Chautauqua Advocates seeks community members to spread the word about Institution in home communities

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Stephanie Dawson of Atlanta shares how she spreads the word about Chautauqua with friends and neighbors at home July 18 in the Visitors Center. Dawson is part of Chautauqua Advocates, a group of Chautauquans that advocate for the Institution.

The new Chautauqua Advocates program enlists Chautauquans to spread the word about the Institution in their home communities during the off-season. Advocates are invited to host gatherings for friends or colleagues who might be interested in Chautauqua as a summer vacation destination.

Anyone interested in the program will have the opportunity to meet with some current Chautauqua Advocates at 4:30 p.m. today in the Visitors Center on Bestor Plaza.

Vanessa Weinert, the Advocates’ coordinator, recognizes that it will take time and patience to build the program. After the initiative was launched in February of this year, she found a wellspring of enthusiasm, receiving as many as 50 emails in a day from potential recruits.

“We have had a good response to our initial efforts,” Weinert said. “I’m very optimistic that the Advocates program will expand quickly.”

The first public session with the Advocates was held in mid-July. More than a dozen potential recruits dropped by, full of enthusiasm and questions. Chautauquans who have already hosted gatherings in their hometowns joined Weinert in providing responses.

Several participants noted that Chautauqua is tough to explain to people unfamiliar with the Institution. One woman just shook her head. “We do love this place,” she said, “but I find when I try to describe it to friends, I can’t do it justice.”

One couple talked about their experience earlier this year hosting events in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. They suggested planning some events with smaller guest lists and to involve friends in the planning process to lighten the logistical burdens.

Weinert explained to the group that the Institution has plenty of video available that shows off the Institution, including the 2011 WNED documentary on Chautauqua. Institution staff is also working on an eight-to-10 minute video that shares the many facets of summer life on the grounds, Weinert said. Those in attendance thought this would be a big help in their efforts.

Weinert told attendees that she is a resource for Advocates and will always be ready to assist them.

“I want to give you the tools you need to be effective, as early in the off-season as you need them,” she said.

In preparing for today’s meeting, Weinert said the “CHQ stories” on YouTube had helped create networks in new cities. Connecting Chautauquans in places far from western New York had proven to be especially satisfying, she said.

“It’s really exciting to serve as the connection between Chautauquans — especially from different generations — who live in the same city off-season but hadn’t previously gotten acquainted,” she said. “I expect to have two such Chautauquans at today’s session.”

One priority is enticing younger families to make Chautauqua their summer destination. The Institution examines where most young visiting families come from; the current list includes cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, N.Y., and the Washington, D.C., area. Some less obvious recent visitor sources include San Antonio, Austin, Texas, Boston and Connecticut.

“It’s so exciting — and challenging — to build a program from the ground up,” Weinert said. “There are a lot of resources at our disposal, ranging from databases we can cross-reference to existing email lists to maybe the greatest asset of all — our Advocates. There’s nothing like word of mouth to spread the message.”