Free admission days do not actually attract underserved visitors to cultural organizations

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Based largely on data from 48 cultural organizations that offer regularly scheduled free days, this article argues that “free days often do the very opposite of mission work”, in that they tend to attract higher income individuals who probably would have come (back) to the organization anyway.

In support of its the assertion that “free admission days do not usually engage affordable access audiences”, the article indicates that the average household income of visitors is actually higher on free days than on paid days ($54,300 vs. $49,600). In addition, the proportion of visitors with a college degree is higher on free days than on paid days (43% vs. 39%).

Moreover, free days do not attract as many new visitors as one might think: “the people who attend free days for cultural organizations have usually visited the organization before, and the free day is simply accelerating their pace of re-visitation.” (Specific data on this are not provided in the article.) In order to attract underserved audiences, a substantial investment of time and money would be required in addition to providing affordable access. Because of the relatively high proportion of repeat visitors on free days, the author argues that “free days directly cannibalize membership opportunities”.

The author, an arts marketing consultant, argues that there are “primary barriers” to visitation that largely do not involve cost, such as “reputation (i.e. they just aren’t interested in the content and programs), transportation and parking (‘How are we going to get everyone together and get there?’), or schedule (‘That’s awesome that you have a free day on Tuesday. I have to work on Tuesday.’) When the primary barrier to visitation is anything other than admission price, then having a free day becomes relatively irrelevant. An admission fee is straightforward, but for many potential visitors, other barriers are the most challenging part of the visitation equation.”

The author also posted an article related more specifically to museum attendance: How free admission really affects museum attendance.

Summary: 

Based largely on data from 48 cultural organizations that offer regularly scheduled free days, this article argues that “free days often do the very opposite of mission work”, in that they tend to attract higher income individuals who probably would have come (back) to the organization anyway.