Free days. Daily deals. Who can resist? They take away or reduce at least one barrier to visiting museums and (we hope) broaden and diversify our audiences.
But are they ultimately beneficial to museums? The thing is . . . we don’t know. Some say unequivocally yes, and others are just as adamant that they are not. For this post, we’ll share some of the experiences respondents in our recent, quick survey on attendance trends, and we’ll also feed in a few bits of our field-wide and client research as well to hear a bit of the visitor perspective.
Nearly a fifth of responding museums reported that they never charge admission fees, while another fifth had occasional, sponsored free days. Those occasional free days were interesting however, as some museums reported some unexpected challenges.
First, free days do appear to be a draw for audiences that would not otherwise visit. As one respondent noted, “Our occasional free days show there is a great deal of interest in visiting museums but admission fees are a real barrier to underserved audiences.”
But those free days can be too popular, as another respondent said, “We have been reaching capacity during free hours this year, which is new for us. It is not going over well with visitors, in fact they are down right mad . . .,” thus illustrating that free days can go from PR boon to PR disaster if visitors are having negative experiences due to over-crowding.
Additionally, it was noted that too many free days can be problematic as well, as it can depress regular paid attendance or it can reduce the incentive to visit, even on free days (that is, if you have a free day every week, there is no sense of urgency to visit, so potential visitors keep putting it off). The trick is to find the right balance of free days so that they are well-attended, but not to the point of overcrowding.
Or, perhaps even better, find a different way to provide free passes to targeted, under-served audiences.
The feedback we received about daily deals (think Groupon, Living Social, etc.) was much more mixed. Nearly half of responding museums had run a daily deal, and while most were rather ambivalent about the results (reporting “little impact”), some had a negative experience while others loved it. (When ASTC recently asked for feedback on this same question, they also had mixed responses.)
Those who loved it felt that it had brought in new visitors or members. As one respondent said, “We feel it is a great way to introduce newbies to the museum . .” Gina Moreland, of Habitot Children’s Museum, has also had very good results with the daily deals. She noted:
“We are careful to spread our deals out throughout the year so that we don't cannibalize our sales of visit passes and memberships, for example, we never do deals in the fall-winter when we receive the majority of our visitation. We also never do a deal on membership - we do deals only for admissions. To check on conversion rates (people joining or spending other money at the museum after coming in on a deal), we ask for name and contact info at the front desk. Once they are in the database, we include them on mailings for upcoming events, news, free admission days, etc.”
Gina estimates that 7% of daily deal tickets go on to purchase memberships and 5% go on to purchase a class enrollment.
On the other side were those who had a negative experience. One respondent opined, “I believe it devalued our pricing structure . . . Unfortunately, the folks attracted by Groupon-style pricing is not the audience who regularly attends museums or join. They are . . . looking for discounts.”
Although we have never asked visitors explicitly about daily deals, we have picked up some feedback about them which generally reinforces this opinion. In our recent field-wide study of children’s museum visitors, we had a number of respondents explicitly say, “I joined because of a groupon,” or something similar. Another survey respondent noted she was a member of six museums and was “waiting for botanical gardens to go on Groupon to add that one!” (I have to say, as a former development director, that one struck fear in my heart!) Finally, in qualitative work for a client, we had a visitor state, “It also trains the consumer to wait for deals instead of supporting places outright, and with that mentality, we all lose.” Food for thought.
So daily deals appear to have been quite successful for some, and not-so-much for others. While we are not going to recommend or not recommend the use of daily deals based on current research, there may be times when a daily deal makes sense, and other times when it doesn’t. The general sense, however, is that they are good for exposure and first-time visits, but they have little long-term impact on attendance or repeat visits.
What do you think? Has your museum had success (or challenges) with free days or daily deals? Simply click on “comments” below to share your thoughts (and if you are reading this from your e-mail subscription, go to our blog to comment).