History Center Asks Guests To Pay-It-Forward And Stem Visitor Decline
The San Diego History Center had a very good 2015. Balboa Park's centennial created a lot of attention for the park's museums, helping make the History Center's exhibit on Theodor Geisel its most popular show. But the History Center couldn't hold on to the increase in visitors.
"It was discouraging to us because we had spent time building our audience and relevancy," History Center executive director Bill Lawrence said. "We felt we needed to do something to reengage with an audience that we obviously weren’t connecting with."
Lawrence turned to research from Ayelet Gneezy, a behavioral science professor at UC San Diego's Rady School of Management who studies charitable giving. Gneezy's work has shown that businesses and non-profits can find success with "pay it forward" pricing. Instead of having a fixed $10 admission fee or even asking visitors to set their own price, the History Center tells guests that their ticket has been paid for by a previous guest. They're then asked to help contribute and pay for future guests. The History Center calls the initiative "Give Forward."
The History Center has seen admissions rebound to about 30,000 in the six months ending in March, compared to 12,000 during the same period last year.
But visitor revenues are down from $130,000 to $82,000. The average price paid per visitor has fallen from about $10.80 to $2.70. Lawrence says that decline is less than five percent of the museum's operating revenue.
"Admission through the gate is important, but it’s a relatively small portion of our budget," Lawrence said. "For us, it’s a cultural change. It’s the long-term relationships that we build that will ultimately make the institution successful."
Lawrence and Gneezy joined KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday to discuss their collaboration and how they're still experimenting with the museum's admissions.