I’ve heard a fair number of museum people say something like, “visitors will pay $18 to see a two hour movie, but they won’t pay the same for a day-long experience at a museum.”
If I’m honest, I’ve never understood why museum people always seem to be so surprised at this. They think it’s all about the money. But is money really the barrier it’s often thought to be, or is there something else going on? Do visitors really misspend their money and time?
The director at the small New England museum I worked at had an interesting theory about this. To lower the perceived barriers, we didn’t charge an admission fee. Instead, there was a donation basket at the end of the tour. Her feeling was that the guide earned the donation by offering an engaging tour and that the amount put into the basket was generally an accurate a reflection of the guest’s enjoyment and satisfaction.
She added that small museums have an image problem of sorts. Small museums are a very mixed bag. Visitors don’t know what to expect or what kind of service they’ll get. Instead of making them pay for an unknown, she felt we should earn the money by providing a great experience. In general, this approach benefited us. We were often given more than the suggested donation.
My next job was at a small county-run historic site. We were also free (your tax dollars at work), and had a donation basket at the end of the tour.(1) The idea that the better the experience provided, the better the donation seemed to be true. Yes, there were people who paid only the “suggested” donation, but many offered more. There was something of an unofficial and friendly competition amongst the staff to see who could earn more per tour.
Putting the donation at the end of the experience helped raise the bar of our tours. However, it did nothing to increase our visitor count. Which raises an interesting question: if money is a barrier, and we were free, shouldn’t people have been flocking to the site?
They weren’t. Our visitation, like so many historic sites recently, saw visitation highs in the 1990s, which then leveled off and has declined since then.
This suggests it’s not money that’s the barrier. Could it be that our story, our interpretation, or our programming wasn’t engaging enough to them?(2)
We never knew. There were never resources for market research to ask people who weren’t at the site why they weren’t coming. The most commonly given reason (unscientifically collected) for why they were coming was that they had passed our large sign on a local road for years and that day they finally had a moment to stop in.
So maybe visitors know something we don’t about ticket pricing – that they go to what’s appealing them, avoid what’s not, and money is not necessarily the reason.
- It had a sign saying “Donations gleefully accepted.”
- Also, there’s the marketing and PR question which we often overlook, but is important to the success of our events.