the three sites so they would not overlap information and would complement each other’s presentation was the goal of the researchers and project coordinator.
While the project originally called for recruiting and training local tour leaders, this was not able to be accomplished in the time frame of this first phase. Professional tour leaders were contracted. The tour leader’s role was to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics (Camden’s history, river transportation, industrial development, Whitman’s life and poetry, etc.) and be flexible enough to respond to visitor inquiries and keep the tours running efficiently.
Since SJTC marketed the tour through the Internet, direct mailing and numerous press articles that appeared both nationally and locally, the group received many requests to continue the tour, especially for school groups. In phase two of the project, the grantee will conduct two additional tours for groups, and a third specifically designed for a student audience. These work products and evaluations will be incorporated into the final report to the NJ Historic Trust.
Upon the conclusion of this heritage tourism project, the Historic Trust will offer the learning experience of this project to help guide the development of other heritage tourism work products.