In November 2012, the Detroit Historical Museum reopened after a 6 month, $12 million renovation.  As a gift back to the community who helped fund the renovation, we decided to re-open without an admission fee.  We don’t even have a “suggested donation” for visitors.  If you visit, you get in for free. (But donations are GLADLY accepted in a strategically placed donation box.)

As a museum educator, I love that we’ve dropped this barrier to access. And I am giddy about the fact that, in only 6 months, we’ve exceeded the previous year’s total annual visitation by A LOT.

However, this new “free admission” model has created something of a quandary for our school programs. 

When we decided to do away with admission fees, we had visions of school buses showing up unannounced, full of students ready to visit the museum for free.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, in theory.  In practice, we knew it could cause a bit of a logistical nightmare.  We are a small museum with a limited capacity (both in square feet and human resources), and we knew we had some serious concerns to address.

Our precedent was to charge self-guided school groups the regular admission fees. We didn’t feel comfortable charging fees to large groups just because they were large, so we decided to extend the no admission fee to self-guided school visits.

With this decision came a whole host of new questions:

  • Do we require that all large groups coming for self-guided tours register in advance?
  • Do we turn away schools that arrive without notice?
  • How do we keep the self-guided groups from interfering with paid facilitated programs?
  • What incentives can we give to encourage people to book the paid programs?

We chose to put customer service first. We decided not to turn anyone away, even if they showed up unannounced.  We built in incentives for schools who booked self-guided tours in advance, we added the self-guided tour option to our annual school programs guide, and we planned to have our sales specialist “up-sell” schools to paid programs.

So, what happened? 

Well, the system is functional.  The majority of self-guided school tours do book with us in advance, and teachers seem to be using the “museum resource guide” I created as the incentive for booking early. We are seeing schools that have never visited us before, mainly because admission fees made it financially impossible.  Although self-guided groups are counted with general admission, we have increased our school-aged visitation by more than one half with this new policy.

But, the system isn’t perfect. We’ve had several busloads of students show up unannounced on busy days. We’ve had a handful of loud and poorly supervised self-guided groups directly interfere with other schools tours, frustrating both the paying teachers and our tour guides.

We have also discovered that staff time is required to manage the self-guided groups.  Since we began greeting them and providing a brief orientation, we’ve noticed a sharp drop in incidents of exhibit damage, which on busy days could be substantial.

And, much to our dismay, we have seen a small decrease in the number of bookings for paid programs.  It isn’t a considerable drop, but it doesn’t make me happy. I love having people come through the museum, but I also like being able to keep the lights on, and, oh-I-don’t-know, getting paid.

In essence, our plan got us through this year, but it is not sustainable.  This summer we need to sit down and come up with a revised plan.  But what do we do?  Do we institute a small admission fee for large groups? Charge a “security deposit?”

What are your thoughts?