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13 Ways of Looking at an Admissions Desk

Category: Marketing & Public Relations

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


Almost every museum experience begins the same way. You start at an admissions desk or ticket window, not an exhibit. You pay, you enter. Only then can you do what you came for.

I’ve thrown out the admissions rulebook and considered ideas inspired by everything from retail to airlines to websites. Poet Wallace Stevens may not have equated museums with blackbirds, but, like poetry, new admissions models require evocative metaphors. Here are some stanzas to get your own creative juices flowing.

1. Get rid of the admissions desk.

In November 2005, Apple stores started experimenting with Motorola handheld POS (point-of-sale) technology to alleviate long lines at the registers. The experiment is over and the verdict is in: no more cash registers. The browsing and selecting part of shopping is no longer separate from the purchasing—which means a more efficient retail experience and less chance for Apple to lose you as a customer in line. What if visitors could stream into the museum with the expectation that at some point they would encounter a staff member who would facilitate the purchase of admission? Visitor services staff would no longer be segmented between register and floor—it’s all floor, and managing payment becomes just another aspect of visitor interaction.

2. Consider the season pass.

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At theme parks and ski resorts, you don’t buy memberships. You buy a season pass, whose sole benefit is free admission for the year. Many museum memberships functionally are season passes, but there’s a false perception that something “more” comes from membership. There’s no shame in season passes, and if that’s truly what you offer, the change in language might help confused visitors for whom the term “member” has become somewhat meaningless.

3. Price membership according to usage.

At theme parks, you can buy a season pass online for 1.5 to 2 times the price of a single admission, but at ski resorts a season pass costs almost 20 times the price of one-day admission. The museum standard for membership is 2 to 3 times single admission, but some institutions (like children’s museums) see much higher usage by members, which might justify a higher member rate. If visitors balk at a price that is actually commensurate with use, perhaps the membership duration should be adjusted—some parents might appreciate the value of a summer membership and would pay the same amount for it as for a year-long one.

4. Offer discounts to people who buy online.

There are two reasons entertainment venues charge less when visitors buy in advance: They lock in your dollars, and advance ticket processing requires fewer live staff at ticket counters. Whether you run an airline, concert hall or parking lot, there’s economic and strategic value in advance sales. If you sell out for Easter weekend ten days before Friday hits, you can redeploy staff away from registers and into the queues and on the floor, where they can more effectively serve the (now guaranteed) volume.

5. The more you go, the less you pay.

In the 1980s, the play Tamara hit Los Angeles. Described as having “10 characters, 100 scenes and 1,000 different ways to see it,” Tamara required patrons to follow one of many parallel paths through the show. Tickets cost $75 and were packaged in a passport. Each time you returned the ticket price dropped, until the sixth experience, which was free. This model could be valuable at large institutions where there is too much to see in one visit.

6. The more you go, the more you pay.

The opposite concept is made for institutions that have a strong “membership” vibe to them, like churches or clubs. These institutions hook you as a guest, and then develop a relationship with you that induces you to pay (often much more) later. There’s a poetry venue in Washington, D.C., where the first three visits are free, and then you have to either become a yearly member or pay per visit. This may work for museums that have trouble initially getting people in the door, but then are able to reel people into repeat experiences.

7. Pay it forward.

Many visitors don’t realize that their admission goes somewhere other than our pockets. Recast admission so visitors pay for the next person (or the next school group) instead of for themselves. This transforms admissions conceptually towards a gift economy and also helps visitors understand that they are part of the donor constituency for the museum.

8. Smart packages.

There are some cities with passes that grant admission to several museums in a metropolitan area. But museums aren’t the only things we can bundle together. In downtown D.C., there’s a restaurant across the street from a movie theater that offers a package deal: $12 for a movie ticket and a burrito. That’s a $2 burrito or a $5 movie—a bargain for both eaters and watchers. The restaurant recognized that there was a built-in local movie audience that might also be enticed into burritos. Similarly, museums could package discount admission with meals at local restaurants, purchases at certain related stores—anything that might connect museum-going with nearby activities and venues.

9. Referral rewards.

When I get another person to sign up for a membership at my gym, I get a $25 gift certificate to REI. Hostesses at my favorite restaurants are nicer to me each time I bring new guests. Perhaps we need a special form of gift membership for identified influencers or at least a way to thank them with discounted admission and other perks.

10. Premium features.

I’m a free member of Flickr, LinkedIn and several other websites. But if I want more storage space, greater access to other members or an ad-free experience, I have to pay to upgrade. This can spiral into nasty pay-to-play environments, but it can also be a way to let users fund the more expensive secondary experiences that—let’s face it—only a minority of visitors access anyway. Put this together with the pay-it-forward concept and certain inclined individuals could fund access to premium features for those who can’t afford it. Which leads to . . .

11. Micro-financing.

Could a museum function with free admission but small “click to donate” opportunities throughout for programs and exhibits? Again, it might start feeling like a pay-to-play environment—or it could fit into people’s contemporary desires to get just the bits they want—to buy the song, not the album. It’s putting all your chips in one content basket rather than paying to see it all. And for free museums, this could be a way for donors to put their money where they choose (an idea that is sometimes more inconvenient than appealing).

12. Free for locals, fee for out-of-towners.

This idea encourages locals to become frequent museum visitors without losing revenue from tourists from distant lands. Of course, these audiences have different needs and desires, and once you start creating great free services for local visitors, you may see the outside market dry up. Or the museum could become more flexible, delivering many things to many people.

13. Free. As a bird.

What more is there to say? More importantly, I think this is an impossibility as long as we maintain giant buildings with related operations and development costs. One reason Apple removed their cash registers was to make more space for shoppers. If we want to move towards more flexible payment models, we need to be similarly burdened with high volume in a small space.

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