Tag: eclipse 2017

06 Dec 2016

How many visitors will come for the eclipse?

How many people will come for the eclipse?
Everyone will be looking up on eclipse day.

As an expert eclipse planning consultant, the most common question I get asked is this – how many people will come to our region for the eclipse?

This is a question that is very difficult to predict with any accuracy. It depends on so many factors – including location along the path, proximity to the center-line, climate statistics and weather on the day, road networks, general appeal, proximity to other tourist attractions, and population of the region.

However, this is the question that communities do need an answer to. Without any estimates, effective planning is difficult. So, what have other regions done in the past when estimating crowds, and how accurate were these estimates?

Accuracy of past estimates

In 2012, initial estimates for the Far North Queensland total eclipse was 30,000, based upon the crowd attending a previous total eclipse in South Australia in 2002.  In the end, 60,000 people descended on the area specifically for the eclipse, staying an average of four days. Accommodation in the region was at full capacity, and the eclipse brought in an estimated Aus $130 million for the local economy. The eclipse was indeed much larger than everyone had imagined.

In 2015, we estimated 5,000 eclipse tourists would come to the Faroe Islands, taking into account remoteness and poor weather predictions. Even this number, however, required creative planning, in a country with only 800 hotel beds. In the end, 11,400 eclipse tourists came, staying for an average five days, generating US $9.5 million for the local economy. Again, the eclipse was much larger than expected – despite the poorer weather prospects.

Even going further back than these recent examples, people have reported that regions tend to underestimate visitor numbers. Every time a total solar eclipse occurs, new generations of eclipse chasers are born, eager to repeat the experience.   Eclipse chaser numbers will only keep growing.

Features that make the 2017 eclipse especially appealing

In my 17 years of eclipse chasing, I have had to travel to some very remote, unusual locations in order to get to the path of totality.  However, the path of totality for 2017 is easily accessible, with good weather prospects, occurring in a country of great appeal, with many unique opportunities for tourism across the path.

The US is the second most visited country in the world, with 77.5 million visitors in 2015. August is already one of the most popular months for visitors. There is no doubt that the interest in this eclipse will be unprecedented.

Michael Zeiler at Great American Eclipse has calculated that 12.2 million people live within the path of totality. 88 million Americans live within 200 miles of the path of totality – which is easy driving distance. It really is unknown how many millions will travel on the day.

Population estimates along the path of totality
Population estimates along the path of totality. (c) Michael Zeiler, www.GreatAmericanEclipse.com

The western sections of the path are most popular amongst eclipse chasers as the weather outlook is more optimistic – yet it is much more sparsely populated. The more densely populated eastern half of the path may have the largest crowds, but generally there are lower chances of clear skies. Ultimately, many believe that this will balance things out, and there is plenty of room along the path for everyone.

How to come up with estimated numbers for your region

I have now talked through this issue with many communities along the path. The key people involved in these discussions are the tourism representatives, local council, and emergency planning chiefs. The aim is to identify a way to calculate total visitor numbers – keeping in mind that these numbers are estimates. Here is a very simple overview.

Largest community event multiplied by the ‘x factor’

The key question is – what is the largest event that is currently hosted in your region? It may be the State Fair, New Years Eve celebrations, 4th of July celebrations, or a music festival.  This largest event shows the draw of your community. Essentially, these attendees will be the same people who will be coming to celebrate the eclipse. But a few more things need to be considered – additional family and friends, those who have sought out the region specifically and have booked; and the many more who will drive in on the day.

So, the advice is to consider your largest crowd, and then multiply this with ‘the x factor’ – this could mean multiplying by 1.5, or 2, or 2.5. This all depends upon the many factors mentioned above, and really does need to be personalized to your community. I told you eclipse planning had many unknowns.

Calculate your maximum capacity

I think it’s important that all communities consider this – What is the maximum number of people who can be safely catered for, and how can you ensure that this is managed. And what is the plan if this is exceeded.

Knowing this figure gives a feeling of control, rather than things being completely unknown, and plans can be made. This can be considered roughly by looking at the following:

  • The population of the region – these people are most likely to remain in the community to view the eclipse;
  • Friends and family of the population – if you live in the path, you will become immensely popular with anyone living outside of the path, who will want to stay with you. You can account for this by perhaps multiplying the population by 2, or else calculating an extra two people per household
  • Total formal accommodation capacity (including hotels, B&B’s, official camping and RV sites)
  • Additional soft capacity (including temporary arrangements such as additional camping grounds, overnight car park facilities, fields that may be used etc)
  • The numbers in tour groups coming in but who may be staying elsewhere

Then consider those additional unknowns, who will be driving in for the day. What is an acceptable level of unknown visitors who can be accommodated for on the day, when you are already at full capacity, with regards to parking and facilities?

Having an estimate is important for planning. I have been encouraging many regions to record how they have calculated their estimates, so that these can be compared to final visitor numbers, allowing some way of working out how accurate numbers could be predicted. This will help to plan for future eclipses – including the next one across the US in 2024.

Eclipse ‘hotspots’

Several locations along the path may be potential ‘hotspots’ for eclipse visitors to congregate. These are those with the best chances of good weather; those with outstanding nature opportunities, and those with something of unique interest.

For example, Grand Teton National Park is one of the few parks along the path. This region is already a high demand tourist area, already at full capacity during August over the last few years. Many people consider this to be the ‘ultimate’ eclipse viewing destination (I’m one of them – my tour is based in Teton village). But the region clearly will not be able to cope unless special considerations are made.

Similarly, Carbondale in Illinois may be another ‘hotspot’, as they are in the unique position of being at the ‘eclipse crossroads’ for the 2017 path and also the 2024 path. Also, Madras in Oregon was identified as having one of the best chances of clear skies, and was one of the first regions to reach full capacity.

If you are in an eclipse ‘hotspot’, then it is essential to develop action plans to avoid over-capacity. Worth exploring are options to control access, and the ability to pre-register interest, or having a lottery system for different venues. Also to be considered are access to food and toilets. It is a far less stressful experience for everybody if people know upfront that they can or cannot get to their preferred viewing location, rather than have to be turned away on the day. Preventing problems from occurring in the first place is in everyone’s interest.

Conclusion

Eclipse planning may be unique and have quite a few unknowns. All but the smallest communities have the expertise to plan a great eclipse experience and associated events for their community and visitors. All you need to do is remember the following: 

Eclipse planning approach - do what you already do, then scale up
There are many unknowns in eclipse planning, but you’ve got this!

If you are involved in planning for your community and want to talk through the issue of estimating numbers, or your eclipse plans in general, then feel free to get in touch for a free Zoom consultation.

21 Nov 2016

Total eclipse outreach: managing the hype

Super moon and super hype
Supermoon of 2014.  Image taken at moonrise with a telephoto lens.  Was the supermoon this big when viewed with the naked eye?  Nope.

Recently, there was much to-do about the supermoon.  In a way, it was great, as people started talking about the moon, and many made a point of going outside to view our closest celestial body.   Images like the one above – taken with a telephoto lens capturing the moon illusion – are gorgeous and captivating, and were making the rounds on social media in the fortnight leading up to the supermoon.  However, some people saw these posts, read the hype and then expected to see the moon this huge in the night sky.  They were then disappointed when it looked just the same as every other full moon they had seen, perhaps a little brighter.

moon-hype
This is true, but not as newsworthy on social media.

We seem to now be in a situation where the normal – a beautiful full Moon – is no longer enough.  It now has to be  some super, special, branded thing that people think they are missing out if they don’t see it.  Some rare factoid is then used to give it even more meaning, and photos are used out of context – or faked – to create an unnecessary dramatic effect.  This over hyping of astronomical events certainly grabs people’s attention, but there is a downside – expectations are raised, and then dashed, and people are left disappointed and disinterested in other astronomical activities.  The reality is, there is so much to explore out there in the night sky, every night.   We just have to stop and look up.

WHEN HYPE IS APPROPRIATE – BUT HOW MUCH?

But there is one astronomical event that astronomers and science outreach folk actually DO get very, very excited about, and is truly worthy of hype.  The total solar eclipse.   It is not the rarity that makes this event special – it really, truly is quite an unnatural and awe-inspiring event.  Most of the people on social media currently talking about the total eclipse are those who have actually seen one, or are preparing for one.  But it won’t be long before social media hype will take over, with unnecessary fake photos and incorrect facts, conspiracy theories and talk of the end of the world.  We should brace ourselves.  

If you are under 40, live in the US and have never traveled abroad to see a total eclipse, then you will never have experienced one.  Yet it is surprising how many people think they have seen a total eclipse, because of misunderstanding media reports and social media posts.

That is why eclipse outreach is so important for those who are living in or near to the path of totality for August 2017.  Most people get their astronomical news from social media, where fake stories and images abound.  Even in traditional media reports, there are often factual errors and incorrect images.  People need accurate information to understand what is to come, why it is a big deal, where they need to go to experience it, what to expect, and how to view it safely.

This image was reported to be a total solar eclipse taken from the ISS. However, it is 38 hours of digital artistry. Lovely, but in no way represents a total solar eclipse.
This image was reported to be a total solar eclipse taken from the ISS. However, it is 38 hours of digital artistry. Lovely and atmospheric – but not a true likeness. ©2009-2016 A4size-ska.

But if, like me, you share the full details about the total eclipse experience are you also feeding into the hype?  Are we raising people’s expectations about this once-in-a-lifetime event, only for them to be disappointed?

Telling people what to expect CAN influence their expectations.  But I also believe that you cannot ever spoil or over-hype a total solar eclipse.   Totality is very visceral, fully immersive, and goes beyond language.  There is no way, using words alone, that you can fully prepare someone for what they may feel and how it will impact upon them.

I have interviewed many scientists who say they thought they would not have any emotional reaction to their first total eclipse as it is a ‘science event’.  Yet, despite their ‘superior’ knowledge, they were still as affected as others who knew very little – screaming out ‘oh my God‘, repeatedly, being stunned into silence, and perhaps even crying, as they see the impossible happen.  Not everyone has emotional or transformative responses, but it is a rare person who is not moved and completely awestruck by the experience.  

 I have now spoken with hundreds of people before their first total eclipse, and then afterwards.  I get comments such as  “I was expecting it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be THAT good!”, or “If I hadn’t heard you talking about what it would be like, I would never have gone”.    I have never had one person say that previous conversations with me has spoiled the experience for them. 

When doing my eclipse research, the most common analogy most people relate the total eclipse experience to is the birth of their children.  It is a meaningful, significant and life-changing experience.  You may know what is to happen, have read about it, talked about it, seen videos, and even read personal accounts.  But nothing can prepare you for what goes on physically and emotionally, and how you make sense of it.  

THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF TOTALITY – WHEN ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS

There have been a few occasions that people have expressed their disappointment, or disinterest – always because they thought they had experienced totality when they hadn’t.

For example, when a total eclipse is clouded out, this can be disappointing as the main features are not seen and experienced.  During a post-eclipse lecture back in 2012, one man expressed his disappointment at the over hype of the total eclipse experience, which for him was blocked by thick cloud.  He could not accept that there was so much more to what he experienced, and he had no interest in seeing another.   It made me understand the importance of ‘expectation management’ – something that I encourage organisers to consider if they are in regions along the path that are likely to be cloudy.

Again in 2012, I was interviewing a local about her eclipse experience, and she didn’t seem to have much of the usual emotion when recounting her day.  When questioned further, it transpired that she kept her solar filters on for the whole of totality due to fear of harming her eyes.  As a result, she saw nothing, and missed it all.

By far the most common reports of disappointment are made by those who THINK they have seen the total solar eclipse, but were clearly not within the path.   One of my colleagues over a period of time kept questioning me on the authenticity of my experience, as he hadn’t felt any emotion at all during totality. After we consulted maps, it turns out that he was located about 400 miles away from the path of totality!  He had seen media reporting about the total eclipse, and had assumed that the partial in his area was the main show.  He had been adamant that he had seen a total eclipse.  I think to this day he STILL thinks they are no big deal – his loss.

MY APPROACH TO ECLIPSE OUTREACH

Everyone has different drives and motivations.  Some people are much more open to having new experiences – these are the people who will seek out information themselves about the eclipse.  But for most others within the path of totality, they will need information that helps them to understand the unique experience that is to come, so they can plan to see it.

Researching the eclipse experience.
Hearing others talk about the eclipse experience is the way to engage. (c) 2015, Kate Russo.

When I do my talks, I talk from my personal experience, but also from my research as well.  Sharing the experiences of many gives me the ability to highlight how unique and meaningful the total eclipse experience is.  There are similarities, of course, but the impact is deeply personal.  I can describe differences in how people make sense of that feeling of connection – it could be a connection to nature, the universe, mother earth, or some religious figure.  I never know what that will mean for each person – but I can give examples of how others have made sense of it.  This information may help people to put language to the profound experience they have, but it doesn’t necessarily change the lived experience.  Nor does it spoil it for them.

So, should you read and listen to other people’s accounts of totality before you see it for yourself?  I think yes.   Reading the accounts of others, listening to eclipse chasers – these things may influence how you think about it, and how you act.   That is, it might make you more likely to get into the path of totality, and to convince others to go along with you.  Without knowing that it really is quite a special event, you just may miss this chance, and regret it for a lifetime.

My next book features personal total eclipse experiences from a small number of ordinary people, and will be self published and available from my website in early 2017.   I also plan to engage in a speaking tour of the path of totality in 2017.  Formal announcements will occur soon.  Get in touch if you would like your community to be included in my tour.