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Questioning museum attendance projections

Reading over the Peoria Riverfront Museum information on the County’s website, I found page 211 especially fascinating. There, in black and white, is a “Museum Benchmark Matrix” comparing various museums around the country, their square footage, metropolitan statistical area (MSA) population, annual attendance figures, and other information.

Here is a simplified chart of all the museums that listed their annual attendance figures (I’ve added Peoria’s proposed museum to the end of the list):

Museum Location MSA Pop. Gross SF Annual Attendance
Science Station Cedar Rapids, IA 252,784 20,000 27,000
Science Spectrum Lubbock, TX 267,211 85,000 185,000
Putnam Museum Davenport, IA 376,160 115,000 190,000
Sci-Port Discovery Center Shreveport, LA 387,583 92,000 200,000
Gulf Coast Exploreum Mobile, AL 404,406 55,000 220,000
Exploration Place Wichita, KS 596,452 100,000 180,000
Louisville Science Center Louisville, KY 1,233,735 129,000 315,000
Kalamazoo Valley Museum Kalamazoo, MI 323,264 60,000 125,000
Peoria Riverfront Museum Peoria, IL 371,206 81,000 240,000 (est.)

Notice anything unusual or surprising? That’s right. The projected attendance for Peoria’s museum block is more than every other museum in the matrix, except for Louisville’s, where the MSA is over 1.2 million people.

In case you’re wondering where I got the 240,000 figure for attendance, here’s the scoop: the museum folks are estimating 360,000 visitors per year for the whole block. But they split that up this way: 1/3 of those people will attend Caterpillar Experience only, 1/3 will attend the Peoria Riverfront Museum only, and 1/3 will attend both. That means that only 2/3 of the 360,000 estimated visitors to “the block” will go to the Peoria Riverfront Museum (360,000 x 2/3 = 240,000).

It’s tricky trying to figure out their numbers, as you can see, because they often treat the whole block as a single project in their campaign literature. But it’s really two projects; and if you want to compare apples with apples regarding the museum, you must first split the projects apart.

So let’s see if Peoria’s numbers hold up to some mathematical scrutiny. Let’s look at market penetration. We’ll take the average attendance and divide it by the MSA population for each of the museums listed in the matrix:

Museum Att./Pop.
Science Station 10.7%
Science Spectrum 69.2%
Putnam Museum 50.5%
Sci-Port Discovery Center 51.6%
Gulf Coast Exploreum 54.4%
Exploration Place 30.2%
Louisville Science Center 25.5%
Kalamazoo Valley Museum 38.7%
Average 41.35%
Peoria Riverfront Museum 64.7%

As you can see, the projections for Peoria’s museum are well above the average of other museums in the matrix. If Peoria were to get the 41.35% average penetration, it would come out to about 153,494 visitors per year.

Now, I’m going to guess that the argument will be that these are old numbers — possibly as old as 2004 — and that the museum’s projected attendance figures are for 2011, which is the date they hope to open the museum. So, let’s assume that 153,494 is a 2004 figure, and that attendance would increase at a rate of 3% per year. Over seven years (2004-2011), that would bump up the attendance to 188,788 visitors — still far below the 240,000 figure being projected. To get to 240,000, you’d have to assume that attendance would grow by almost 7% each year. It’s also worth noting that museum officials have been projecting “200,000 to 250,000 visitors a year” since 2003 (“Report touts museum impact,” Peoria Journal Star, 4/8/2003).

Granted, my methods are not nearly as scientific as the “common sense” methods employed by others, but I think a case could be made that the museum’s attendance estimates are wildly optimistic.

24 comments to Questioning museum attendance projections

  • kcdad

    Every 3 minutes of every day, of every week, of every month, of the year, 2 people must pay admission to enter the museum. That is what 360,000 visitors a year means.

  • s

    When I see figures of this nature; it always makes me wonder if the vistor count includes all of school children that are “forced” to go on a field trip to the museum and pay no entry fees?

    I have to wonder what the actual admission revenue is to all of the similar museums and NOT the visitor count.

  • New Voice

    O.K……………NOW it ALL makes sense. Here I thought the museum people were just ‘making’ this stuff up!

  • Careful c.J., you may make Mayor Maloof and Jim Baldwin of the Museum group mad at you and cut you up!!

  • museum.exe

    Resistance is futile, puny Peorians. Peorians will give up to what the museum aparati wish of it……..Submit. Submit. Submit.

  • David P. Jordan

    CJ, you may need a bodyguard after this one 🙂

    Too bad local leaders’ passion for a riverfront museum can’t instead be directed at installing infrastructure at Growth Cell Two and marketing it for logistics and light manufacturing firms.

  • padman

    If the caterpillar experience is free and the exhibit is better than the John Deere exhibit in Moline which is also free those numbers should be higher.

  • kcdad

    And if they pay people to visit the numbers will be even higher… maybe. That doesn’t help pay for the stupid idea, though.

  • Ileriet

    Good analysis, however, to be complete, I’d suggest that you seperate the list of nine benchmarked museums into two sub lists, those with an IMAX theater included in the facility and those without and take another look at the numbers. Then call up the Lakeview staff and ask the following question, “Out of the total of 240,000 projected annual visitors to the PRM, how many of these visitors are projected to only visit the IMAX theater during their visit, i.e. they will not be visiting the museum galleries or planetarium? ? ?” I’m willing to bet that at least half of their projected visitors are just watching a movie at the IMAX theater.

  • The Mouse

    “wildly optimistic”, yes, I’d say that sums it up. Another item, what are the attendance figures/square footage for Lakeview right now?

  • Ileriet — Is the IMAX a sure thing? They started out talking about an IMAX-like theater, and then they went up to negotiate with the IMAX people, but I haven’t heard that it’s for sure that we would get an IMAX. We might just get a “large-screen digital theater.”

    The museums that have IMAX theaters are Science Spectrum, Putnam, Sci-Port Discovery Center, Gulf Coast Exploreum, and Louisville Science Center. Exploration Place has a large-screen dome theater.

    Just looking at the museums with actual IMAX theaters, the average market penetration comes out to 50.24%. In Peoria, that would be 186,494 visitors, based on an MSA population of 371,206. If you include Exploration Place and its large-screen dome theater, the average penetration drops to 46.9%, which for Peoria would be 174,096. Neither figure is anywhere near 240,000 visitors per year.

    As for how many of those visitors will be going to the museum vs. the theater, it doesn’t matter. The annual attendance figures presented on the matrix include museum and IMAX attendance combined. To compare apples to apples, we should compare combined attendance in Peoria as well.

  • Karrie E. Alms

    Mouse: Peoria County Board Member Baietto, at the 8 Jan 2009 Finance Committee Meeting, said some people were calling the museum numbers ‘aggressive’.
    You are so diplomatic.

    Is the attendance figure broken down by paying, memberships, schools….?

  • The museum backers could point to the Science Spectrum in Lubbock and say their numbers are reasonable.

    Of course Lubbock is 322 miles from Albuquerque, 346 miles from Dallas and 383 miles from Oklahoma City, the nearest large metropolitan areas. Peoria is 168 miles to Chicago and 169 miles to St. Louis. All mileage is courtesy of Google Maps.

    I would look at that information and form the theory that the people around Lubbock have nowhere else to go. The museum Kool-Aiders would probably say that we’ll draw more people from the Chicago and St. Louis metro areas.

    Field Museum? Shedd Aquarium? Forest Park with the St Louis Zoo and Science Center (both FREE general admission)? Naaaaa … I’ll go to the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

    RIGHT. I think 40% penetration would be an extremely generous estimate.

  • Karrie E. Alms

    Knight: Go ahead and compare museum backers to Lubbock, if so, then Peoria County taxpayers should get the same financial deal. Namely:

    * 185,000 gsf Lubbock
    * Adaptive Reuse (of an existing building)
    * OmniMax theatre owned by City of Lubbock
    * $5M G.O. bond which was required to be repaid in annual payments by the museum
    * $5M debt has since been retired
    * Land owned by City of Lubbock
    * No financial OR operational support from either the City of Lubbock or Lubbock County

    Apples to oranges. Not the same deal.

  • Karrie E. Alms

    P.S.: Science only vs. multifunction.

  • peoriafan

    Yea, the meetings would be really short then. Just vote “no” on everything that comes in front of the council unless it involves a sidewalk.

  • New Voice

    I agree with Karrie. “Multifunction” has been… and still is a pipe-dream. This idea was promulgated [by LaHood & company] as a way of bringing the rest of the so-called ‘Museum Partners’ in line with Lakeview’s plans.

    This is why elements of the museum, such as Peoria’s history and it’s proper maintenance, will suffer in the long run.

  • Karrie,

    You did catch that I was saying it was a BAD comparison, right? I thought calling local museum backers “Kool-Aiders” would give it away …

    I agree … apples & oranges. Your numbers reinforce that.

  • Karrie E. Alms

    Knight: I just want to make sure that I am really understanding sarcasm as sarcasm and taxpayers won’t be drinking Kool-Aide.

    Knight, did you read the Peoria County Staff Museum Policy Consideration 241 page report? If not, please read page 241. Annual Shortfall @90% Pro forma is an initial endowment of $13.5M at an investment rate of 4.5%. In year 20, the endowment balance is at $451,182 with a potential shortfall of greater than $1.8M in year 21. What happens in year 21 of their projections — where will the operating funds come from then?

    Knight, you wrote that you thought ‘40% penetration would be an extremely generous estimate’. So, what would the amount of the initial endowment need to be? We are talking how many MILLION – GULP? Would a mathematician please help us out?

  • Ileriet

    An acquaintance advised me that you’d posted some critical analysis of the attendance projections for the new Museum and the Caterpillar Experience. Since I’ve been very involved in the development of those numbers, I thought perhaps that some additional info might be beneficial for your continued evaluation. I don’t expect that this info will eliminate your skepticism, but as this aspect of the project continues to receive significant focus, I’d like to attempt to explain some of the rational behind the numbers.

    First, I’m glad you understand the 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 breakdown of the total attendance figure of 360,000. This does immediately get confusing, but it means that we recognize that not everyone who visits the site will visit both facilities. Therefore we’re talking about each facility having an annual attendance figure of 240,000.

    Let’s focus on the Caterpillar Experience first as that’s my primary responsibility. Here we’ve used the John Deere Pavilion in Moline as our primary benchmark. For the first five years after the facility opened in August of 1997, it averaged 228,000 visitors annually. Attendance has declined over the past five years however, averaging only 176,000 per year. I think this shows that without continued investment in updating exhibits and displays any facility such as this will experience attendance declines. We believe that the exhibits and displays planned for the Caterpillar Experience, along with the significant focus on educational aspects of the facility, and the commitment to update the exhibits and displays within the facilty, should allow the Experience to attract and maintain an average annual attendance of 240,000 visitors per year.

    For instance, we plan to work with instructors from the Caterpillar University to develop a potential course curriculum for middle school, high school and college students who are visiting the Experience on an organized tour. If time permits, their instructor will be able to select a grade level appropriate topic from the curriculum and the group could then extend their visit after the normal tour with this additional class. We’re hopeful that this concept will make the Experience an even more attractive field trip for area educators and continue to bring them to the facility year after year.

    Most of the customers that our dealers bring to the Peoria area to visit Caterpillar facilities have free time from the end of first shift operations at the factories (about 3pm) until they go to their evening meal. Again, we hope that the dealers will find the displays and exhibits at the Experience very appealing and bring their customer tour groups to visit the Experience during this period of free time in the late afternoon. I suspect you can guess where many of these guests in Peoria spend most of that time currently.

    Attendance projections for the Caterpillar Experience however, should really not be a controversy in regard to the overall project, as the company will be paying for the operation of the facility and if attendance projections are not achieved, it will be at no expense to the general public. So, lets look at some of the museum attendance projections in more detail. I’ve worked with the museum planners and their consultants on these numbers, including various revisions, several times over the past four years. We’ve scrubbed these numbers over and over until we’ve concluded that they are “reasonably achieveable”. Guaranteed, certainly not; a stretch, most probably; will achieving them require significantly more aggressive advertising and promotion than Lakeview currently utilizes, absolutely.

    OK, here goes, again we’re looking at an annual attendance projection of 240,000 visitors or an average of 667 per day and in response to some of the inquiries you’ve received, yes, that includes every visitor to the facility (with the exception of those pre-school students that are enrolled in the facilities day-care program which will be a carry over from the current program operated at Lakeview Museum).

    As I understand their projections, those 240,000 visitors have been broken down into five sub-categories as follows:

    Exhibit Galleries & Planetarium only
    (56,000 annually or an average of 156 per day)
    (The general admission ticket will include admission to both the
    exhibit galleries and one show in the planetarium).

    Exhibit Galleries & Planetarium & IMAX theater combination ticket
    (53,000 annually or an average of 147 per day)

    IMAX Theater only
    (93,000 annually or an average of 258 per day)

    Planetarium only
    (19,000 annually or an average of 119 per day)
    (this would primarily be school tours so I’ve assumed 160 days of school –
    throw out the first 20 days while teachers are getting organized).

    all other visitors
    (19,000 annually or an average of 53 per day)
    (this would primarily be museum classes and special events, exhibit openings,
    special fund raising events, visitors to the museum store or book
    court)

    With this breakdown, it becomes apparent that the IMAX theater is projected to be the primary generator of attendance at the Museum facility. The closest IMAX theater facility to Peoria is at the Putnam Museum in Davenport. Their attendance figures were the primary benchmark taken into account when the PRM numbers were developed. The four-year average attendance figures at the Putnam’s IMAX theater were 97,000 during the day and 73,100 during the evening or a total of just over 170,000. From the above figures, you can see that the museum planners are projecting 146,000 for annual attendance at the PRM IMAX or 86% of the Putnam’s history. When these numbers were originally put together, this was assumed to be a conservative projection for the PRM and was accepted as reasonable.

    If you’ve been to visit the Putnam Museum in Davenport, I’d hope you’d agree that it is not located in a very attractive, nor conveniently located area of the community. The PRM’s location on the riverfront should generate much greater visibility to the Museum’s IMAX and boost attendance figures. Being relatively close to the downtown hotels and guests in town overnight for Civic Center events should also provide a boost to IMAX attendance figures. (To the best of my knowledge, negotiations with IMAX are still continuing on a positive track and museum planners have every intention of this large screen theater bearing the IMAX label).

    Also, again referencing back to the Caterpillar dealer and customer guests in Peoria. We’ve talked to the Museum planners about the possibility of showing the IMAX film “The Fires of Kuwait” each afternoon during the week at about 4:00 or so, at a somewhat expected slack time at the museum after the school age tour groups have left for the day. This film is a very interesting documentary on the efforts to extinguish the oil well fires in Kuwait after the first gulf war and features the extensive use of Caterpillar equipment in very hazardous conditions. Again, we’d expect that many of the dealer and customer guests would be interested in watching this movie during that normally free time. It would certainly be a unique opportunity for them during their visit to Peoria.

    Looking at this IMAX attendance projection on a daily basis breakdowns down to approximately 400 per day. With four shows planned during the day and two shows in the evening, that would require an average of about 68 people per show, or about one large school bus per show with a few others joining them. Reasonable or unreasonable, to each his own opinion, but the Museum planners have set this as their target.

    Another way to analyze the data would be to combine the 56,000 figure for the Gallery/Planetarium only visits with the 53,000 figure for the Gallery/Planetarium/IMAX visits which would result in a total of 109,000 visitors to the galleries each year or a total of just over 300 visitors per day. And yes, this projection counts every student who tours the exhibit galleries at the museum with his class on a field trip. Obviously the museum planners feel these numbers are reasonable and achievable, skeptics will look at them as overly optimistic and most likely unobtainable. However, doesn’t the JFK quote go something like, “Some men see things as they are and ask why, others dream of what might be and ask why not?” Perhaps that’s appropriate in this situation.

    There are pages and pages of other benchmarking data to substantiate all of these numbers, however I don’t have the time or space to cover everything individually. My intent in sharing these numbers with you is to simply demonstrate that they were not simply pulled out of the air in an effort to make the project look attractive. I suspect that some of your fellow bloggers will recall the old phrase, “Liars figure and figures lie” However, from my perspective, one of the primary objectives of the “Build the Block” campaign has been to share information about the project with the public in order to allow them to better understand the proposed development and I hope this information contributes to that understanding.

    Mark L. Johnson
    Project Manager – Caterpillar Experience

  • mazr

    Mark, any way you want to present it…..I’ll bet my house there is no way those figures come to fruition.

  • […] following is a response to my post, “Questioning museum attendance projections.” It’s such a good response, I couldn’t let it be buried in the comments section […]

  • […] is the Museum Collaboration Group’s plan to sustain their optimistic attendance numbers over the next 20 years (i.e., the duration of the bonds used for construction) and […]

  • […] raised their projected revenue for gallery admissions from $420,000 to $718,000. However, if we use a more realistic estimate of 180,000 visitors per year, the revenue would be $540,000 — $178,000 less than the […]