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Critter capers: the case of the successful event series.

In 2009, Metro Vancouver Regional Park interpreters set out to develop an interpretive event series that paired popular culture's fascination with detective shows (like CSI) to the notion that animals get into high jinks when humans aren't around (think of the movies "Madagascar" and "Over the Hedge"). The result: the Critter Capers event series.

Event series are dynamic opportunities for visitors to foster a unique connection to your site or resource, and create community over repeated visits. Like the World Series in baseball, people become more invested in the events as the series goes on. But unlike the World Series, they aren't limited to seven games and everyone (your site, your visitors, and your staff) is a winner. From a staff perspective, they are beneficial because they become easier to plan and execute the more often you do them.

Since its inception, Metro Vancouver Regional Parks has hosted 16 Critter Caper events, and popularity continues to grow. They are based on the premise that the animals in our parks encounter problems that they need help solving. Who is making the strange splashes that keep the wood duck up at night? A mysterious egg is found, but whom does it belong to? A lost snowshoe hare bunny needs help retracing her steps to find her mother. At each Critter Caper event, park visitors are invited to take on the role of detectives and solve the mystery. At "detective headquarters" visitors receive a mini-booklet detailing the creature crime committed, images of the possible suspects, and a map of where to find clue stations. The detectives set out on a self-guided adventure, stopping at each interactive clue station to examine evidence, gradually narrowing down the list of suspects until they solve the case. Upon returning to detective headquarters with the correct answer, they are rewarded a collectable prize.

Many valuable lessons have been learned in developing Critter Capers, and our successes and failures detailed here may help you when developing an event series for your site.

Timely

How often will there be an event in your series? Don't get caught in the trap of ending up with just an annual event or, conversely, trying to squeeze in more events than needed. For us, hosting Critter Capers in the spring and fall allow us to take advantage of Easter and Halloween. It strikes the right balance between keeping visitors interested and managing staff workloads. At first, we tried hosting a summer edition of Critter Capers but timing wasn't right for our regular visitors. It didn't work for the seasonal interpreters either; the last summer event we tried, Critter Capers: the Case of the Cracked Shell should have been renamed the Case of the Cracked Interpreters for the amount of stress it caused staff.

Setting Visitors Up for Success

Event series should be rewarding your visitors, allowing them to walk the steps to self-actualization. With Critter Capers, nothing is more frustrating for visitors than to arrive at the wrong conclusion because our instructions weren't clear. To set visitors up for success, we hide self-checks and support throughout the stations. Down the trail from each clue station, detectives will find an image of the suspect/animal that should have been eliminated with a speech bubble explaining why. These self-checks give extra reinforcement and encouragement (or an opportunity to go back to try again) for visitors throughout the event. Each small accomplishment from the visitors has added to the "World Series" feel of Critter Capers.

Collectables and Paraphernalia (Keep 'Em Coming Back for More)

Whether it is ticket stubs, stamps, dolls, or photos of your loved ones, everybody collects something.

Event series present occasions to share memorabilia about your site with visitors. Find something that represents your site or event and people will keep coming back for more.

With Critter Capers, each detective gets a reward for completing the case: a button to take home. Every case has a unique button design featuring exclusive event art. The more Critter Caper events a detective completes, the larger his or her collection grows. Some detectives come to each event with their buttons on a lanyard, proudly displaying their successes. Since Critter Capers aims to be as hands-on as possible (and to save on event prep time), each detective actually makes his own reward on our button-making machine. An added bonus in having kids make their own collectables is we are able to ask parents to fill out evaluation forms as they wait.

Branding

Event series should be designed to be different, yet the same. They should include changeable facets and activities to keep your repeat visitors interested and engaged. Event series should have a strong brand that is easily recognizable and an overarching concept that drives each individual event in the series.

For Critter Capers, the mystery and the clue station activities change at each event, but visitors know they can expect a detective booklet, self-directed clue stations, and a reward at the end. Support from our graphic designers has been essential in creating the Critter Caper brand. They have created animal images that provide a unique look and feel to the event series. These graphics are used on promotional brochures, social media marketing videos, and as props for the events themselves. These images make critter capers stand out from our other park events.

Create Community and Memories

It is good practice to keep your visitors informed about your upcoming programs and events, but for an event series, take it one step further. Put together a mailing list, a Facebook page separate from your site's main page, a unique Twitter hash tag--anything extra and unique to your event series that will keep your audience connected and provide opportunities to share with their friends. One of the values of an interpretive event series is to create a following and a community connected to your site. We created a "detectives only" email list (currently at 170 families and counting) for critter capers, through which we exclusively share event details, pictures, and teasers.

Critter capers events have been so successful at creating a following that visitors are traveling long distances to participate. One family wrote to us to say, "My kids and I have been completely dedicated critter caper participants for the last two years, loving them! We recently moved to Sooke on Vancouver Island, and are coming to Vancouver for the October 20 case of the mysterious bones." It took them four hours one way--two hours by car plus a two hour ferry-just to participate!

Can an Event Series Work at Your Site?

Event series are dynamic opportunities for visitors to foster a unique connection to your site or resource and provide a sense of community over repeated visits. A series can be successful at a single site or across a system of sites like Metro Vancouver Regional Parks. critter capers have been used to introduce fans to parks they haven't visited before.

Before developing an event series for your site, here are some things to consider:

* Can you invest the initial start-up time? While event series get easier the more you do them, they can require a substantial amount of start-up energy and time. Remember that the effort that you put in at the beginning will pay off, so set a reasonable timeline to review your goals and objectives.

* Do you have the resources you need to build a brand for your event? critter capers relies on in-house graphic support. You can still create a great event series without additional support from within your organization, but be sure to factor in the extra preparation time and costs.

* How do you measure the success of your event series? I know this is part of good interpretive planning in general but it is worth noting as it will take time to build a following for your event series. There will be hiccups along the way and you will need to make adjustments as the series progresses. With critter capers, we started off making our detective booklets quite long. They included an animal "mug shot," height, weight, and a track image in lieu of a fingerprint. We discovered that the time and money for this inclusion wasn't worth it and that the parents of our detectives valued a booklet that was easier to follow and understand.

Event series are fun and rewarding--and I hope this article helps you create a unique series for your site.

Melissa Holloway is a park interpreter with Metro Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. If you would like support developing your own event series, please contact Metro Vancouver Regional Park interpreters at naturehouse@metrovancouver.org.

RELATED ARTICLE: Simple forensics anyone can do

Critter Capers are solved by process of elimination. The activities at each clue station are set up to show why one or more suspect is innocent. To date, we have used a 37 unique station activities that have detectives doing everything from water quality tests, to walking in an animal gait, to measuring scat.

Here are some of our favorite examples. They are also some of the easiest activities to replicate, so feel free to cASE them (copy And Steal Everything).

Home Range Map

The home range map is simply a park map with images of the suspects on it and a red X to represent the crime scene. Strings of varying lengths are attached with brass fasteners to each animal suspect. Signage explains that the strings represent the radius of the home range of each animal. Detectives check if the home range of the animal overlaps with the crime scene by moving the string to the red X. Then suspects are eliminated if the crime scene is not in their home range.

Stomachs (What Animals Eat)

Simply fill a clear container with some plastic models of what the animal might eat (bugs, fish, flowers, berries, etc.), then pour liquid hand soap over everything until the container is partially full. Seal and label the container, for example, "Do Not OPEN: Raccoon Stomach contents." Watch the grossed-out faces of kids as they move the ooze in the container around to figure out what each animal ate. Remains of a snack found at the crime scene help to eliminate suspects.

Day/Night Scopes

Nothing says super spy like night vision goggles! We made ours with recycled containers ranging from film canisters to ice cream pails. Cut out the inner circle of the ice cream pail lid and the bottoms of all the containers, and paint everything black, inside and out. Fit the containers together like a telescope, and attach them securely. Take a picture of your crime scene and attach it to the inside of the ice cream pail lid. For the day scope, increase the brightness of the photo then add animals that are active in the day. For the night scope, use the same photo but decrease brightness and add your nocturnal creatures. When the scopes are held up to the light, visitors will see which animals are diurnal and which are nocturnal. Suspects are eliminated based on the time of the crime.
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Author:Holloway, Melissa
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:May 1, 2015
Words:1846
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