Attendance Trends: Ten years Past and into the Future

How do our numbers look? How can individual science centers grow their audiences? On Monday afternoon, ASTC attendees learned about current trends in science center attendance and shifting U.S. demographics, and then discussed how science centers can respond to those changes to grow attendance and bring in new audiences.

The session began with a review of ASTC’s recent 10-Year On-site Attendance Report by research and web manager Christine Ruffo. The report showed that overall attendance increased from 2002 to 2011, but did decrease somewhat after 2009. Large centers (>50,000 square feet of interior exhibit space) had the flattest trend with 2011 median attendance being only 2% higher than 2002.

Charlie Trautmann, executive director of Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York, followed with a look at internal factors under centers’ control, such as product and promotion, and external factors, such as shifting demographics, competition, and the economy, that can affect attendance. He provided two examples: admission fees and population projections.

From 2002 to 2011, median attendance fees reported through ASTC’s Annual Statistics Survey increased every year except in 2011. Price increases could be one factor in slowed growth and declines.

The U.S. population of white children under age five is declining. Traditionally, U.S. science center audiences have been predominantly white. This demographic shift suggests that attracting more diverse audiences is important not only to science centers’ missions, but also to their bottom line.

James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, presented additional demographic data. The percentage of families with children, who are often science centers’ primary audiences, is decreasing in the United States (currently, more households have dogs than children). Again, this shift underscores the importance of broadening reach. Reach Advisors are also researching the importance of creating memories in building core audiences. They are finding strong childhood museum memories lead to more visits and stronger relationships with adult audiences.

Following the presentations, attendees shared their own strategies for bringing in new audiences that have proven successful, including:

=> Offering low-cost memberships to nearby schools.
=> Designing programs around the local community’s “natural flow.” For example, scheduling a program to coincide with a women’s running group.
=> Hosting big events to make the science center a community center.
=> Creating a diversity and inclusion position at the vice president level.

They also shared questions and concerns about external factors impacting attendance.

=> Why are audience demographics so limited? Chung believes this can change, and the value of science centers can be communicated to drive growth and bring in new audiences.
=> How can museums compete with home entertainment options that are now highly customized for leisure time? Some institutions are exploring ways of customizing the visitor experience. Shared experiences are also important, though, and through those, museums can trigger dialogue and forge personal connections.

Finally, attendees were asked how they can respond or have responded to demographic shifts and work to reach new audiences. Responses included:

=> Recruit floor staff who match the demographics of the local population. One participant had implemented such an initiative with excellent results.
=> Recognize that admission fees are a barrier for many people. One museum made September (typically a very slow month), “pay what you want” month. Surprisingly, the museum only saw a 10-cent decrease in per visit revenue.
=> Partner with other groups that have successfully reached out to the communities you want to reach. One participant’s center is currently doing this and has learned a lot from their partners about how to make their museum more welcoming and inclusive.

Presentations from the session can be downloaded here.