Conservative visitor estimates aim to safeguard budget
By Diane Weaver Dunne
May 19, 2008
For nonprofit tourist attractions, attendance matters. Their financial stability depends on it. Attendance projections are particularly critical for new, multimillion dollar facilities when visitor counts aren’t a sure thing.
It’s a challenge Connecticut Science Center officials are taking very seriously. Since 2004, officials began developing a master plan for the center, which is expected to open next spring. They have fine tuned the center’s operating budget of $8.5 million based on industry attendance experience and careful analysis of state and local tourist attractions.
Center officials don’t have to look far to realize that wildly optimistic visitor predictions can wreck an attraction’s bottom line. Such was the case for new education centers at both the Old State House and the Mark Twain House, where visitor counts missed the mark by about 80 percent and 50 percent, respectively, causing serious financial distress.
Although science center officials aren’t pointing fingers, they don’t intend to make the same mistake. “We carefully analyzed the nonprofit, museum sector,” said Matthew Fleury, the center’s chief operating officer and executive vice president.
For the past four years, center officials have been engaged in “exhaustive discussions” about the center’s marketplace — Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, Fleury said. That discussion included the evaluation of the state’s geography, demographics and competition to determine its attendance potential.
“This was done so we can understand who lives here, what do they spend their money on, what do they want, and where will they go,” Fleury said.
Based on the experience of eight, similar science centers, and with the help of White Oak Associates, a Massachusetts-based museum consulting firm, Hartford officials expect about 450,000 visitors to walk through the center’s doors in its first year of operation after it opens next spring. Attendance is expected to taper down to 365,000 by its fourth year.
The average attendance at medium to large science centers range between 266,000 and 505,000 per year, said Sean Smith, spokesman for the Association of the Science - Technology Centers.
While science center officials in Hartford considered attendance experiences of about 180 science centers and like institutions from around the world, they homed in on the particular marketplace and attendance patterns of centers located in the following cities: Phoenix, Cleveland, Jersey City, Louisville, Baltimore, Birmingham, Orlando, and San Jose.
“We looked at these with some caution; there is no other Hartford,” Fleury said.
Orlando, for example, has averaged a draw of 300,000-400,000 people a year to its 11-year-old science center. But Orlando, unlike Hartford, is a destination city for tourist families. In contrast, Hartford officials anticipate that just 20 percent of its visitors will be tourists, 20 percent will be school children, and the balance, about 60 percent, will be from its local marketplace.
Attendance assumptions were reviewed through three renditions of the Hartford center’s master plan, the last one completed last fall. Although attendance projections were not revised, Fleury said that they regularly review their expectations against industry trends to ensure they are on the right track.
Officials at the Connecticut Science Center settled on a fourth-year attendance figure of 365,000 — slightly below the midpoint of the national range — “just to be conservative,” said Fleury.
“We’d rather make budgetary assumptions on lower attendance numbers and grow, rather than base our assumptions on higher assumptions and find out that we have to shrink,” he added.
Budgetary calculations also take into consideration that of the 365,000 visitors, only 280,000 will fully pay for attendance, factoring in lower admission fees for attendees who buy museum memberships.
Fleury acknowledges that there are risks in either under-estimating or over-estimating attendance figures. However, center officials have developed a contingency plan to accommodate higher visitor counts if they are realized.
“We are very big on studying industry experience … but we also are very practical about the reality that for us, as with any business, projections are projections,” Fleury said, adding, that it’s just as important to prepare for the unexpected as well.
The center is also realistic about the competition from other family activities, such as amusement parks, the mall, or movies.
“Visitors aren’t just deciding between us and another museum,” he said. “They are deciding between us and any other number of places that are heavily marketed. A destination has to compete.”
So the center is dedicating about 5 percent of its budget — roughly $500,000 — to advertising and marketing efforts. That’s higher than the industry average. Medium to large science centers invest between 2.88 percent and 4.85 percent of their budget on advertising dollars, said Smith of the science center trade group. The center is also developing media partnerships to leverage its $500,000 investment to $1 million in advertising and marketing dollars annually.
As the Connecticut Science Center readies for its opening next year, Fleury said that Ted Sergi, the center’s president and CEO, as well as its board of trustees and staff, continue to review industry trends to ensure that as few things as possible are left to chance.