Splashing of money at visitors: Free-entry, it seems, is not enough to get more into NHB museums

Free-entry to NHB museums for locals started in May this year. Many reports pointed out that this will mean, in the short term at least, a surge in visitors heading to NHB museums. One of the opportunity costs of free entry is a loss of ‘income’ for museums based on loss of ticket-sales. I assume ticket sales may only bring in a few low millions annually for NHB museums combined pre-May 2013, but the money helps, since NHB is not ‘fully-funded’ by the govt (they have to fund-raise quite aggressively)

On top of the loss of some income, NHB museums, it seems, are still putting up big, expensive programs to draw large head-counts. So I am being silly again, right? Of course museums spend money on programs to draw visitors. But consider this; NHB has recently said that the dip in visitors in 2012 was partly due to its museums running smaller, more intimate progs that attract a smaller, but better-engaged, audience. So the examples below may seem to fly in the face of NHB’s rationale above.

In Gebiz (the govt open e-bidding site), SYS Memorial Hall is running the Wanqing Culturefest from 8 Nov – 1 Dec. One company put in a bid to plan, manage and run most of the programs – CL Lab – and its price of about S$68,000 was the one and only winning bid. Let’s do some simple math: it’s reported in the media that by Feb 2013, SYS Hall had 180,000 visitors since opening in Oct 2011 (16 months); average of 11,250 visitors per month. So it’s a good basis to assume that about 11,000 visitors will visit SYS Hall for the entire ongoing Culturefest.

$68,000 divided by 11,000 = $6.18 cents per head. This means that while most visitors going to SYS Hall will not be paying for a ticket from 8 Nov to 1 Dec, the progs presented would cost $6.18/head from NHB’s pocket. To put it in a harsher way, SYS Hall is not only not making money from this fest, it is forking out $6/head for each visitor (on top of already existing costs of running the place).

Another one: ACM is running an open house on 16 Nov. For the one-day progs, one company, Gastroigig, is being paid about $12,000 to manage the progs. I assume that not more than 2,000 visitors will come for the whole day, so that’s also about $6/head that ACM will be forking out to attract each visitor.

My issue here is not with these brash progs that aim to draw large crowds. My point is that NHB has used the dip in visitors in 2012 to say that the fall was deliberate, because its museums had designed more intimate progs that drew fewer (but supposedly who were more satisfied) visitors. So in the face of free entry (ie loss of income), NHB museums are still splashing out money to draw visitors (who would likely not be spending much money during their visits that would flow into NHB’s coffers – ie even the museum shops are outsourced to 3rd-party companies, right?).

Perhaps it all boils down to one thing: in the numbers’ game, NHB has been reporting higher and higher figs year on year, and this increment is of course unsustainable. But this would not stop museums, because at the end of the (financial) day, the most tangible indicator of their ‘success’ is number-of-visitors (ie the more visitors they get, the more the govt would fund them, and also the more bargaining power for NHB to entice sponsors). Perhaps the current SYS Hall and ACM large-scale progs are specifically designed late in the year so as to boost numbers to make 2013-visitorship look sexy. If that’s the model for achieving ‘success’, you can be sure that NHB, despite what they say, will continue to spend more and more money to attract a dwindling audience.

Side-note: If NHB wants more visitors and is willing to pay for them to come through the doors, I’ve got a novel (but of course cheeky) idea. Instead of spending $6/head on progs to draw one visitor, convert the entire prog budget into NTUC vouchers and give one to every visitor on a 1st-come-1st-served basis. Imagine how popular the headline would be if it reads “ACM giving away $12,000 in NTUC vouchers on 16 Nov. No gimmicks,  1st-come-1st-served!”. It will surely draw more than 2,000 visitors for the day (and imagine the long queue making a great photo-headline in New Paper the next day!), and all the effort for planning the activities would be saved for something else!        But of course this suggestion is made tongue-in-cheek la. NHB can’t be giving out cash to entice visitors, because in its own words, it wants to have a smaller but more intellectually-satisfied audience mah….

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