Today, we take a page from Wallace Stevens and look at some alternative ways to structure museum admissions and pricing. Like poetry, they aren't all entirely practical, but hopefully some will illuminate and tease out useful gleanings.
1. Get rid of the admissions desk. In November of 2005, Apple started experimenting with Motorola handheld POS (point of sale) technology to alleviate long lines at the registers, and now, the experiment is over and the verdict is in: no more cash registers. Enter an Apple store today (except in Manhattan), and you will make your purchase standing in front of the product of interest, with the help of a staff member. The browsing and selecting part of shopping is no longer separate from the purchasing--which means a better overall retail experience and less chance for Apple to lose you as a customer out of exasperation at the long lines. What if visitors could stream into the museum, with the expectation that at some point they would encounter a staff member who could facilitate the purchase of admission? Visitor services staff would no longer be segmented between register or floor--it's all floor, and managing payment becomes just another aspect of visitor interaction.
2. Consider the season pass. 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 out of the 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. When I looked into season passes, I was surprised to see that for theme parks, you can often buy a season pass online for 1.5 to 2 times the price of single admission, but at ski resorts, a season pass costs almost 20 times the price of one-day admission. Museum standard for membership is 2 to 3 times single admission, but the reality is that some institutions (like children's museums) see much higher usage by members, which might justify a higher member rate. If visitors will 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 that 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 are happy to lock in your dollars, and advance ticket processing requires fewer expensive humans at phones or cash registers. Whether you run an airline, a concert hall, or a parking lot, there's both 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 guaranteed volume.
5. The more you go, the less you pay. My dad went to a play in L.A. last year in a big old mansion. It was one of those walk-through experiences, where you have to pick individual characters to follow as they roam around the grounds, putting on several parallel plays that overlap and intersect. The play cost $75, but when it was over, each audience member received a coupon to come back (and see more that you had missed) at a ticket price of $50. The ticket price dropped over repeat visits until the sixth experience, which was free. This model is interesting to those of us with large institutions where you may be able to market "you couldn't see it all this time, so come back next time for less" pricing.
6. The more you go, the more you pay. The opposite concept, made for institutions that have a strong "membership" vibe to them (churches fall in here). 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. The Tech's director recently proposed a novel way to re-frame admissions (and membership in particular): you aren't paying for yourself, you're paying for a visitor who can't afford it. Or, more specifically at The Tech, you're paying for a student (all school kids visit The Tech free). This transforms admissions conceptually towards a gift economy, and also helps people who visit or become members understand that they are part of the donor constituency for the museum.
8. Smart packages. There are some successful geographically-based admissions packages, where one "pass" gets you into several museums in a metropolitan area. I love these because they don't just support museum-going, they help reinforce the concept that if you like one museum, you might like another. But museums aren't the only things we can include in packages. In downtown DC, there's a burrito place right 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 steal any way you slice it. The burrito place recognized that there was a built-in local audience for movies who 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 other 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. In a more 2.0 way, consider the communities that are courted and feted by video game and software designers, pegged as "influencers" who can bring others to the game or product. 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 a variety of 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 get into nasty pay-to-play zones, but it can also be a way to have users fund the more expensive secondary experiences which--let's face it--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 in which admission is free but there are small "Click to donate" opportunities throughout for programs and exhibits? Again, it might start feeling like a gross pay-to-play environment, or it could fit into people's contemporary desires to get just the bits they want--the iTunes approach where you buy the song, not the album. It could also support the validity of having a specific, focused, deep museum experience with one element of content--putting all your chips in one content basket rather than paying to see it all. And for free museums, this can 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, costs for out-of-towners. This idea, which Elaine Gurian advocates, is one that relies on geographic profiling. It engineers an intentional opportunity for locals to become part of the museum on an ongoing basis without losing the attraction market from tourists from distant lands. Of course, these audiences have different needs and desires, and once you start creating great services for the free local visitors, you may see the outside market dry up. Or the museum becomes more flexible, many things to many people.
13. Free. As a bird. What more is there to say? More seriously, I think this is an impossibility as long as we maintain giant buildings with related operations and development costs. One reason Apple removed the cash registers was to free up more space for visitors. If we want to move towards more flexible payment models, we need to be similarly burdened with high volume in small space.
What other crazy admissions models are out there? What do you think museums should be considering? Bonus points if you frame your comment in haiku :)