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Facility rentals offer museums additional revenue source

“We hope the people who come in and get a taste of the art will come back to support us in a bigger way,” says Patricia Giordano, director of marketing at the Memorial Art Gallery. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

A number of local museums are exhibiting revenue growth from a non-traditional source: facility rentals for weddings, corporate events and private parties. While most say rentals generate a fraction of their annual revenue, they note that events make a significant contribution to their business and fundraising.

“You look at it as an income source, but it’s more about building relationships,” says Allen Buell, special events director at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. “Someone comes to an event, falls in love with your collection and becomes a donor to support you, or you can approach them to fund a project. Having a party is great, but it’s securing the future which is absolutely critical.”

Buell has seen many changes in the museum industry in his 31 years at the Eastman House. He notes that when he first started overseeing special events, private parties and museum facility rentals were not common, but in the last five years they have become very popular, here and in larger cities.

“In New York City, the word ‘wedding’ was once taboo, but now (museums) know they can’t survive without it,” Buell says.

The Eastman House’s private party rental business adds up to about $200,000 a year, Buell estimates, which is less than 1 percent of annual revenue. He points out that the party contract itself is not the only business generated.

“There is so much extra business that comes with that contract,” he explains. “Once you land the party, it’s not done there. There will be a need for florists, caterers, Balloon Effects (International), CMI Communications for AV equipment, shuttles for transportation.”

Conventions are a major part of the clientele renting museum space. The Eastman House and other local museums work through Visit Rochester to book the events. Buell says there can be competition among the museums to win the convention contracts, but he says many times they also work together, since organizations often visit multiple venues on their stays.

“Just last week there was an archivist convention with people from all over the country. They had events at three different facilities,” Buell says. “Our first goal is to get people to Rochester. Business grows out of that. When a group of meeting planners comes into town, each one of them represents thousands of people that could be coming into our city.”

The Strong National Museum of Play has been focusing on private events for only two years, but rental revenue is growing quickly—up 300 percent now, year over year, says Kathleen Dengler, senior vice president of guest and institutional services.

“Facility rental revenue is currently less than 1 percent of the museum’s total annual revenue, but we only started focusing on building the rental business in the last couple years,” she says. “We’re continuing to grow.”

Like many local museums, the Strong does not actively advertise its rental business. It is chiefly word-of-mouth, Dengler says. Most guests are pleasantly surprised when they attend a private event there because many people do not think of museums as places to hold a party.

“It’s great for them and for us,” she says. “It’s a revenue stream for us, and we have to look at how we get people in here when we are not so busy.”

The Strong hosts many non-profit events, offering a 20 percent discount rate. The March of Dimes, AutismUp and the American Red Cross have held events there, Dengler says.

Corporate clients include Paychex Inc. and LeChase Construction Services LLC. And Monroe County holds both its fire and police graduation ceremonies there, taking advantage of the large theater.

Since the Strong is known for its National Toy Hall of Fame, it attracts conventions for groups such as the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors.

The idea of play appeals to many adults and makes for great corporate and private parties, too, Dengler says.

“Adults are seeing more and more the value of play,” she notes. “We host cocktail parties for groups of 80 to 100 with a sit-down dinner. EGameRevolution and Game Time! are on the second floor, which is an easy walk for them.”

The Strong also hosts weddings and, coming up, the Garden Club of America with 400 guests.

“We are having family reunions now, too,” Dengler says. “Our first one is coming up this summer. There isn’t anything we won’t do, except religious events.”

At the Memorial Art Gallery, 700 private events have been held on the museum grounds since it started renting facility space. Those events range from business meetings for as few as four people to extravagant weddings for as many as 300 guests, says Patricia Giordano, director of marketing. MAG can accommodate up to 500 people for business meetings with the parlors serving as breakout rooms, she adds.

“We do a lot of not-for-profit, fundraising galas and work with clients who need meeting space,” Giordano says. “Events are important to the museum as a whole. There are not a lot of opportunities to raise money without compromising the mission. We hope the people who come in and get a taste of the art will come back to support us in a bigger way.”

The Sculpture Park opened in 2013 to mark MAG’s centennial anniversary. Giordano says she expects to see more private events booked there, where people can enjoy an outdoor venue.

Among the major events held each year are the University of Rochester graduation dinner and President Joel Seligman’s garden party to thank major donors to the university. MAG is owned by UR.

“The majority of events are local, except for weddings,” Giordano says. “You would be surprised by the number of people who grew up here, went away and came back because they had fond memories of the art gallery.”

The event business is growing so much that MAG decided in April to convert the restaurant space used by Max at the Gallery Inc. into daytime rental space.

“People are excited to be in this kind of venue, to be in the Cutler Union, the original U of R student union,” she says. “And for weddings, you can be married and tour the great art of the world all in one day.”

Creative events often are the vision clients present to the Rochester Museum & Science Center, with ideas drawn from RMSC exhibits or the venue itself, says Debra Jacobsen, director of marketing and community affairs.

“Last year,” she notes, “there was a wedding with a mastodon theme, with the wedding invitations and all based on our wooly mammoth.”

Another big draw is the RMSC planetarium, where couples can have a wedding under the stars—at any time of day.

“With the Strasenburgh Planetarium’s four-story dome, ceremonies take place in the star theater so it feels like being outside at night under the stars,” Jacobsen says. “We’re booked every weekend from now until the end of summer with weddings.”

The RMSC had 511 private events in 2013, including weddings, corporate meetings and the Eastman School of Music Gala. Museum rentals totaled roughly $113,000, which was less than 2 percent of annual revenue last year, she says.

The exposure that private events bring to the museum is very valuable, she believes. RMSC hosts many community events, including the Rochester taxi driver training seminar and the Little Miss Puerto Rico beauty pageant.

The museum rental business operates almost as a sampling of Rochester history for conventioneers visiting the area, and this benefits both the museums and the local economy, says Buell, the Eastman House special events director.

“They’re here for four days, and they want to sample the local culture,” he says. “I’m an ambassador for the city. We all know each other and work together, sending business to each other’s museums.”

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

5/30/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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