Low Cost, High Attendance: How $1 is Channeling a Community

Julia Kennedy - Marketing & Aud Dev Associate

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One dollar can buy a surprising number of things.

There are dollar stores, dollar menus, and even dollar beer nights at professional sporting events.

There’s also dollar admission at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

The Mariners’ Museum is one of the largest maritime museums in the US, and it’s the largest maritime library in the Western Hemisphere. The galleries and collection explore idea of what it means to be a mariner: a person connected by water to their community, and to the globe.

Even the museum’s history is community-focused.

It was created in 1930 by Archer Huntington, the son of the man who not only founded the city, but also its biggest economic driver – Newport News Shipbuilding – as a way to support the city during a difficult period in history. The development of the museum was a reactionary effort to the Great Depression, meant to create work for those who would have otherwise been laid off by the shipyard.

“Across our nation and the world, we see daily reminders of the forces at work pulling communities apart. During these times, we believe our Museum has an incredibly powerful narrative to tell about community and what binds us together.” – Howard Hoege, President and CEO, Mariner’s Museum

Julia, our Audience Development Marketing Champion, recently got to hear firsthand about the development of a unique campaign to bring members of the community to the Museum.

Clear, easy to read ad promoting the new initiative

“As an institution, we are proud to represent Newport News and Hampton Roads. The people of this community literally built our campus and many of the stories that we tell – from the USS Monitor to the steamships in the Ship Model Gallery – are this region’s stories.”

The $1 Experiment

Last August, the Museum launched a new initiative: $1 admission.

More than 39,000 visitors took advantage of the experiment, which is a significant increase from the Museum’s average August visitation.

The $1 admission promotion served the community by breaking down barriers, financially and culturally, and by allowing people of all backgrounds to come and experience the Museum’s collection.

“We are offering $1 admissions this summer, because through our water – through our maritime heritage – we are connected as one community.”

Howard explains, “the fabric of our community—our shared connection to the water—is all bound up in our world-class collection and the stories that these amazing objects tell. Our Museum team really believes we are stewards of this collection and these stories on behalf of the entire community. Dollar admission reflects our commitment to making sure that every single person in our community has access to their history… to their stories… and we are incredibly excited to share them with folks this summer.”

Many museums have adjusted admission prices for students or seniors, but to create a more accessible collection, many are offering temporarily low prices like the Mariners’ Museum.

Some are getting creative with discounts; for example, the Museum of Science and Technology offers discounted admission during the summer to EBT holders, and the Pensacola Museum of Art created lower-cost evening hours.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, David R. Jones, president and chief executive officer for the Community Service Society of New York, refers to its city’s high admission fees as “cultural apartheid,” noting that the “cost of culture . . . has effectively priced out a large segment of the city’s population.”

Many believe that any admission costs prevent visitors, but numbers don’t lie.

Colleen Dilenscheider, Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development, and the founder of the blog ‘Know Your Bone,’ published an analysis of the effect of free admission.

Her findings?

“Free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it is.”

The analysis mostly cites a lack of time or interest in museums as the number one reason visitors aren’t coming.

For the Mariners’ Museum, $1 admission month is back, and they’re still seeing powerful results.

While the free vs. paid museum debate continues, there’s no denying the community impact of reduced admission.

Are you experimenting with admission fees? Let us know in the comments.

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