Sometimes it feels like nearly every cultural organization is taking on a major expansion project. But do these projects truly sustain long-term increases in attendance?
That’s the topic of this week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts Video.
If you feel like there have been a whole heck of a lot of major expansion projects taking place within the United States and beyond, then you’re not imagining things. A recent study by the Art Newspaper revealed that US museums, in particular, spent over 5 billion dollars on expansion projects between 2007-2014…during some of the worst years of financial strife since The Great Depression. That spending amount is more than the total spending of all 37 other countries in the survey combined. A quick Google search on expansions and various cultural organization types seems to suggest that perhaps things aren’t slowing down much. Heck, here are the reported most important museum expansions of 2017.
Given the great deal of spending on increasing the physical footprint of cultural organizations in the US, one may think that we must have compelling reasons for it! Or at least, have a good grip on how an expansion will “pay itself off” – especially since expansions often come with greater operating budgets. While acknowledging that museum expansions are not necessarily all about measuring success by the numbers of visitors they bring in, an investment that secures greater long-term revenues is often the goal that many board members and donors aim for when they support an expansion project.
It’s worth noting the appeal that expansion projects may have for major donors. Indeed, cultural organizations need to evolve in several ways to welcome and meet the expectations of a more diverse and connected audience. Meanwhile, it’s generally easier to secure large donations for sexy-sounding new projects than to fundraise for necessary renovations or secure additional investment for ongoing administration needs. There is an issue/opportunity here: Awareness of a need to create and/or maintain a visitor experience that is relevant and engaging in today’s digital world, and a potential to engage big donors in exciting, press-securing, name-dropping, fancy projects. Expansions might make sense if you stop there!
But what if we think about the glory, glamour, and outcomes related to expansions a little bit harder? What can we learn about why they do or do not increase long-term visitation?
IMPACTS tracked attendance to 11 visitor-serving organizations that completed significant expansion projects between years 2003-2011. Each of the assessed organizations had been in business for at least ten years before opening their new expansion. The average project cost was $43.6 million. Here’s what we found:
Ten years preceding expansion (baseline): The first column in the above chart shows average, aggregated annual attendance to these eleven cultural organizations expressed as an index value with the 10-year period preceding the opening of the new expansion quantified as 100.0. This number is our baseline. This way we can compare and consider the impacts for the organizations evenly, even though they each have different respective attendance levels.
Five years preceding expansion: Before we jump to post-expansion visitation, notice that in the five-year duration preceding the opening of the expansions, annual attendance declined on average by 5.2%.
When they undergo an expansion project, organizations tend to forget that visitation often drops during this time for two, important reasons. First, construction tends to lower visitor satisfaction and thus decreases the volume of glowing endorsements that an organization receives. Second, during this period, potential attendees are more likely to defer their visits until after the expansion opens. Why visit now when they can come back later and see the new, cool expansion?
When some organizations consider the “cost” of an expansion project, they overlook some of the opportunity cost. Losing word of mouth endorsements and realizing the related negative visitation impacts isn’t unique to construction – it’s also a major reason why organizations underestimate attendance loss resulting from unforeseen closures due to weather, facility rentals, or civil unrest.
First full year of operations after expansion: Now, the expansion opens! During the first, full year of operation, organizations saw an average increase in visitation of 19.6% compared to the average of the 10 years prior. That’s huge! But how long does it last?
Second full year after expansion: At the end of the second full year of operation, attendance decreased from the first post-expansion year, but it was still up 8.5% over baseline. These are still very big numbers, but even considering that a “glory year” during the opening may be expected, the rapid decline may be a bit alarming.
Third full year after expansion: In the third year, visitation was up 5.5% over the average of the 10 years prior to the expansion.
Fourth full year after expansion: By the fourth year, attendance was only up 3.1%. Oof.
Fifth full year after the expansion: At five years out, the organizations’ attendance had only increased 1.4% – essentially returning to the pre-opening condition.
But it’s even worse than it looks. Not only did these expansions cost millions of dollars, decrease visitation in the years leading up to the opening, and result in near-baseline visitation only five years out, but the US population increased by 11.7% during the assessed duration. According to the US census, the US population increased from 290 million in year 2003 to 324 million in year 2016. Adjusting for population growth, attendance being up 1.4% from baseline is a dramatic underperformance of the opportunity.
In sum, while annual attendance generally did increase in the immediate near-term following the expansion project’s opening, this increase was not sustained.
Why expansions alone may not increase long-term visitation
What the heck?! How could this be?! The answer may be quite simple: The true barriers to visitation may not be addressed by an expansion.
Some examples of data-informed, actual barriers include lack of establishing content relevance, being open during hours that don’t work for visitors, and travel issues. If cultural organizations aim to increase attendance, then they may be best served by considering the data-informed reasons why people don’t visit in the first place. If cultural organizations are increasingly competing with the couch and a remote control for free time (and they are), then it may be helpful to make sure that they’re doing more than building out new space and creating cool marketing messages about it. Having a “So what?” beyond “something new and expensive” may be a good idea. Knowing how the project will realistically help your organization reach its goals and having a realistic handle on desired outcomes probably couldn’t hurt, either.
Consider this: These 11 organizations are not dummies – and represented in this data are some rather notable examples from well-regarded organizations! Their leaders likely did not simply say, “Let’s build an expansion for the sake of building an expansion! Wouldn’t that be a hoot of a good time?” These expansions are not generally big, empty rooms. They presumably had goals related to engagement! Many have been celebrated! And, yet, they did not generally sustain significant long-term visitation increases. An expansion, in and of itself, may only be a solution if an organization’s problem was fitting everyone in the door.
I fear that the industry’s constant celebration of fancy expansions and then going silent on their long-term impact on visitation may be another example of our industry covering up our most valuable lessons.
A reasonable question for organizations considering expansions may be, “Why are we doing this?” (Note: re-doing, revamping, or renovating is different than expanding and increasing physical footprint). Expansions may aid organizations in other areas, but they generally are not the magic bullet that some organizations hope that they will be in regard to increasing visitation. (This obviously includes increasing reputation enough to sustain longer-term visitation increases, as the numbers wouldn’t drop off if an increase in repuational equities were paying off.) And maybe that’s okay? But then, of course, the question is: What does this expansion increase beyond an organization’s physical footprint?
Indeed, keeping visitor-serving organizations current, connective, and experiential is critical! Big and small upgrades may be a key to industry evolution! But why pursue an expansion instead of a thoughtful revamp or repurposing? If the purpose of an expansion is added space for engagement because an organization does not have adequate space for engagement, then an expansion may make sense. However, if the goal is to add a new kind of engagement based on the assumption (or finding) that an organization is not engaging visitors effectively, then perhaps consideration of the use of current space may be more helpful… and cost effective.
In order to yield payoff, it may be beneficial to consider how a project or initiative removes barriers to engagement – and that means knowing enough about your audience to understand why they may not visit in the first place.
Helpful hint: In the midst of an expansion project? Data suggest that facilitating personal interactions with staff is one of the most reliable ways to increase visitor satisfaction for cultural organizations on the whole. Do your big, expansion thing, you rockstar cultural organization, you! But don’t forget that sometimes those straightforward, “smaller” things matter and often make a more reliable difference in driving visitation.
Do expansions stimulate attendance growth in the short term? You bet. But an expansion may only be worth it if it directly solves the most pressing problems facing an organization – and many don’t.