Positioning for Growth: Thanksgiving Point Restructures to Ensure Long-Term Sustainability

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This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Stephen Ashton, PhD, Gary Hyatt, Lorie Millward, and Mike Washburn,
Thanksgiving Point

A Note to the Reader: Most of this article was written prior to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that has so drastically impacted all museums throughout the world, including Thanksgiving Point. It remains to be seen how the ideas and principles discussed in the following article will help Thanksgiving Point weather the storms of uncertainty this pandemic has unleashed. In the article below, sentences in italics were written after the pandemic hit.

Thanksgiving Point is a multi-museum complex based in Lehi, Utah, about twenty miles south of Salt Lake City. Our mission is to draw upon the natural world to cultivate transformative family learning. Thanksgiving Point was founded twenty-five years ago when Alan Ashton, former WordPerfect founder and CEO, purchased the Fox Family Farm for his wife Karen, with the intent to build a large garden as a way to give thanks to the community for the many blessings they had been given.

The original plan created a large, fifty-five-acre garden, which opened in 1997, but in the process other ideas and experiences began to take shape on the site. Because the land was originally farmland, a farm and animal experience known as Farm Country opened to the public, also in 1997. A short while later, some paleontologists and investors contacted the Ashtons about building a dinosaur museum on the property, resulting in the Museum of Ancient Life, which opened in 2000. Thanksgiving Point now had three separate venue experiences: 1) Thanksgiving Gardens (renamed Ashton Gardens in 2016), 2) Farm Country, and 3) the Museum of Ancient Life.

In 2003, Thanksgiving Point hired Mike Washburn as president and CEO to help the growing organization achieve financial sustainability and become less dependent on ongoing Ashton family support. At the time, spending was high and visitation was low. Washburn and other team members worked diligently to lower costs and increase revenue. As Thanksgiving Point became more sustainable and more widely known, community stakeholders and board members requested that Thanksgiving Point add a children’s museum to its list of venues.

After several years of fundraising and construction, Thanksgiving Point’s fourth venue, the Museum of Natural Curiosity, a cross between a children’s museum and science center, opened in 2014.

From opening day, the Museum of Natural Curiosity was an immediate success. It completely revitalized Thanksgiving Point. Memberships grew from about 7,000 households to more than 20,000 households. In 2013, Thanksgiving Point’s annual revenue was $15.9 million; in 2015, it was $19.9 million. Thanksgiving Point has continued to grow. In January of 2019, Thanksgiving Point opened its fifth venue, the Butterfly Biosphere, an insectarium and butterfly conservatory. Visitation to Thanksgiving Point is now more than two million guests per year. The revenue for the most recent budget year was just over $23 million, with about 85 percent coming from earned revenue, including membership sales, venue admission, food and beverage, catering and meeting space rentals, some educational programs, and events.

Thanksgiving Point now faces new challenges. We closed our doors on March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Proud of our former 85 percent earned revenue figure, that number is now difficult to sustain based solely on current operation levels. With no endowment to fall back on, founders Alan and Karen Ashton generously stepped in to continue paying all employees’ salaries until we could secure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Small Business Administration loan of just over $2 million. With that interim support in place (at this writing it will end July 1), we are looking for ways to significantly cut back on the original. Now more than ever, it is critical that Thanksgiving Point diversify its sources of revenue, including securing more ongoing public support to make up for the upcoming budget shortfalls.

Growth and Response

While Thanksgiving Point has experienced significant growth in the past twenty-five years, major challenges and obstacles accompanying that trajectory emerged. Shortly before the opening of the Museum of Natural Curiosity, several changes occurred that helped the organization grow sustainably.

At that time, the senior management team was composed of seven individuals who filled the following roles:

  1. President and CEO
  2. Chief Financial Officer
  3. Director of Food and Beverage
  4. Director of Marketing
  5. Director of Design and Programming
  6. Director of the Ashton Gardens
  7. Director of the Museum of Ancient Life and Farm Country

This management structure had evolved organically. Although the entire organization was overseen by the CEO, each venue had its own director and staff. This led to competition among the venues: rather than all five venues acting like parts of one cohesive organization, each venue operated as a silo, resulting in inconsistencies in guest experience and messaging. Additionally, while guests could purchase a property-wide membership, each venue’s staff encouraged guests to purchase venue-specific memberships to financially benefit their own site. While we admired their enthusiasm, the results were adversely affecting the organization as a whole, and not contributing to the development of a stable foundation that could support growth.

Consistent with the management structure to date, the opening of the Museum of Natural Curiosity would have required the creation of a new senior management position—director of the museum—bringing the senior management team to eight people. Not only would this have been difficult financially, requiring Thanksgiving Point to pay another senior-level employee, but also it would further complicate the existing silo problems.

A senior management reorganization was deemed necessary to streamline operations, eliminate disconnects, and direct a consistent approach across all venues. Working collaboratively, the senior management team made drastic changes to eliminate silos and set up the organization for more sustainable future growth. The former director of the Ashton Gardens became the new director of facilities for the entire property, and the former director of the Museum of Ancient Life and Farm Country became the new director of guest experience for all the venues. While these two directors were no longer on the senior management team, they retained their senior level pay and benefits. They report to the vice president of operations, a restructured senior management position that absorbed the director of food and beverage position.

In February 2013, a year prior to the opening of the Museum of Natural Curiosity, the new senior management structure was announced to the entire management team, giving everyone time for the transition to settle before the new museum opened. The restructured senior management team included the following titles and roles:

  1. President and CEO
  2. Chief Financial Officer
  3. Vice President of Operations
  4. Vice President of Marketing
  5. Vice President of Design and Programming

To continue to break down the silos and make operations more efficient, we built a robust education team. Rather than each venue developing its own educational programs, the new education team became responsible for all the educational programming throughout Thanksgiving Point. We also built or repurposed other skill-specific teams to impact the whole organization. For example, Thanksgiving Point now has one exhibits team to develop and maintain exhibits throughout all the venues. Other universal teams include marketing, signature experiences, accounting, facilities, audience research and evaluation, and food and beverage/catering, to name a few. Additionally, we encouraged employees to start using the term “team members” rather than “employees” when referring to anyone who worked at Thanksgiving Point, to help everyone feel like they played a defined but equally significant role in the success of the organization.

Communication and transparency were critical to making this transition successful. Staff at all levels and throughout all departments were kept informed and involved to ensure buy-in. For instance, we gave regular updates at monthly management meetings, composed of more than forty full-time team members. Individual departments also held departmental meetings to keep their teams apprised of what was happening. Clear communication about the process and impacts of restructuring helped our entire team feel vested in what was happening for the future good of the organization.

Results

While the restructuring was not seamless and Thanksgiving Point still relies on some ongoing annual support from the Ashton family, it was successful in accomplishing the goals of streamlining operations, eliminating disconnects, and providing a consistent approach across all venues. The senior management team built a more stable financial and management foundation to support growth and ensure long-term sustainability.

Rather than hire a new director for the Museum of Natural Curiosity, a venue guest service manager was hired. This person, along with the other venue guest service managers for the Museum of Ancient Life, Farm Country, and Ashton Gardens, now report to the new director of guest experience. As such, when the Museum of Natural Curiosity opened in 2014, there was consistent messaging and guest experience throughout the entire organization. Venue-specific memberships had been discontinued, and guests could purchase all-inclusive memberships only.

The change in the management processes allowed Thanksgiving Point to open its fifth venue in 2019, the Butterfly Biosphere, at a fraction of the cost of operating a standalone museum experience. When the biosphere opened, the infrastructure already existed to support a new experience. We already had an education team, an exhibits team, and all the administrative staff in place. To open it, Thanksgiving Point hired a chief containment director, an entomology team, and a few additional guest service and education team members. The rest of the supporting departments necessary to operate the new museum experience already existed.

This model has worked well for the existing organizational structure, and it puts Thanksgiving Point in a strong position for future growth. Content-specific team members can be added as needed, but they will be supported by existing team members in other areas.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the integration of teams across Thanksgiving Point has been tested in new ways and proven to be even more important than we originally thought. While we were closed to the public, multiple teams have been working closely together to provide internal and external communications, digital content for our guests, and updated policies for guest safety. For example, our marketing team has worked closely with our education team to create videos of various exhibit spaces, including virtual tours of our annual Tulip Festival in the Ashton Gardens. These videos, uploaded on various social media, have been well received by our guests and members.

Financial benefits have included some savings, as the old model involved hiring and paying individual venue directors at senior management level salaries plus benefits. While guest service managers have been hired for each venue, they are paid less than a director; this pay scale model is now in place for future hires. Additionally, Thanksgiving Point now has a variety of teams that can support multiple venues at a time, thus keeping overhead costs low. The senior management team is supported by a management team comprised of about forty full-time team members, all directors or managers who support all aspects of Thanksgiving Point.

The management team supports more than just the five venues. Thanksgiving Point also operates an extensive catering and special events operation for private and corporate events; five restaurants across the property and additional concessions during major events; and facilities and grounds maintenance for all of the property, which includes a golf course (managed by an outside partner). At seasonally busy times of the year, Thanksgiving Point can employ up to 550 team members, while the number of members on the management team remains roughly the same.

Similar to other museum organizations, we are now looking for ways to cut costs, including potentially cutting hours, reducing salaries, and laying off employees. The management and senior management teams are working hard to minimize the impact as much as possible. But much will depend on how quickly the economy recovers and what additional support we can receive from federal, state, and local governments.

Today, even with a smaller senior management team than we had prior to restructuring, Thanksgiving Point can elevate our offerings. Calling on specific expertise from team members, who are strategically positioned where they can do their best work, Thanksgiving Point does better work overall. For example, having a single director responsible for guest services for all the venues ensures consistent and quality experiences for all guests, regardless of which venue they visit. Possibly as a result of “doing our best work,” annual visitorship has increased to more than 2 million. We have about 20,000 membership households, with an operating budget of almost $25 million. The restructuring helped us achieve these current increased numbers. Of equal importance, it has helped us unite teams and goals across all of Thanksgiving Point, resulting in a stronger organization prepared to meet the challenges of the future.

While, clearly, current uncertainty will continue into the near future, we are optimistic that we will be able to rebound from this economic and global downturn and emerge a stronger and more efficient institution. More importantly, this pandemic has given us time to look introspectively and make changes in order to be more relevant to our community. We have confidence in the value of our offerings. As we have slowly begun re-opening our venues to the public, following state and local health guidelines, we have observed that our guests are thrilled to be able to visit Thanksgiving Point again. We’re thrilled too!

Timeline:

  • 1995: Ashtons purchase Fox Family Farm and name the development Thanksgiving Point.
  • 1997: Thanksgiving Point Gardens and Farm Country open to the public.
  • 2000: The Museum of Ancient Life opens to the public.
  • 2003: Mike Washburn becomes President and CEO of Thanksgiving Point.
  • 2013: Thanksgiving Point undergoes significant senior management level changes to streamline operations and provide consistent experiences throughout all of Thanksgiving Point.
  • 2014: Museum of Natural Curiosity opens to the public. Number of membership households goes from 7,000 to about 20,000.
  • 2016: Thanksgiving Point Gardens renamed Ashton Gardens to honor legacy of founders Alan and Karen Ashton.
  • 2019: Butterfly Biosphere opens to the public.

All authors are on staff at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah. Stephen Ashton, Ph.D., is director of audience research and evaluation; Gary Hyatt, is director of guest experience; Lorie Millward is vice president of possibilities; and Mike Washburn is president and CEO.