Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 22, Number 1
Predicting Intentions to Return to a Nature Center after an Interpretive Special Event
Austin G. Barrett
Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management
The Pennsylvania State University
801 Ford Building
University Park, PA 16802
Andrew J. Mowen
Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management
The Pennsylvania State University
Alan R. Graefe
Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management
The Pennsylvania State University
With the continued rise in screen media use and growing disconnect between youth and nature, the importance of community nature centers in providing natural experiences is increasingly recognized. Even so, many nature centers struggle to maintain public support and funds necessary for continued operations. One way for nature centers to engender public support and further their fundraising potential is through interpretive special events. This study seeks to understand whether (and how) interpretive outcomes of an interpretive special event relate to visitors’ intentions to return to a nature center in the future. The relationship between place attachment and intentions to return was also tested. Results show that affective interpretive outcomes, more than the program-specific outcomes or place attachment, had the strongest effects on intentions to return to the center. This finding was particularly true among new visitors to the nature center. Based on our findings, in addition to providing interpretive messages focused on specific resources, interpretive managers who are interested in increasing repeat visitation to their nature centers should consider placing an even higher priority on programs that create enjoyable and meaningful experiences for visitors.
community nature centers, interpretive outcomes, place attachment, special events, festivals, intentions to return
Much has been written about the need for humans to maintain a bond and connection with the natural world (Leopold, 1949; Wilson, 1986). However, recently there has been a pronounced shift away from or disconnect with nature, particularly among youth (Louv, 2005; Pergams & Zaradic, 2006, 2008). Environmental literacy, defined as a basic understanding of environmental concepts, has been shown to be poor among the American population (Coyle, 2005). Studies suggest that this shift away from the outdoors has been associated with an increase in time spent engaged with screen media, such as video games, watching TV, and surfing the Internet (Pergams & Zaradic, 2006, 2008). In our technological society, it is increasingly more important for people, especially youth, to have experiences in the natural world (Louv, 2005). One such place these connections can readily and frequently occur is at local or community nature centers.
According to the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA), a nature center “serves its community and fosters sustainable connections between people and their environment” (ANCA, 2005). Due to their proximity to population centers and their general accessibility to the public, nature centers have the potential to provide a number of critical personal and societal benefits. Some of these benefits include increasing environmental literacy through educational/interpretive programming, fostering a connection to nature, and providing opportunities for family bonding (Price, 2010; Simmons, 1991).
Browning (2015) identified four types of values community members believe their nature centers provide. These include: environmental connection, leisure provision, community resilience, and civic consciousness. “Environmental connection,” which included providing access to nature, encouraging pro-environmental behavior, and increasing environmental awareness, was considered the most important service nature centers provide. “Leisure provision” (e.g. providing a place to exercise, relax, and participate in outdoor recreation) and “community resilience” (e.g. contributing to the local economy, making the community more beautiful, developing a sense of community pride) were also identified as important services provided by nature centers. In regards to how well respondents believed their nature centers provided these types of services, “environmental connection” rose to the top, followed closely by “leisure provision” (Browning, 2015).
For local nature centers to deliver on these personal, community, and environmental services, they need to remain relevant to and supported by their local communities. In addition, many nature centers are reliant on fundraising through private donations. Repeat visitation can be a way to develop a more committed donor base and expand fundraising efforts. To do this, they rely on frequent and repeat visitation as a means to grow their membership by attracting new members/users and continuously engaging with existing ones. Nature centers, however, not only strive to connect people to nature, they also try to connect people to the physical location (both natural and man-made). Previous research has shown that the more exposure people have to a nature-based setting, the higher their attachment with that place becomes (Moore & Graefe, 1994). Developing this type of place attachment to a community nature center might in turn inspire visitors to care more about the center, visit it more frequently, and financially support the center.
One way that nature center staff have the potential to enhance the public’s attachment to these centers as well as encourage repeat visitation is through regular interpretive programming. These programs take the form of personal interpretation such as talks, illustrated programs, and guided hikes, as well as non-personal interpretation such as written materials, museum exhibits, and technological media content. Another way that nature centers provide interpretive services to the public is through periodic interpretive special events and festivals. These events attract a large number of attendees during a short amount of time and are a way to engage with new and frequent visitors alike. The majority of these special events or festivals combine elements of interpretation and entertainment to create an enjoyable educational experience.
The festival literature has shown that satisfactory experiences at festivals positively relate to loyalty and revisit intentions (Baker & Crompton, 2000; Lee, Lee, Lee, & Babin, 2008). Yoon, Lee, and Lee (2010) found satisfaction at a festival event predicted 77% percent of the variance in respondents’ festival loyalty. Cole and Chancellor (2009) likewise found satisfaction with the festival event to relate to revisit intentions. Interestingly, they also found the entertainment qualities of the festival event was a direct and significant predictor of intentions to revisit (Cole & Chancellor, 2009). Perceptions of overall festival quality (Lee & Beller, 2009) and positive emotions (Lee et al., 2008) were also found to be related to future visit intentions. Considering this literature, hosting high-quality festival events could encourage future visitation at nature centers.
Even though many nature centers across the United States provide these types of interpretive special events with the intention of fostering repeat visitation, little is known about the outcomes associated with these events and what types of visitor outcomes inspire or encourage interpretive festival attendees to return to the nature center in the future. Within the interpretive literature, outcomes related to the content of specific interpretive programs have been widely studied (Madin & Fenton, 2004; Orams, 1997; Powell & Ham, 2008), but have not been related to visitors’ intentions to return. Further, some scholars have claimed that general affective outcomes, or how a person feels after a program ends, contributes to their satisfaction with an interpretive experience (de Rojas & Camarero, 2008) and what they remember the longest after the program is completed (Knapp, 2007). More research, however, is needed to understand if these feelings or affective outcomes are, like place attachment, similarly related to intentions to return to an interpretive site, such as a community nature center. Previous research has shown that place attachment predicts intentions to return to various recreational settings (Alexandris, Kouthouris, & Meligdis, 2006; Lee, Graefe, & Burns, 2007; Lee & Shen, 2013; Yoon & Kyle, 2009), but we do not know if this relationship is consistent within the context of a nature center.
To address these issues, the purpose of this study is to understand the factors that influence visitors’ self-reported intentions to return to a nature center after their participation in an interpretive special event. Program-content interpretive outcomes (i.e., outcomes specifically related to content of the interpretive program) are considered. Affective interpretive outcomes (i.e., general affective outcomes of how the interpretive program made visitors feel about their visit) are also considered. Finally, a visitor’s level of place attachment (their emotional and functional connection to the community nature center) is considered. Also of interest is if there were differences in the relationships between the study variables based on whether a respondent was a new or repeat visitor. The following research questions are addressed:
R1: Are program-content interpretive outcomes related to intentions to return to a nature center?
R2: Are affective interpretive outcomes related to intentions to return to a nature center?
R3: Is a visitor’s level of place attachment to a nature center related to intentions to return to that center?
R4: Which of the three domains has the strongest relationship with intentions to return to a nature center?
R5: Are there differences in the relationships tested in R4 based on visitor type (repeat vs. new visitor)?
By understanding the relationship between these experiential interpretive outcomes and subsequent behavioral intentions (e.g., to return to the nature center), this study could inform the design of interpretive special events to increase the likelihood that a visitor will return to their nature center in the future. This study will identify which event outcomes are more effective in inspiring repeat community nature center visits. Additionally, this study will show if there are differences in the relationship between event outcomes and intentions to return based on visitor type. With this knowledge, practitioners can tailor interpretive programs to intentionally emphasize certain types of interpretive outcomes among special event attendees. Ideally, inspiring repeat visitation among both new and returning visitors through targeted interpretive programs might have the potential to yield a higher level of community and financial support for the nature center.
The Outcomes of Interpretation
Understanding the outcomes of interpretation has long been of interest to researchers, practitioners, and educators (Brochu & Merriman, 2008; Ham, 1992, 2013; Ham & Weiler, 2006; Knudson, Cable, & Beck, 2003; Stern & Powell, 2013; Tilden, 1977; Wagar, 1976; Ward & Wilkinson, 2006). Typical outcome measures used to evaluate interpretive programs include: changes in visitors’ satisfaction, awareness, knowledge, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors (Skibins, Powell, & Stern, 2012). In a meta-analysis of interpretation evaluation studies, Skibins and colleagues (2012) found interpretive programs generally yielded positive outcomes. Programs were particularly successful in providing outcomes such as satisfaction (91% of studies evaluated), awareness (90%), and knowledge (89%; Skibins, Powell, & Stern, 2012). Interpretive programs studied in these evaluations were less consistent in providing outcomes related to intentions (73%), behaviors (69%), and attitudes (68%; Skibins, Powell, & Stern, 2012).
Other research on interpretive outcomes has shown that interpretive programming is particularly effective at increasing short-term knowledge gain (Beaumont, 2001; Knapp & Barrie, 2001; Powell & Ham, 2008; Sharp, Larson, Green, & Tomek, 2012). Additional studies indicate interpretation has the potential to positively influence visitors’ attitudes (Cable, Knudson, Udd, & Stewart, 1987), behaviors (Orams, 1997), and level of nature connection (Burbach, Pennisi, West, & Ziegler-Chong, 2012). Powell and Ham (2008) studied interpretation’s ability to influence behavioral intentions to participate in conservation behaviors and philanthropically support conservation initiatives. Based on a pre/post comparison, they found interpretive programming positively influenced participants’ behavioral intentions (Powell & Ham, 2008). Despite this literature on interpretation evaluation, Munro, Morrison-Saunders, and Hughes (2008) conclude outside of short-term knowledge gain, there is less evidence about the ability of interpretation to consistently provide all of these types of outcomes.
Though many scholars have shown interpretive programming can be effective in helping people learn about content covered in a program and potentially influence their attitudes towards those resources, some research indicates that how visitors feel after attendance to an interpretive program stays with them the longest (Knapp & Benton, 2006). Knapp (2007) describes a number of interpretive studies about the long-range (episodic) memories visitors have from their participation in an interpretive program. Knapp’s (2007) qualitative studies frequently indicate the emotional or affective components of interpretive programs are what visitors retain months and even years after their interpretive program experience. However, none of these interpretive research studies have explored how interpretive outcomes (both content specific and general affective outcomes) relate to intentions to return to an interpretive site in the future.
Place Attachment: Applications to Interpretation and Behavioral Intentions
Place attachment has received a considerable amount of research interest over the past 30 years within the fields of environmental psychology and leisure studies. Place attachment is generally referred to as the emotional and functional connections people have to a specific location (Altman & Low, 1992). Place attachment recognizes that places are special and have inherent value beyond tangible resources (Tuan, 1977). The place identity and place dependence sub-dimensions are most frequently operationalized within leisure studies (Kyle, Graefe, Manning, & Bacon, 2003) and environmental education research (Vaske & Korbin, 2001). Place identity represents the emotional importance of a place and its power to give purpose and meaning to one’s life (Williams & Vaske, 2003). Place dependence is a functional attachment a person feels towards a place because of the place’s ability to provide conditions that support specific activity goals or desires (Williams & Vaske, 2003).
Despite its popularity in natural resource recreation literature, studies of place attachment within interpretation have been more limited. When it has been considered, there has been conflicting evidence concerning the ability of interpretation to increase visitors’ place attachment. Morgan (2009) found visitors’ place attachment levels were not significantly different before or after an interpretive cave tour. Kudryavtsev et al. (2012) also found a similar lack of increase in place attachment levels after participation in a five-week urban environmental education camp.
Other studies, however, indicate interpretation can increase place satisfaction amongst visitors (Ramkissoon, Smith, & Weiler, 2013). Research by Wolf, Stricker, and Hagenloh (2014) indicated that visitors to national parks in Australia who participated in an interpretive tour experienced increases in place attachment to these parks. Additionally, Hwang, Lee, and Chen (2005) found that place attachment and tourists’ level of involvement were significant predictors of overall satisfaction with an interpretive program. While Stewart et al. (1998) did not find participation in interpretive programs increased sense of place, they did conclude visitors to Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand developed an appreciation of place. This appreciation of place related to caring about and valuing the park’s resources.
Though these findings are intriguing, there continues to be limited research that applies the place attachment constructs to evaluating the outcomes of interpretive services, particularly special events at a community nature center. As such, Morgan (2009) calls for more studies that measure the relationship between interpretation and place attachment (p. 56). No interpretation study, to our knowledge, has attempted to understand the relationship between place attachment and intentions to return to the setting where the interpretive program took place.
Related research has shown place attachment to be an important predictor of intentions to revisit tourism destinations (Alshemeili, 2014; Prayag & Ryan, 2012) and outdoor recreation areas (Alexandris, Kouthouris, & Meligdis, 2006; Lee & Shen, 2013; Yoon & Kyle, 2009). Yoon and Kyle (2009) found that place satisfaction was the most significant predictor of recreationists’ intentions to return to a recreation area. Lee and Shen (2013) found that both place identity and place dependence were significant predictors of attitudinal loyalty (i.e., attitude and behavior intentions) towards revisiting urban parks. Finally, Prayag and Ryan (2012) also show that place attachment was a strong predictor of visitor intentions to revisit a tourism resort.
Summary of the Literature Reviewed
Collectively, the literature indicates that interpretation has the potential to deliver a number of positive outcomes for program participants. Most of the outcomes detailed in the literature focus on knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions related to the content of interpretive programs. Less is known about the overall affective outcomes of participating in an interpretive experience. Neither of these outcomes (program specific and affective outcomes) have been related to intentions to return to an interpretive site. Additionally, the positive relationship between place attachment and intentions to revisit tourism and recreation sites has been previously established. This relationship, however, has not been tested in a nature center setting.
This study took place at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center (SCEC) in central Pennsylvania, USA. SCEC is a unit of The Pennsylvania State University housed within the Division of Outreach and Online Education. SCEC serves more than 46,000 Penn State University Park students (Penn State University Budget Office, 2015), the 150,000 residents of Centre County, PA and the 46,000 residents of Huntingdon County, PA (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). SCEC is financially supported by The Pennsylvania State University through enrollment in credit-bearing courses. Shaver’s Creek offers “fun and educational environmental programs and events for the whole community” (SCEC, 2012). One such educational community event that SCEC hosts annually is the Maple Harvest Festival. The Maple Harvest Festival is held in late March and has been a staple program of the Center since 1984. The festival is an interpretive special event that educates attendees about the history and process of creating maple syrup from the tree to the table.
Interpretive Program Description
Five Maple Trail interpretive stations are one of the main features of the Maple Harvest Festival. The first station focuses on the cultural history associated with maple sugaring. This station includes first-person costumed interpreters re-enacting traditional ways of tapping trees and boiling sap. The second station centers on identifying sugar maple trees. Interpreters first present the characteristics of sugar maple trees (size, leaves, and bark) and then lead visitors on a brief interpretive walk along the trail to identify nearby sugar maples. The third station describes the sugar maple tapping process. This station uses demonstration tree trunks and props to convey when to tap a tree (based on season and temperature changes), deciding where on the tree to insert the spile, and how to insert the spile into the tree. The various methods of collecting sap from sugar maples are covered in station four. Visitors learn about small-scale sap collection techniques (such as using metal buckets) and large-scale/industrial sap collection methods (utilizing a system of tubes and vats). Both sap collection methodologies are exhibited onsite. The fifth and final station includes a live demonstration of how to boil sap down into syrup utilizing a large outdoor wood stove. This station also includes a taste-test component where visitors can taste and smell the difference between pure maple syrup and syrup made from processed ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup.
The Maple Trail interpretive stations are designed and presented by Penn State undergraduate students enrolled in a credit-bearing interpretation methods course. These students are trained in interpretive methods as well as content knowledge related to the history and process of maple sugaring. The instructor of the course is an NAI Certified Interpretive Trainer and evaluated the Maple Trail to meet the standards of an effective interpretive program (including the use of tangible resources, intangible concepts, and universal messages to convey a coherent interpretive theme). Not only did the stations provide information about the maple sugaring process, there was an overarching interpretive theme that tied the stations together: “Maple sugaring is a process that sustains people and protects forests.”
Data Collection Procedures
This study utilized a convenience sample of Maple Harvest Festival attendees to gather feedback on their festival experience. Visitors were approached as they were leaving the 2014 Maple Harvest Festival on both Saturday, March 22, and Sunday, March 23. Any and all adult visitors (18 years or older) were considered potential study subjects. The first author and a research associate attempted to intercept as many visitors as possible during the two-day festival. Once initial contact was made, potential respondents were asked if they would like to provide feedback on their Maple Harvest Festival experience. Those who were willing to participate supplied their email address. A total of 264 email addresses were collected. On the following Monday morning (March 24th) invitations to participate in an online survey were sent to the 264 potential respondents utilizing the Qualtrics online survey software platform. Two follow-up reminders were sent three and four days apart to encourage participation in the online survey. The survey was closed to new participants on April 3 and a total of 188 responses recorded, yielding a response rate of 71%.
Survey Instrument Measurement
The online survey instrument utilized in this study included a number of questions used to evaluate the visitor experience at the Maple Harvest Festival. For the purposes of this analysis, three main constructs will be utilized. These constructs included interpretive outcome measures, place attachment measures, and intentions to return measures. The survey also collected respondent characteristics (e.g. age, sex, visitor type, and affiliation with Penn State).
Interpretive Outcome Measures
Twelve items were used to document the interpretive outcomes. These items were adopted and modified from Stern, Powell, Martin, and McLean’s (2012) study of live interpretive programs at 24 National Park Service units across the United States. According to Stern et al. (2012), these outcomes were intended to explore attitudinal, behavioral, and knowledge-change that occurred because of their attendance to an interpretive program. With input from Shaver’s Creek Environmental Staff, these items were modified (see further detail below) and expanded to reflect the interpretive outcomes associated with the content and theme of the Maple Harvest Festival. As such, visitors were asked to gauge the degree that the Maple Harvest Festival influenced any of the following items on a five-point scale where 1 – “Not at all” and 5 – “A great deal.” Nine of these variables were interpretive outcomes specifically related to the content of Maple Trail interpretive stations. The three other interpretive response variables referred to the affective impact of the festival. Given the different setting, context, and type of program studied by Stern et al. (2012), a principal components analysis (PCA) was conducted on the 12 interpretive response items to reduce the data into major conceptual components.
The results from this factor analysis (Varimax rotation, eigenvalue = 1, listwise deletion) are shown in Table 1. Where cross-loading occurred, face validity of the domain and individual items were considered to determine item classification. Based on Hair and associates’ criteria (1998), a factor loading above the threshold of .45 for a sample size of 150 or more is considered acceptable. From the PCA, two primary factors arose. These two factors were labeled “Program Content Outcomes” and “Affective Outcomes.” The items that factored into “Program Content Outcomes” contained the outcomes of learning about and appreciating the content of the interpretive program. The second factor, “Affective Outcomes,” contained affective outcomes about how their experience at the festival made them feel about SCEC. The unstandardized Cronbach’s alphas for both factors were acceptable (Program Content Outcomes = .911 and Affective Outcomes = .846) based on Vaske’s (2008) guidelines. Two new composite scales were created using the individual items identified as part of each factor.
Place Attachment Measures
The six place attachment items used in this study were adopted from Moore & Graefe (1994) to represent the sub-dimensions of place identity and place dependence. Four of these items corresponded with place identity. The remaining two items corresponded with place dependence. When responding to these items, visitors were asked to state their level of agreement on a five-point scale where 1 – “Strongly disagree” and 5 – “Strongly agree.”
Factor analysis (Varimax rotation, eigenvalue = 1, listwise deletion) was conducted on these six items to identify the latent sub-dimensions of place identity and place dependence. In this principal components analysis, the two subdomains were not expressed as separate factors (Table 2). Instead, all six items loaded on to a single domain. Place attachment has been previously conceptualized as a single domain in the context of community festivals (Wickham & Kerstetter, 2000) as well as recreational settings (Moore & Scott, 2003). Based on the factor analysis and the precedent set by these other studies, place attachment in this study was operationalized as a single composite scale. The scale reliability for this “Place Attachment” domain was also acceptable (unstandardized Cronbach’s Alpha = .922).
Intentions to Return Measures
Finally, two items were developed that assessed visitors’ intentions to return to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in the future. These items were “Made me more likely to visit Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in the future” (Mean = 4.13, SD = 1.03) and “Made me more likely to attend other Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center outdoor education programs in the future” (Mean = 4.08, SD = 1.09). These two items were summated into a single index. This new domain was labeled “Intentions to Return to SCEC” and had a mean of 4.11 (SD = 0.99). The scale reliability of this two-item scale was also acceptable (unstandardized Cronbach’s alpha = .846).
Frequencies and measures of central tendency were computed to develop a descriptive understanding of the sample and the scale-level data. Correlation analysis was used to address research questions 1 through 3 while multiple regression and standardized Beta weights were used to address research questions 4 and 5.
Of the 188 online surveys that were returned, 172 were deemed useable (those that completed the entire survey). The median response time to complete the online survey was 8 minutes. The majority of respondents were female (67%). The average age was 33 years. Two-fifths (40%) of the study population were new visitors to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Fifty-nine percent of the sample were affiliated with Penn State (34% were students, 25% were faculty or staff members). The Affective Outcomes domain had a higher mean score (Mean = 4.29, SD = .77) than the Program Content Outcomes domain (Mean = 3.51, SD = .90), and the Place Attachment domain (Mean = 3.35, SD = .82).
Research questions 1 through 3 asked if intentions to return to Shaver’s Creek in the future was related to program content outcomes (R1), affective outcomes (R2), and a visitor’s level of place attachment (R3). Intentions to return was significantly correlated with program content outcomes (r = .595, p < .001), affective outcomes (r = .651, p < .001), and visitors’ place attachment to Shaver’s Creek (r = .486, p < .001).
Results from the multiple regression analyses (testing R4 & R5) are presented in Table 3. In the regression using the total sample (new and repeat visitors combined), the three independent variables accounted for 51% of the variance for intentions to return to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. When simultaneously regressed, all three independent variables were directly, positively, and significantly (α = .05) related to intentions to return to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Affective interpretive outcomes emerged as the strongest and most significant predictor of intentions to return to the Center (β = .432, p < .001), while program content outcomes (β = .214, p < .01) and place attachment (β = .212, p < .01) were also significant predictors of intentions to return to SCEC.
The multiple regression analysis using responses from only new visitors (N=69) accounted for 60% of the variance (Table 3). Affective interpretive outcomes were an even stronger predictor of intentions to return to the Center (β = .576, p < .001), while place attachment (β = .348, p < .01) remained a significant predictor of intentions to return to SCEC. Program content outcomes (β = -.076, p = .579), however, was not significantly related. The multiple regression analysis using responses from only repeat visitors (N=102) accounted for 52% of the variance. Affective interpretive outcomes emerged as the strongest and most significant predictor of intentions to return to the Center (β = .381, p < .001), while program content outcomes (β = .281, p < .01) and place attachment (β = .244, p < .01) were also significant predictors (Table 3).
Our analyses of visitors to an interpretive special event found that program-related interpretive outcomes, affective interpretive outcomes, and a visitor’s level of place attachment were positively and significantly related to intentions to return to a community nature center. The more positively a respondent rated the program-specific outcomes, as well as the affective outcomes, the more likely they were to say that they intended to return to Shaver’s Creek in the future. A visitor’s existing level of place attachment was also positively related to intentions to return to a nature center. The higher the respondent’s level of place attachment (e.g., to the center), the more likely they were to say that they intend to return to the environmental center. This study echoes previous research (Lee, Graefe, & Burns, 2007; Lee & Shen, 2013; Prayag & Ryan, 2012) that found a positive relationship between place attachment and intentions to return, but in this case, within a nature center context.
The fourth research question, and main focus of this study, asked which outcome was most predictive of intentions to return to Shaver’s Creek. While outdoor recreation and tourism studies have found place attachment to be a significant predictor of intentions to revisit (Alexandris, Kouthouris, & Meligdis, 2006; Lee, Graefe, & Burns, 2007), we found that the interpretive program outcomes, particularly affective outcomes, were most strongly related to intent to re-visit a nature center. In particular, the results of the regression analysis demonstrated that affective interpretive outcomes emerged as the strongest predictor or correlate of visitors’ intentions to return to the Center. This finding supports previous research on festivals that found emotional (hedonic) values were the strongest predictor of intentions to return (Grappi & Montanari, 2011; Gursoy, Spangenberg, & Rutherford, 2006; Lee, Lee, & Choi, 2010). Also, de Rojas and Camarero (2008) found that quality visitor satisfaction at an interpretive center was directly determined by the visitor’s emotional state in addition to the perceived quality of the services, and this is consistent with our findings.
Though the program-content interpretive outcome domain was a significant correlate of intentions to return to SCEC, it was not as robust as the affective outcomes domain. Learning about and appreciating specific interpretive topics/content was not as powerful at inspiring future involvement at a nature center (as measured by intentions to return) as was affective outcomes of the event. In fact, making programs enjoyable is an overt goal of interpretive programming and has been identified as one of the inherent differences between interpretation, a free-choice leisure activity, and environmental education, programming structured around learning outcomes (Cable & Cadden, 2006). The interpretive literature, however, is replete with studies that assess outcomes such as knowledge gain, attitude and behavioral changes, and increased awareness of topics related to program content (Beaumont, 2001; Knapp & Barrie, 2001; Orams, 1997; Powell & Ham, 2008; Sharp, Larson, Green, & Tomek, 2012; Cable, Knudson, Udd, & Stewart, 1988). Our study suggests that these types of program-content outcomes might not be the most powerful outcomes that inspire visitors to return to a nature center after attending an interpretive special event.
Results from the fifth research question reinforce these conclusions, particularly for new visitors. Unlike the analysis using the entire sample, new visitors’ intentions to return to a nature center were not significantly influenced by program content outcomes. Instead, affective outcomes as well as place attachment were highly predictive of their stated intentions to come back to the nature center. Given our results, nature center managers and interpretive staff interested in attracting repeat visitation, especially from new visitors, might consider prioritizing interpretive programs that provide visitors a positive and enjoyable experience while visiting their nature center. While these programs should still be informative and have educational value, they should also be intentionally designed to contribute to an enjoyable and meaningful visit to the local audiences who come to these events. To prioritize enjoyment, interpretive managers could ensure that programs presented at their sites utilize techniques that are engaging and stimulating. Some of these techniques include using storytelling, role-playing, music, demonstrations, handling specimens/objects, jokes, and extraordinary facts (Scherbaum, 2006). Ham (2013) recommends smiling, using active verbs, showing cause and effect, exaggerating size and timescale, using analogies, questioning strategies, and personification (p. 47–48). Brochu and Merriman (2008) caution, however, interpretation should not become “interpretainment” (p. 18), as interpretainment lacks depth and disregards a visitors’ interest in learning something new.
Interpretive scholar Sam Ham wrote about this need for interpretive programs to be enjoyable when he introduced his EROT (1992) and later TORE (2013) model for interpretive program development. According to Ham (2013), programs need to be Thematic, Organized, Relevant, and Enjoyable. Being that attendance to interpretive programs is voluntary, and takes place during un-obligated leisure time (Cable & Cadden, 2006), programs must be enjoyable to capture and maintain an audience’s attention. Ham (2013) writes that interpretation doesn’t always have to be fun or funny, instead it should match “the audience’s idea of having a good time, even if it means being sad or angry, or scared or contemplative” (p. 45). In other words, interpretation is enjoyable when it is pleasurable to process or experience. This study lends support to the notion that enjoyable programs can lead to a higher level of stated intention to return to a nature center in the future.
A visitor’s level of place attachment was also significantly and positively predictive of intentions to return to a nature center. These results are similar to the findings of Hwang, Lee, and Chen (2005), who found that place attachment was a significant predictor of satisfaction with an interpretive program. Previous research has also found a relationship between place attachment and intentions to return to ski resorts (Alexandris, Kouthouris, & Meligdis, 2006), urban parks (Lee & Shen, 2013), recreational lakes (Yoon & Kyle, 2009), national forests (Lee, Graefe, & Burns, 2007), heritage sites (Alshemeili, 2014), and resorts (Prayag & Ryan, 2012). This study builds upon previous research by providing evidence that the relationship between place attachment and intentions to return also exists within a nature center setting.
Results from this study also contribute to the growing interpretive literature that has integrated place attachment as a construct. While our study cannot claim interpretation increases place attachment levels, some studies (Morgan, 2009; Kudryavtsev et al., 2012) have utilized a pre/post methodology or a comparison of new/repeat users (Wolf, Stricker, & Hagenloh, 2014) to explore this question. Our study was more similar to other research in its attempt to link place attachment to other outcomes/variables such as place satisfaction (Ramkissoon, Smith, & Weiler, 2013) or interpretive satisfaction (Hwang, Lee, & Chen, 2005). The outcome variable for our study, however, was intentions to return to a nature center. By demonstrating a positive and significant relationship between place attachment and intentions to return, this study provides empirical support for nature centers to continue carrying out the long held mission of interpretation to connect people to places by provoking visitors to think about how these resources and places personally relate to themselves and their greater community. By doing so, nature centers could also increase the likelihood that visitors return to their centers in the future.
Many nature centers operate as non-profit corporations and rely heavily on financial support from private donors and local businesses. These fundraising efforts complement traditional revenues generated from grants and membership and program fees. Repeat engagement with nature centers could help to keep a nature center relevant to their local communities and bolster a nature center’s fundraising potential. Higher levels of engagement have the potential to yield a broader and more committed donor pool to support nature centers’ operational and capital expenses. More research is required to link return visitation to public support of, and funding for, community nature centers. As such, future research should include specific variables that measure public support and support for increased funding of nature centers.
It must be noted that the nature center in this study (SCEC) is slightly different than the majority of nature centers around the country. SCEC is a unit of The Pennsylvania State University and receives the vast majority of its funding from the University system. Although it maintains a broad membership base, SCEC is less reliant on philanthropic donations, fundraising, and grant-writing than most other environmental centers. Future research exploring the relationship between return visitation and funding support for nature centers should utilize as their study setting a non-profit nature center that has a more typical funding structure.
This study was not without limitations. Some of the limitations include a non-randomly selected sample, the lack of a non-response bias check, the unbalanced number of identity and dependence items to represent place attachment, the unbalanced number of program content outcome and affective outcome variables, and the lack of a pre-test/post test design to better determine the causal nature of interpretive outcomes and place attachment on repeat visitation. For example, it is plausible that the behavioral element of return intentions (actually visiting the center again) would serve as a mechanism to build upon attachment levels; hence the relationship could be the converse of what we illustrated in our model. With much of the sample being composed of first-time visitors, their place attachment responses should be interpreted with caution. Endogeneity might also be an issue because all of the constructs presented could also be influenced by the affective outcomes from the program. Finally, this study did not assess actual return behaviors. As McKercher and Tse (2012) point out in a tourism context, intentions to revisit do not always lead to actual revisit behaviors. Despite these limitations, this study represents a step forward in better articulating the affective outcomes of interpretive programs (in this case interpretive special events/festivals) and how this outcome translates to behavioral intentions related to community nature centers.
With the continued rise in screen media use and the growing disconnect between youth and natural experiences, the role of local nature centers is more critical now than ever before. Local nature centers are often located close to large population areas and provide important environmental and educational services to their communities. Despite offering these important services, many nature centers struggle to maintain public support and funds necessary for their continued operation. One way nature centers have the potential to engender public support, grow their membership base, and bolster their fundraising efforts is to host interpretive special events that attract both new and repeat visitors. This study aimed to understand which outcomes of an interpretive festival experience led to visitors’ stated intentions to return to the nature center in the future. While all three independent variables were individually correlated to intentions to return, this study showed that it was the affective outcomes, more than the program-specific outcomes or place attachment level, that had the most potential to inspire future involvement at the nature center. The influence of affective outcomes on intentions to return was particularly salient among new visitors. In addition to interpreting specific resources, interpretive programs should prioritize creating an enjoyable and meaningful experience for visitors. By providing these types of positive affective experiences, visitors may be more likely to return to a nature center in the future.
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