One of the most difficult challenges for museums is defining a charging structure that offers value for money, promotes long-term growth, meets fundraising objectives and encourages engagement from both local and tourist populations.
We were lucky enough to catch a seminar given by DC research on their AIM commissioned study at the Museums & Heritage show in May this year on the “Impact of Charging or Not for Admissions on Museums”. In this slightly longer than usual blog-post, I’ll be giving you an overview of their findings.
Full credit to AIM & DC Research for their report “Impact of charging or not for Admissions on Museums.“
Their research stems from interviews with over 300 museums across the UK, of which the majority were independent museums. They found most (67%) of independent museums charge some kind of admission, whereas the same percentage of local authorities did not.
Interestingly, when questioned about the effect of charging or not charging, 55% of free museums felt their structure had a definite positive effect on visitor numbers, whereas of those who charged admission, only a small minority felt their fees had a negative impact.
Based on the testimony of venues who had recently changed their pricing structure, going from free to chargeable often meant a drop in visitor numbers, but increasing fees seemed to have little effect. Those who did charge admission generally felt there was an understanding with their guests that the fees were to a good cause and offered value for money.
It was noted that not all visits of free venues were necessarily of value, as a number of guests would use the venue simply for restroom facilities, as a meeting spot, or even respite from the rain. This belief is reinforced by the statistics that show that in general, visitors of paid attractions tended to stay longer, indicating a desire to get their money’s’ worth. Similarly, when free venues began charging, they found that local traffic saw the most significant drops.
The findings became more interesting when looking at the effect of charging admission on donations in general. While a small majority viewed admissions as detrimental to receiving additional donations, 56% of respondents felt that charging admissions had a neutral or positive effect. In addition, those who charged admission also reported longer dwell times, though they were less confident than free museums of the impact of this on secondary spend.
From DC Research’s qualitative assessment, the researchers found that in general, whether or not a venue charged had little to do with visitor spend. As they put it, if you want to buy a tea and cake, you won’t be put off because you’ve already spent £5 to enter. Instead, visitors were actually more likely to visit the shop or on-site catering as part of their paid-for experience.
In terms of creating a visitor experience, museums charging admissions generally had the edge over their free counterparts, in that they offered a formal welcome to the establishment. This forms an integral part of delivering value, and it was DC Research’s recommendation that otherwise free venues should still have an alternate welcoming process.
Who charges what?
Of the participants interviewed, the median price for a ticket was £5 for an adult, £2 for a child, £16 for a family and £4.05 for concessions. The mean was slightly higher, indicating a skew for ‘key attractions’ who charged up to £24 for an adult ticket.
The lowest price recorded was just £0.50, which raised concerns from the research team. Not only do such low priced attractions suffer from the footfall drop of charging, but they also don’t benefit from the otherwise flat price elasticity. As the speaker put it, such venues have “suspiciously low” pricing, wherein the value of the experience is downplayed to the point of being a deterrent.
While there was no real correlation between admission rates and the type of museum, the more expensive museums generally saw over 100,000 annual visits, and operated in the South-East & London.
How does charging admissions affect fundraising?
Of the participants who increased pricing in the last 3 years, 70% reported that it had no impact on spontaneous donations. For those who transitioned from free to charging, donations were commonly claimed to have decreased. In both instances, overall revenues were reported to have improved.
Despite the general trends, It’s important to know the local demographic when planning any price increases. The case study below highlights difficulties faced by Cannon Hall, which attempted to charge admission to its’ grounds after years of free admission for guests to its’ grounds.
The general consensus was that admission charges were of minimal importance to the donations received. More critical factors were things such as how the donation boxes were presented, whereabouts in the museum they were positioned, and the messages associated with them.
After reading this article, it seems apparent there is much goodwill towards museums, and audiences are generally tolerant of price increases. It is worth noting that the majority of museums who increased prices, did so with the addition of a new offering, with full disclosure of the reasons for increasing charging, and/or with sound evidence about their audiences’ preferences.
In truth, good fundraising comes from understanding your audience and sharing a mutual vision which lets them share in your cause. For some, free admissions were a way to build a sense of community, while others flourished and grew their offerings year on year through paid admissions. Ultimately, it comes down to your museums identity, and that of your visitors.