Historic Structures: Sustainability, Revenue, and Access

A build-it-and-they-will-come, once-around-and-done tour model is not sustainable for all but a very few historic sites. The Biltmore is probably the most successful example of this approach in NC, and at $44 – $59 a ticket, the historic site sustains itself. According to National Trust for Historic Preservation President, Stephanie Meeks, house museums in 2002 incurred an average cost of $40 per visitor, while receiving (on average) $8 per visitor in revenue. In this opinion piece, Meeks profiled Tryon Palace as a good example of “re-programming for mission-related use” with its new visitor center and in particular, the Pepsi Family Center.

Other analysts of the historic house dilemma, however, warn against building visitors’ centers. The large capital campaigns necessary for these projects often overreach the organization’s capacity for revenue generation and fail to bring about long-term increases in visitation. Tryon Palace itself, despite its creative and high-tech method to engage children with the past, has struggled to sustain itself in the wake of its new visitor center and the gradual withdrawal of state funding. Ticket prices have increased to $20/10 for a day pass and $12/6 for a limited ticket that allows families into the history center alone (not the Palace). Consequently, even though the new Pepsi Center may attract newer, younger audiences, its cost to visitors limits outreach potential.

In 2007 AASLH published Donna Harris’ book New Solutions for House Museums. That same year the Kykuit II Summit on the “Sustainability of Historic Sites” echoed Harris by urging struggling non-profit groups, in charge of house museums and other types of historic sites, to consider shutting down their “velvet rope tours” and returning their properties to private ownership. The selling process, which can include protective easements, can relieve the organizations’ burdens while committing new owners (often wealthy) to historic preservation. Such solutions may have the positive effect of shrinking the stock of barely functioning historic sites and promoting the integration of preservation more fully into business ventures, but perhaps an unintended consequence is limiting access to those who can and will pay large sums of money for preservation and historical experiences.

An interesting NC example of historic preservation combined with “impact investment” is the Frying Pan Tower, 34 miles off the coast near Southport. A decommissioned lighthouse, the tower is now an immersive historic experience, a unique bed and breakfast run by a Charlotte proprietor. However, costs are $498/ person / weekend (2 nights). This does not include transportation from shore points—either by boat ($333+ roundtrip) or helicopter ($950 roundtrip). Such costs exclude a huge portion of the attraction’s potential audience.

image credit: Joe Standaert, SVM Facebook Page

image credit: Joe Standaert, SVM Facebook Page

The Swannanoa Valley Museum also provides immersive experiences as a way to generate revenue for the institution, but it provides a loophole in participant costs to allow access to interested community members who would otherwise not be able to afford the activity. By coordinating extensive hikes (each costs $25 for members and $45 for non-members), the museum accrues half its annual budget. This kind of outreach into the community and broadening of interpretation beyond the museum’s walls is a creative way to help sustain the institution. Even more unique is the opportunity to apply for a scholarship that includes an annual family membership and 11 hikes. This opens up a fairly expensive experience to families of limited means.

What revenue-generating enterprises has your institution tried? Which have been successful?

Thanks to David Winslow for his insights into this topic.

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on May 6, 2014, in Fundraising, historic houses, historic sites, public programs and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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