Friday, November 9, 2007

If You Build It, Will They Come? Maybe If You Market It!

A recent article in the New York Sun ponders the oft-voiced question pertaining to museum expansions: if you build it, will they come? The answer, as evidenced in the article, is more often than not, yes, initially, but afterwards no. A new wing, a new building, even an entire new museum in and of itself is no guarantee that visitors will come flocking--any marketer will tell you that. When considering a major capital project, it is crucial to:

-- Have realistic estimates for the construction costs and timeline. Almost every building project goes over budget and over time, but the more you can keep those overages to a minimum, the better.

-- Develop realistic projections for future attendance and revenue, being careful to assume that in the first year there will be a boom followed by a big dip in attendance in the second and possibly third years, with attendance leveling out after that.

-- Invest in a strategic marketing plan. The novelty of the new wing/building/museum may be enough to draw the crowds in the first year, but you have to be prepared ahead of time for what happens when the newness wears off.

-- Consider your overhead costs. It is a big mistake to assume that the most expensive part of a capital campaign is the campaign itself. How much extra will be required by your budget to maintain the newer, larger space? Will more staff be required? What are the hidden costs associated with the new wing/building/museum?

-- Be aware of market constraints and considerations, both in terms of what the market looks like when you begin the project and what it may look like when the project is finally completed. If your new building opens right as a recession hits, or at the same time as a dozen other new cultural attractions in your town, these market factors can have a devastating effect on the success of your new building, regardless of how much planning you have put into it.

The article doesn't examine these factors in the success or failure of museum expansions, but rather just looks at the fact that, in the ten years since the hugely successful opening of the Frank Gehry designed Museo Guggenheim Bilbao there has been a "museum-building boom" although none of the other museums have seen the success of the Bilbao.

The article cites the incredible continued investment on the part of the Basque government in the Guggenheim Bilbao as part of a larger regional economic development plan as well as the fact that it was "the first extraordinary-looking museum building" as possible reasons for the Bilbao's success where other museums have failed, but I would argue that there may be another factor at work here as well. The Guggenheim brand.

The Guggenheim has been a world-famous museum ever since the original Frank Lloyd Wright building opened in New York City in 1959. It is no accident that when the "newly rich countries," such as the United Arab Emirates, decide to "rent names, collections, and expertise of Western museums" that they turn to the famous: the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

A well-established brand is a definite factor in a museum's ability to draw a huge crowd, but where some museums slip-up is in the assumption that world-class building by a big-name architect automatically creates a brand with sticking power; that just isn't enough in itself. Never forget: marketing, marketing, marketing!

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