At Mount Vernon, where attendance has also slipped, they’ve added a food court and dining at an inn in recent years. In addition, the site has begun highlighting Washington’s life as a gentleman farmer and entrepreneur by reopening a gristmill in 2002 and planning to add a distillery.

For its candlelight tours in December last year, an interpreter playing Martha Washington addressed visitors as they entered. “It was more interactive, more of a personal experience that people could relate to,” says Emily Coleman, the assist­ant director of marketing.

Heritage travel executives like Ellis, Rosenthal, and Cavanaugh talk about engaging visitors emotionally, not just intellectually. “We do a wonderful job of telling people about the features of a particular destination — these are the things you can do and see,” says Cavanaugh. “But I think the attractions and destinations that really set themselves apart are the ones that tell the benefits of those attractions and connect those benefits to real emotions. The attractions that will be successful in the 21st century will be those that take advantage of the fact that travel can be an emotional experience.”

Before sites can make that emotional connection, Rosenthal notes, they have to prod people off the couch or away from the roller coaster.

“We are grateful to the glitzier attractions for what they’ve taught us,” she says. “The challenge now is going to be to make history compelling enough that people will get over the ‘oh-it’s-history’ barrier.”      

"what we found is that if the visitor is engaged and brought into the experience, that serves as a catalyst not only for enjoyment but also for a learning conversation."