Thursday, October 27, 2011

It’s about time: ROM reduces admission fees to semi-reasonable levels

This morning, the Royal Ontario Museum is officially announcing that they are reducing their admission fees, which, until this announcement, were the most exorbitant in Canada and among the most expensive in the world.

The general admission fees are dropping to $15 for adults [previously $24], to $13.50 for seniors and students [previously $21] and to $12 for children over the age of 3 [previously $16].

As any frequent reader of my work would likely suspect, my reaction to this news is generally positive. Admission fees and affordability at museums has been an axe I like to grind, and this is a big step in the right direction. The adult admission fee has dropped by a third, and is finally almost in that movie-ticket ballpark I’ve recommended as a maximum in the past.

At the same time, those who care about museum access might also see some cause for concern in this announcement. As part of these changes, the ROM is eliminating its two free hours per week, which were Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5:30pm. (Inconvenient and tokenistic as a time slot, I’ll admit. But my preference in terms of these announcement would have been to see these hours expanded and moved to an evening during the week.)

On the more good-newsy front, the ROM is at least maintaining cheaper hours on Friday from 4 to 8pm, with admission fees during that time dropping to $9 for adults (previously $12), $8 for seniors/students (previously $10.50), and $6 for children (previously $8).

Yesterday, ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding chatted with me on the phone about this change to admission fees. Our edited exchange is printed below.

Q The ROM has said for years that there’s no money in the budget to reduce admission fees. Where did the money come from to do this?

A Well what we’ve done over the last few months as part of our strategic plan is we spoke to people who hadn’t visited us before or visited us in a while. And what we were hearing then was that the price was too expensive for people. We felt we needed to make a change, and people said to us that if we had a lower entrance price, more of us would come. We’ve reduced the [adult admission price] to $15 and we think the cost of doing that will be offset by the increased number of people who will come. I would rather have lots of people coming to see us at a lower admission fee than fewer people coming to see us at a higher admission fee.

Q How much of overall revenues do admission fees currently comprise?

A Well, last year 17% of our revenue was admissions. But that was including all of the admissions—admission to special exhibitions as well as to the permanent collection. What that doesn’t include is membership.

Q The ROM policies demand that the museum reduce economic barriers to the permanent collection to the greatest extent possible. Why not just make access to the permanent collection free and charge for temporary exhibitions, as many other museums do?

A Where we are right now, what we found is that we couldn’t afford making the permanent collection free without cutting temporary exhibitions. So it wasn’t a viable economic model.

It feels to me that my role is to create a museum that’s lively—that people have access to what we do. [At the same time,] I don’t want to reduce the quality of what we’re doing. I want to have more people coming.

Also, we found that even most of those visitors who were coming during our free hours were happy to pay something—they just felt $24 wasn’t the right amount. So we said, let’s make it cheaper for lots of people to come everyday.

Q And you eliminated free hours altogether. Why?

A We’re working on the basis that we’re going to be free to the people who need it to be free for them. So we’re increasing the number of tickets available in our access program by 50% to a total of 75,000.

Q Does that include distributing ROM passes at all Toronto library branches rather than just a few of them?

A No. We’ve focused on those areas that are particularly areas of need, the areas where people were least likely to be coming to the museum.

Q One thing I’ve found in researching this issue is that institutions often point to each other when setting fees. They say, “this fee is consistent with comparable institutions in the area.” So how do you expect this admissions fee change to impact structures at the AGO and the Ontario Science Centre and other museums in the area?

A Well the research that we did was for our visitors. We didn’t ask questions about other sites. I would expect everyone would be looking at it from the point of view of their audience. What I have done is I’ve made sure our colleagues knew [in advance] that we were making this announcement this week. So from my point of view it’s not about what’s right for everyone else, but what’s right for the ROM.

Q You came to the ROM from overseas museums [like the Australian Museum] where the admission fee structure was considerably more affordable. How did that affect your approach to the ROM’s admission fees?

A When I arrived, I knew that we were an expensive museum to visit compared some other museums. But what I wanted to understand was what audiences here felt.

The research we’ve done over the last few months has been helpful in working out what we need to be. And my interest is in being the best museum we can be.

To me, this is the first step in what I’d like to do over the next 3 to 5 years. When we get to 2014, [the ROM’s centenary year], I’d like people to being seeing the ROM as an essential destination… and affordability is a key part of that. So it’s about what’s right for the people here in Toronto and Ontario.

Q How much did the Ontario government recommendation of last year—that the ROM improve its economic access—affect this change of approach on admission fees?

A Well, we did a whole series of things in terms of preparing for that committee, and that included taking a look at whether our access program was working. I think one of the reasons we’re increasing the number of [access program] tickets to 75,000 is we feel that’s actually working. But we’re constantly looking for new partners to help us reach new audiences. So we’re delighted to work at the YMCA and the YWCA, for example. So I think preparation for the committee helped us.


A few more of my thoughts on this development:

- I’m all for museums staying financially solvent, but when will they stop treating the public as a customer and start treating them as a shareholder or client? The ROM’s funding is still 50% government grants, and it remains an agency of the provincial government. This admission fee drop is a big step in the right direction, but the elimination of free hours is not a good precedent to set in terms of a collection held in the public trust.

- I am wondering, as indicated in the Q&A, how other museums in the area might react to this. My ideal outcome would be that they reduce their fees as well. We’ll see what happens. I can also imagine them being very upset by this announcement from an internal perspective, since it does put pressure on them to reduce fees they may not feel ready to reduce yet.

- I would like to see museums, strangely, become a bit more self-interested on this front. When Toronto councilors threatened to shut local libraries, there were hundreds of people who turned up at city council to protest and thousands more who signed petitions online. Citizens feel that libraries, quite rightly, are theirs, because they can access them at almost any hour for free and they experience them as providing a vital public service. Because museums charge such high admission fees (and yes, $15 is still a lot to many Torontonians and Ontarians), they forego a large amount of that kind of popular emotional support.

- Also, I still don’t understand why the ROM didn’t at least set the fees at movie prices. In terms of market, if I can pay 10 to 12 bucks and go see a multimillion dollar production with a compelling narrative and emotional appeal (okay, yes, I recently saw Moneyball) that could, in marketing terms, well outshine paying $15 to see artifacts for which no narrative or context is necessarily provided. (I write this as an obvious narrative junkie, but I know I’m not alone in that prediliction.)

- Overall, just to underline, I'm pleasantly surprised by this announcement. A big step in the right direction. But still lots of work to be done!

(Image of the ROM from Design Lines Magazine)


pixo said...

I have some suggestions for ROM (if it is still open to suggestions).

The ROM is too big for one visit. And often, with city life's busy schedule, a visit might only be one or two hours. But coming back for a second visit to "finish off" seeing something make the total cost too high. Hence, my suggestion is ... allow next day re-entry, or allow one or two more re-entry within one month.

This will certainly cost more to administer as personal identification will be necessary. But it will be perceived as better value for the money.

Another idea is to offer discounted ticket price when the time is 2 to 3 hours before closing. This is for people who are in the area, have a few hours to spend, but find paying full price for just an hour or two to be too pricey.

Closing at 5:30pm is too early. It is like bank hours. With the banks learning to extend their hours to be more convenient to the banking needs of their customers, the museum should do some research and see if they can do something similar. There is a large population of office workers and young condo dwellers just a few subway stops away. There might be opportunity for ROM to create a new category of ticket targeting this population - to visit the ROM after work and before dinner.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Pixo,

Those are all great suggestions.

I particularly agree on staying open later. 9 to 5 is great for school groups and tourists, but not very handy for many other potential visitors.