Heritage venues rely on visitors to survive. But what makes someone visit in the first place? Will they spend money while they are there? And how do you persuade them to return?
John Stachiewicz, Chairman of the Association for Cultural Enterprises identifies ways in which the cultural heritage sector can benefit from commercial opportunities. And two very different museums reveal the approach they take to generate income.
Taking a business approach to heritage
For the cultural heritage sector, investment is vital for upkeep of estates, exhibitions, learning programmes and acquisitions. Rather than seeing funding cuts as a threat, John regards it as an opportunity.
"Industry professionals are becoming better at their jobs because they are now more focused on activities that generate income, allowing them to become self-sufficient.’
Laura Wright is CEO of the Tate Enterprises, which has four cultural heritage venues in the UK. She believes success lies in taking a business approach.
"Whether you are a large or small organisation, it is important to have an entrepreneurial cultural mindset and be interested and engaged by commercial possibilities.’
Like other independent museums that receive no government funding, funding for the American Museum in Britain is split into thirds. 1/3 is generated through ticket sales, 1/3 is derived from grants and 1/3 comes from private donations. Ticket sales alone will never cover their running costs.
Funding is split: 1/3 through ticket sales, 1/3 from grants and 1/3 from private donations.
Laura Brown is Head of Learning and Visitor Services for the American Museum in Britain
"In order to make back running costs, our ticket sales would need to be £30 a person – something we would never do!
"Our focus is in taking an entrance fee, but after that there is no pressure to spend any further money. Audio guides, family activities and events are all free and included in the price, so visitors get real value for money.’
The value of retail for heritage venues
Association for Cultural Enterprises helps the cultural heritage sector to maximise their commercial potential by sharing best practices and fostering links with other bodies.
This involves running workshops, seminars, presentations, a trade show and best product awards. Retail plays an important function.
"Success can be measured by visitor spend per head. No one goes into a museum expecting a homogenous high street store.
"They want to purchase something that will remind them of their visit which is why product development and deciding what to sell is so important."
Theme is especially relevant to the American Museum of Britain for both the café and its three shops. The most popular is their country store. It sells memorabilia most people associate with America, like homecrafts, Najavo jewellery and cowboy figurines, while the café specialises in giant cookies that you can’t buy anywhere else.’
The Tate has a reputation as a place where you can buy contemporary art and craft. As Laura Wright says, "There are many factors behind the choice of products in Tate shops. These include who our customers are, what season it is, how well products fit Tate brand values and how much money we’ll make from selling the product.
"A balance really matters. We’re very interested in working with new designer/makers and are constantly seeking out new products or innovative ideas. But we are also very proud of working with established ones."
Attracting visitors with workshops & events
Workshops and events attract visitors who otherwise would not visit your venue.
Cultural heritage venues should not be in competition with each other. If people go to an historic house one day, they will want to go to a different museum the next.
While it’s common to run family activities during school holidays, adult-only workshops are normally one-off, paid-for sessions like photography, writing or learning traditional craft skills.
Laura Brown admits that the paid courses they offer barely break even, but they do result in new people coming.
For this reason the museum prefers to run bigger, more memorable events such as Independence Day parties. They also specialise in music. "We have regular live music in an informal setting, ideal for families."
Venue hire, particularly for weddings and private parties is another good way to increase revenue.
Income from media, film and publishing
Filming creates significant income for The National Trust. The revenue from costume dramas and movies can bring in millions of pounds a year.
For other venues, hosting TV programmes like The Antiques Roadshow can boost revenue and visitor numbers. If you are keen to explore filming opportunities, you will need support from all parts of the organisation on where and when filming can take place.
Publishing is a more specialist arm of generating income. It doesn’t work for smaller museums like The American Museum, which has its guides produced by a contractor, but for larger organisations like the Tate, it is essential.
Laura Wright says, "Publishing is a division of Tate Enterprises, it’s firmly about customers and profit and is one of our business-to-business activities.
"Publishing needs to be profitable so think of different models of publishing and select the best option for you, whether that be self-publishing, buying rights or working with a larger trade publisher.’
Creating a unique visitor experience
Just as the public expect attentive table service from a waiter in a restaurant, they want an equally personalised service when they pay entrance fee for a museum or gallery.
John believes that,. "Visitors will only tell their friends and come back themselves if they have a holistic experience. From being met with a smile to clean toilets and having a decent cup of coffee. And it’s the responsibility of all staff to play their role in this."
He also observes that cultural heritage venues should not be in competition with each other. "Every venue has its uniqueness which is what people what to see.
"If they go to one historic house one day, they will want to go to a different museum the next, the key to make sure they stop by yours is to keep focussing on uniqueness."
"We focus on a complete experience. Visiting us is more like a day trip."
Laura Brown agrees, "We are the only American Museum outside the US so that in itself will attract visitors. But on the flipside, we are on the outskirts of Bath.
"Tourists flock to Bath for the weekend, but there’s already so much to do in the town centre. So instead we focus on a complete experience. We aim to encourage visitors to leave the city behind and see the spectacular views we offer from our gardens.
"Visiting us is more like a day trip where people explore the mansion, sit back and enjoy the gardens and have a meal."
John says, ‘Membership is another great initiative. Encourage people to make your venue feel like their second home. They can come and go as much as they like and as their fondness for it grows, they will continue to offer support."