By Beth Fitzgerald, The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum
The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum, opened in 1979. Our founders created an earned income driven organization with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and for the first fifteen years, we did virtually no fundraising. Admission fees were kept low to encourage attendance. This strategy worked well until the early ’90s, when St. Louis experienced two consecutive years of flooding during peak tourism season. At that time, a very wise board of directors felt it was time to focus on fundraising. Since then, about 20 percent of our income is contributed, and 80 percent comes from a wide variety of earned income sources.
Then 2020 happened. We quickly realized the importance of our long-term relationships with regional donors as well as with a local bank that helped us navigate and secure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. That said, it became immediately apparent that we needed to focus on sustainability. In character, we took an entrepreneurial approach to survival and began looking for new ways to fill community needs, remain relevant, and generate revenue.
Museums in St. Louis were only closed to the public for three months. In mid-June, all the major museums in our region reopened with strict protocol documents in place approved by city or county health departments, to ensure safe operations during COVID-19. These protocols included greatly reduced capacity numbers—basically 25 percent. We never reached that number. And because we had extended memberships by three months (like most museums), we had no renewal membership income.
So, we began looking for earned income outside of admission and membership fees. First, we made the controversial decision to offer summer camp programs at both our main location and our downtown satellite. In both places, parents were more than eager for their children to have play, creativity, and social interaction back in their lives after being isolated at home. We abided by all the new CDC protocols for schools; divided each class in half, with a maximum of eight to ten children per room; added plexi-barriers to tables; and converted lower interest exhibit galleries into classrooms. We filled all our camps and had no positive COVID cases among educators or campers.
In early August, regional school districts announced that children would continue to learn virtually from home or be in a hybrid model through at least the first quarter of the new school year. We quickly converted our summer camp to an in-person camp to support virtual learning. Approximately 120 K-5 students enrolled in our Fall Learning Camp, in which museum staff assisted children with their online school classes and provided support for asynchronous learning. Our museum café provided “school lunches” and museum educators provided daily hands-on enrichment experiences. Outdoor play spaces were used for “recess” and campers played in indoor exhibits every day. It was a big learning curve, but everyone pulled together and the parents and children were very grateful. The Learning Camp generated about $150,000 in new revenue, while at the same time filling an important community need.
Families, desperately seeking a sense of normalcy while still wanting to ensure the their children’s health, were behind the launch of private playtimes outside of normal visiting hours. From 9 to 10 a.m. each weekend day, a family of up to six could rent one eighth of the museum for $100. (Due to contact tracing responsibilities, a family was defined as a group of people who lived together.) In addition, we offered Picnic and Play times on Friday evenings. Limited to ten families at a time, families had the museum to themselves for two hours—with a picnic dinner provided to eat outside—again for $100 per family.
To drive attendance and meet families where they were comfortable, we expanded our outdoor experiences. Sandcastle Beach remained open the entire summer instead of the usual six weeks. Our September Safety Town exhibit became Trick or Treat Town in October and then Gingerbread Village for the holidays. While we typically do not offer special holiday programs, this year we offered a Visit with Santa in an outdoor sleigh with social distancing built in. Close to 1,000 families made reservations at $15 per visit, allowing more than 3,000 children to experience this holiday tradition. With no corporate after-hours holiday rentals this December, we created other evening events complete with twinkling lights, an outdoor Snowball Carnival, story time with cookies and milk, plus an added S’mores experience. Attendance was set at a maximum of 150 and we sold out most of the twelve nights, raising more than $30,000.
With a staff-wide entrepreneurial spirit and a deep-seated commitment to save The Magic House for future generations, we survived 2020 with no new debt and with new earned income sources in place that would never have been considered under other circumstances. We plan to offer more holiday programming and private playtime events in the future and we will continue to offer more outdoor-themed experiences year-round.
Would any of us want to live through 2020 again? No! But there were certainly “diamonds” that emerged from the pressure of the situation that will continue to benefit our earned income base in years to come.
Beth Fitzgerald has been the president of The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum for over forty years.