Incoming: Keep the Audiences Coming

    By;        Dan Neafus, Operations Manager
                Gates Planetarium, Denver, Colorado

    Paper presented at the Rocky Mountain Planetarium Association conference in
    1999.

    Introduction,
    Audience surveys and visitor analysis have helped us to better serve our
    audiences. For our current show we are testing some new presentation
    methods to learn how to continue to improve audience satisfaction.

    We have been making an effort in recent years to better understand and serve
    our visitors. We were not just interested in content and formative analysis.
    Rather, we wanted to learn how people felt about their entire visit. Museum
    visitor surveys, market analysis and focus group interviews are just some of
    the tools used to learn about our Denver audience. In addition to these
    surveys staff members were assigned into teams such as the "Dynamic
    Experiences Group" to identify visitor traits. The Museum is fortunate to have
    staff expertise to draw from including several full time evaluators.

    The resulting collection of audience information has helped us to identify what
    kind of visitor experiences leave a good impression and which experiences are
    disappointing. We are not just interested in attracting new visitors. We wanted
    to know how to encourage more frequent repeat visits. Some specific
    recommendations have been made to help turn our infrequent visitors -
    attending only once every few years - into more frequent visitors. Once we
    understood what people wanted we were then able to do something about it.

    We improved crowd management by offering shorter shows and scheduling
    them more frequently. We now offer more choices, six different shows
    throughout the day including at least one live startalk. We try to welcome
    visitors to the theater and make them feel more comfortable. We offer
    participatory and immersive experiences that are relevant and entertaining.
    We include local connections when possible and set the stage for unique and
    engaging activities.

    These changes seem to have improved things for both the staff and the
    audiences. But the affect of the admission changes have been quite
    significant. When we made the planetarium "free" with Museum admission we
    increased attendance by nearly 100%. Even when we offer more shows we
    often reach full capacity in the dome, Most, of this new audience was familiar
    with the museum but they had not been to the planetarium before.

    The Museum management acknowledged this popularity and introduced a
    radical change. We are closing the Planetarium in January 2000. But seriously,
    this is good news. Our old theater can no longer keep up with this new
    challenge. We will be undergoing a complete renovation as well as adding over
    25,000 square feet of "Space Science Exhibitions" Our marketing department
    suggested that we offer something popular and current for our final
    production, something with impact. We created "Incoming - Comets Meteors
    and Asteroids".

    It is a dynamic fast paced show, designed in 8 short modules. Each module
    has a distinct sound and theme such as "Hollywood" and "What to do if you
    see a Fireball". The modules are "stand alone", each one makes sense by
    itself yet when shown sequentially they flow well together. Live demonstrations
    are sometimes given during the show and we pulled out 60 seats to make
    room for a stage. Since the show is only 20 minutes in length it can be offered
    twice per hour during busy times. Incoming also refers to Colorado history
    giving it a local connection and experts from the Museum are even featured in
    interviews seen in the show. All of these design concepts are an evolution from
    previous work and testing.

    Before we close in January 2000 we will have tested version 1 and 2 of this
    show It is hoped that this information will be useful for the development of
    future programming.
    Version 1 is a traditional pre-recorded show and is identical every time it plays.
    Version 2 features a professional actor presenting the same script and the
    same pre-programmed visuals and sound effects exploding on the dome
    around them. I have found this live format to be particularly entertaining. The
    actors actually deliver a more enthusiastic and better synchronized
    performance than the pre-recorded version. This itself was a test of our four
    performers, even though it is fully scripted they enjoy giving the show.

    Conclusions
    We have found that Denver audiences like choices, convenient times, easy
    access, popular and meaningful content, entertaining and amazing sights and
    sounds, but most importantly they like to feel welcome and special. Preliminary
    results from audience surveys of Incoming have supported these assumptions
    but comments about the live version are more revealing. Our test results show
    a marked difference when a live actor gives a performance. Audiences
    respond by being more engaged and attentive, our performers report creating
    a personal relationship with the audience.

    Retention of content - such as what to do if you see a fireball - improved
    dramatically when presented live. With virtually no negative comments listed,
    positive comments include; feeling "lucky that they came to this show today,
    "That the Museum gave this show just for them. That they felt special because
    they could talk with the presenter after the show, and they were excited to
    share the experience with others. But most importantly THEY SAID THAT THEY
    WANT TO COME BACK!, I hope some of these ideas can help keep visitors
    coming into your theater.