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Johnson: Attendance projections “not simply pulled out of the air”

The 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 of an old post, so I’m reprinting it here in its entirety. It’s a response from Mark Johnson, Caterpillar Experience project manager, who has been involved with the museum project for quite some time. Whatever you think of Mr. Johnson’s argument, you have to give him credit for his honesty and civility. I wish all debates would be this cordial and on-point. My thanks to Mr. Johnson for responding and to frequent commenter Ileriet for forwarding it to me.

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

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

16 comments to Johnson: Attendance projections “not simply pulled out of the air”

  • CJ thanks for pulling this out–I would have missed it otherwise.

    To you and to Mr. Johnson and others: this makes the projections sound a little more realistic. That doesn’t change my opinion, however, as to whether taxpayer funding for the project is warranted, and I would hope that the recent announcement regarding midtown Cub would get all of the city governing types to think twice about whether public funding of anything with an expected revenue stream is at all “a good investment” for the taxpayers.

  • Cort55

    Interesting and I hope it works.

    I spend a lot of time in Cathederal City, CA. The city hoped an IMEX would save their downtown: it didn’t.

    I’ve been to the IMEX twice in three years and both times there were only a handful of people there.

    I don’t think we can count on it, here, either.

  • Great informative post. I support the museum and would like to see the project succeed. However, my business instincts tell me that the risks involved in building the museum must be too great for standard financing routes, the current economy notwithstanding. If the future museum had great potential to generate substantive income or traffic to downtown then it would have been built already. The fact that public money is being sought likely indicates that the museum is not going to meet the desired projections and there is too much risk of financial loss.

  • peoriafan

    yea, I agree. lets just let that two block area that sits in the heart of our downtown sit empty for another ten years.
    Doing anything with it would be just to risky.

  • Peoriafan — Funny, that’s exactly the logic that Mayor Grieves used to sell the council on MidTown Plaza. “The risk of doing nothing” was too high for that too. Sometimes, doing “something” can actually be worse than doing nothing, if that “something” is a bad idea. Right now, the empty block isn’t costing taxpayers a dime. If they build the museum, taxpayers will be on the hook for up to $44 million just for construction, and who knows how much for operational costs.

  • Karrie E. Alms

    Mike: I too am for a museum. Not this museum configuration. I think that we could have a more financially sound and designed project.

    Your statement – “However, my business instincts tell me that the risks involved in building the museum must be too great for standard financing routes, the current economy notwithstanding.”

    Financing for the new museum was always dependant on a public funding mechanism. At yesterday’s Finance Committee Meeting (1/15/09), Mr. Richerson stated that Lakeview had looked for $12M from the State and $12M from the Feds and that did not come through. Then Peoria County was approached for the $24M (Nov 2007) in GO bonds (was my understanding) and the county board said no. The County board supported the idea of lobbying for a legislative change (during 2008) which would allow for the County Board to bond via revenue bonds supported by a sales tax increase up to 1% which would have to be voter approved. And to the County’s credit — they have stayed on that path and now there is an opportunity for taxpayers to vote up or down a tax increase. It is a rare opportunity. Every vote will count.

  • I must be misunderstanding something. Did Johnson say that they expect 400 people to visit the IMAX theater every day? Seriously? 400. Paying customers?

    I don’t believe those figures, so obviously I’m not like JFK.

    Typical manipulative BS from Caterpillar.

  • New Voice

    – Well done to Mr. Johnson. So far he has offered a much clearer explanation for all of this than anyone else associated with the museum….. which is one more reason to ask why CAT feels they need to be associated with this museum at all.

    “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.”

    – Good point! Again, why has/does CAT present this ‘CAT Experience/PRM’ project as such an all-or-nothing undertaking?

    – Attendance figures, etc. are a shot in the dark.

    – Attendance, money, taxes, referendums………. the list goes on. I guess any comments concerning the proposed museum; it’s content, exhibit context, artifact and archive preservation, etc, will just go unanswered…….. this is the real shame.

    – Further comments to come…standby.

  • New Voice


    Does Mr. Johnson have any opinion on why this CAT/PRM project has had such a difficult time garnering any real public support, i.e. why can’t they seem to raise the required funds?

    I have asked this question of many people associated with the museum [on various levels], and NEVER gotten an answer.

  • Tom

    BTW, It was RFK not JFK who made the quote.

  • I suspect you can guess where many of these guests in Peoria spend most of that time currently.

    I can’t believe you guys let this one slide by. I’m disappointed. 😉

  • New Voice


    Big Al’s?

  • diane vespa

    That was my guess! Can someone please e-mail Mr. Johnson and get a confirmation on that?

  • Ileriet

    Yes, Billy, unless you’re admitting to a reading disorder, I believe Mr. Johnson explained it quite clearly, that the Museum Group’s projection is 400 people per day attending the IMAX theater shows. With a seating capacity of 200 and six shows per day, they would be targeting attendance at 1/3 capacity. Apparently you believe that it is absolutely outside the realm of possibility that the proven attendance figures that have occured in Davenport referred to by Mr. Johnson, can happen in Peoria. I’ve heard you described with alot of adjectives Mr. Dennis, but visionary has never been one of them.

    New Voice, I’m sure Johnson has an opinion regarding the museum’s funding struggles, but it’s also obvious that you do as well, why not share it with us instead of just continuing to ask the question. Your opinion is certainly worth just as much as his.

    For what it’s worth here’s mine, projects like this in the Peoria area used to be able to count on getting the vast majority of their funding from four sources,
    Caterpillar, CILCO, the Bielfeldt Foundation and Ellie Foster. Unfortunately, Ellie Foster passed away before she made a pledge to the new musuem, the situation involving the Bielfeldt Foundation that has prevented them from making a substantial pledge to the museum has been well documented by the press (I’d admit it could be argued that this situation has been doumented, perhaps not well), Ameren/CILCO has their own challenges that have prevented them from making a pledge, so you’re left with only one leg of the stool still remaining, forcing the Museum Group into struggling to make up for the shortfalls from the other three.

    Here’s a quote from President Teddy Roosevelt that columnist Joe Klein used in a recent issue of Time Magazine, “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again . . . who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.”

    Have a pleasant Sunday.

  • New Voice


    I have written countless posts expressing my views on every aspect of THIS museum plan. Most of the regulars on Peoria Chronicle have added their 2 cents.

    My question is two fold.
    Why a lack of funding?
    You mentioned the loss of three major sources of funding – Foster, AM/CILCO, and Bielfeldt. Fair enough. What kind of funding loss we are talking about here is anyone’s guess. Other private donations? A faltering economy does not help.

    This is what I am most interested in. In my humble opinion, this is one reason why funding goals cannot be achieved [obviously]. I will not put words in the mouth of Mr. Johnson, but it seemed that even he was being a little ‘over optimistic.’
    This has become a battle of ‘we’ vs. ‘they.’ The Museum Group has handled this project wrong from the beginning. I have said as much for the past couple of years. The hard-fisted tactics used by the Lakeview Board, former mayors, and assorted Peoria shakers and movers, has created a rift between them and the general public. Tell me I am wrong! The only support [in the J Star or on this blog] I ever see comes from people DIRECTLY involved with the project. They have not gotten anyone new onboard…they have NOT convinced the public.

    Your last bit, including the quote from Teddy….. a little cliche don’t you think? You guys can stop making this Museum Project sound like a Crusade being led by the oh-so noble. We are critics as long as we go unheard.

    Outside of a few multi-million dollar consulting firms, the Museum Group has NEVER taken outside advise from any local group/people, etc.

    Anyway, I am still waiting for someone connected with the museum to answer my questions!

  • kcdad

    “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again . . . who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.”

    Wow… thanks. I really don’t think I deserve it, because my arena is the arena of ideas. What is yours?

    I noticed the deep caring and sense of loss at the death of Ellie Foster “before she made a pledge to the new museum,” !!! Pretty funny stuff, Ileriet.