Air Zoo Gamble Pays Off in Michigan

Strategy: Balance Your Budget, Emphasize Value, Enhance Your Product, Focus on Customer Potential, Know Your Customer/Product, Serve Local Community

Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site

Summary: The Air Zoo opened in 1979 as the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum to showcase air and space flight through a collection of historic aircraft.

The Air Zoo opened in 1979 as the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum to showcase air and space flight through a collection of historic aircraft.  Over the years this Portage, Michigan museum continued to expand, and around 1999, the museum decided to focus more on experiences to appeal to families. 

“We refocused our marketing in 2005 and saw some increase in visitation, though we never did meet our projected visitation for the new facility.” Visitation continued to drop after 2005, and Ellis cites Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent increases in gas prices as additional factors hindering attendance. By 2008, annual attendance had dropped to less than 100,000 from a high of 160,000 in 2005, and the museum’s staff realized that they needed an entirely new model to survive.

In a daring move, the museum decided to focus on their mission rather than on the bottom line. “We really wanted to get people in the door to get them excited about the world of aviation,” notes Ellis.  To accomplish this goal, the museum eliminated the substantial admission fee in 2009—and attendance more than doubled in 2009 to 220,000. To hedge their bets, the free admission offer was initially presented as a 4-month promotion to celebrate the museum’s 30th anniversary. 

One unique feature of the Air Zoo are the rides and virtual experiences offered as part of the experience, and the Air Zoo continued to charge modest fees for rides and other virtual experiences.  “We realized that without the rides, we still offer a great air and space museum,” explains Ellis, “but the simulations are there as an added opportunity for those who want them.” The museum’s gamble has paid off handsomely. With the increased volume of visitors, sales at the museum’s gift shop increased.  Combined with income from the rides, earned revenue actually increased in 2009 from 2008 despite eliminating the admission fee. A survey of museum attendees indicated that 40% were unemployed, underscoring the key role that free admission plays for many visitors. Free admission has been so successful that the museum plans to extend this offer through the end of 2010 and possibly longer.