With revenues falling below expectations, Palo Alto is once again considering hiking ticket prices at the newly rebuilt Junior Museum and Zoo.
The topic of admission prices proved to be thorny last year, as staff proposed charging $18 for admission to a museum that historically allowed visitors to walk in for free. After backlash from the Friends of Junior Museum and Zoo, a nonprofit that raised $25 million for the museum's reconstruction, the council settled on a more modest fee: $10 per visitor.
The decision has, however, come at a cost. According to a new city analysis, the museum's operations are costing the city more than $1.2 million annually. While the city had projected the museum to recover 65% of its costs through ticket prices and membership purchases, the actual cost recovery level between the museum's opening date of Nov. 12 and the end of June was just 54%. On Tuesday, the City Council's Finance Committee will consider raising ticket prices to make the Rinconada Park facility more self-sustainable.
With its nature exhibits and a colorful array of wildlife that includes meerkats, flamingos and a tortoise named Edward, the Junior Museum and Zoo has seen an uptick in attendance since this spring, according to a report from the Community Services Department. In its first two months of operations, the city limited operations to weekends only and capped the number of visitors for morning and afternoon sessions, which resulted in fewer ticket sales, class enrollments and facility rentals, the report states. While the city budget projected about 138,780 visitors by June 30, the actual number was less than half that: 62,634.
The museum has been successful in selling memberships, which range in cost from $110 for residents to $245 for nonresidents. While staff had expected to sell 2,000 memberships, the actual number as of June 30 was 2,917. That success, however, has created its own problems, with members overbooking reservations that they do not use and making it harder for visitors to drop in.
"Members and ticket holders are required to make reservations for each visit, and because reservations are often booked for weeks in advance, members overbook reservations to hold space," the city report states. "As a result, JMZ sells the unused membership reservations each morning to walk up guests, but this has resulted in long lines for tickets and distracts staff from assisting guests with other needs such as booking birthday and facility rentals."
Members also have comprised a greater share of visitors than the city had projected. Staff had assumed members would make up about 34% of daily attendance and general attendance make up the remaining 66%. Instead, the split has been roughly even. And while staff had assumed that 80% of the membership would be bought by nonresidents, the proportion ended up at 62%.
On Tuesday, the council will consider various scenarios for raising revenues, all of which call for hiking ticket prices. Even the most modest proposal from staff would result in a 50% increase, with tickets for general entry going up from $10 to $15. Other scenarios contemplate ticket prices of $16, $17 and $18.
The idea of setting ticket prices at $18 stirred significant opposition last year, when the council was considering the topic as part of its adoption of the fiscal year 2022 budget. Lauren Angelo, president of Friends of Junior Museum and Zoo, was among those who criticized the move, which she suggested would lead to lower attendance.
"And if attendance declines due to high ticket prices, it could be years before attendance levels recover," Angelo said at a May 2021 public hearing on ticket prices.
Faced with the backlash, the council ultimately set the ticket prices at the current level of $10.
Staff acknowledge in the new report that while raising ticket prices help with cost recovery, "a drastic increase of 50% within a year may impact visits and deter patrons." One possible way to address this is by raising ticket prices by 10% to 20% in the coming year and creating a roadmap for long-term cost recovery.
"A gradual increase would allow staff to engage with the community and keep community members updated," the report states. "The phased approach would also allow staff to continue to revisit the evolution of all revenue streams including classes and facility rentals as part of the total cost recovery calculation."