Friday, April 3, 2009

The Spring Break Bellwether

Three weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to Liz Kryder-Reid’s IUPUI graduate class in museum administration, and one of her students who works at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis informed us that they had just broken their all-time February attendance record. Since we were in the midst of discussing the effects of the economy, I expressed surprise. “We all hate the term ‘stay-cation,’” she said, “But that’s what appears to be happening – we have local families coming to the museum instead of traveling.”

I’ve been hearing museum people discuss this (phantom?) phenomenon every time the price of gas has risen for the last 25 years, but I wonder if this year it might be bearing fruit. I’m going to have to start asking people what their spring break experience has been this year – starting with the manager of the hotel I’m staying at today in Newport, Kentucky, on my family’s short spring break trip.

Yesterday, at 2 PM on a perfect spring Thursday afternoon, we arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo and found the parking lot full of idling cars waiting for departing families to create one open parking space. The zoo was uncomfortably crowded until after 4 PM.

Today at noon, on a blustery Friday, the serpentine outside the Newport Aquarium was hundreds of people long. (We opted to spend a day swimming, window-shopping, and playing arcade games, and try to beat the crowd tomorrow by being there when the gates open.)

Last weekend, I had promised my son a trip to our Children’s Museum in Indianapolis. We got a late start on Saturday, though, and so we opted for a quick visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (I love it that my eight-year-old loves art museums. At one point he gestured at a painting and asked, “Is that Jackson Pollack?” I told him no, but it was done in a similar style. “Yep, expressionism,” he confirmed me. Are his teachers at St. Richard’s School doing a great job or what?) But my overwhelming impression of our visit on an overcast-but-not-unpleasant March Saturday afternoon was that the IMA had a very impressive crowd -- not enough to make one feel rushed or crowded, but enough to generate a pleasant buzz, a sense of “happening.”

I also couldn’t help but notice that this crowd skewed heavily toward the twenty-somethings. We only encountered a couple of other children; and probably 20% of the audience was my age or older. But there were hundreds of young adults, mostly couples. I had to wonder whether IMA’s emphasis on “Web 2.0” social media programming as well as marketing is paying off.

The downside of spending Saturday at IMA was that I still had to fulfill my promise to go to Children’s – and the only option was a miserable, sleeting Sunday, the kind of day in which no one opts for the park or the zoo. So I wasn’t surprised to find TCM packed to the rafters with multi-generational families, a third of which were pushing multi-child strollers. It was the kind of day that made my son say – as his sisters did at about the same age – “Okay, I’m ready to go home,” and begin to make noises that, at age eight, he’s outgrown The Children’s Museum.

He hasn’t really outgrown that museum; the staff there does a good job of creating age-appropriate experiences for juveniles, tweens, and teens; it’s just hard to tell when there are five thousand toddlers in the building, and adults directing their families away from the The Power of Children exhibit with “Oh, that there’s just educational stuff. There’s nothing to see in there.” (That’s an exact quote, because it was “seared, seared into my memory.” It’s also Children’s unique challenge; but that’s another blog.)

The real point of this blog is that, within seven days in peak “spring break” season, I visited four Midwestern cultural institutions/tourist attractions and encountered crowds ranging from impressive to oppressive. (But with attractions looking for earned income to replace dwindling endowment income and flat-at-best contributions, I doubt any of them were complaining!)

We probably don’t know yet how many families in the Indianapolis/Cincinnati region stayed at home this spring instead of traveling to Florida. Thousands? Tens of thousands?

Will a similar dynamic define this summer? And if so, how can Midwest museums (and zoos and science centers) take advantage? Can smaller institutions get their share of whatever surge there is, or will all the benefits accrue to The Usual Suspects? It will be interesting to see – who guesses right, and who waits for the data …

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