Air Force museum attendance drops after initial surge

Fewer people trekked to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force for the third consecutive calendar year, despite a surge of visitors the first year after a $40.8 million expansion opened in June 2016, figures show.

The museum reported 829,424 patrons in 2017, a 2.45 percent drop from the prior year. In 2016, 850,720 people came to the world’s largest military aviation museum and in 2015 attendance reached 859,780.

Figures include estimates for attendees at outdoor events.

Variables such as weather, gas prices and funding for school trips may impact year-over-year attendance, said museum director John “Jack” Hudson.

“I think that’s within the band of fluctuation that you might see based on these factors that we know exist,” he said, noting in the first year between June 2016 and May 2017 after the new expansion opened attendance “grew significantly” and the number of students experiencing educational activities has hit record levels.

Declining numbers of patron visits to the museum for the third calendar year drew initial concern from Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

“Any decline in attendance is something we worry about,” he said. “We want numbers to grow. We don’t want numbers to decline.”

RELATED: Air Force Museum ranks 3rd nationally on USA Today list

Officials are betting the opening a new B-17 “Memphis Belle” exhibit and three-days filled with activities in May will bring in thousands of people in 2018.

“I don’t know if this is the largest exhibit we’ve ever had, but if not, it’s right up there,” Hudson said. “This is a big, big deal.”

Sculimbrene expected a “good bounce” in attendance. “We’re going to get a bunch of people coming to Dayton because of that … but you can’t just stop with a single event or new building,” he said.

In recent years, attendance reached 1,146,087 in 2014, driven by large events, such as the now cancelled Freedom’s Call Tattoo. The gathering of music, fireworks and flyovers brought in tens of thousands of visitors for a one-day outdoor celebration.

Officials also noted starting in July 2015 the museum changed the way it counts visitors with the installation of a more precise counting method of people passing through the security check-in point. It also closed one entrance to the main atrium and stopped counting staff and volunteers.

Total number of events at the museum dropped between 2016 when it recorded 769 events, and 2017 which marked 617.

RELATED: X-15 moves into new hangar at museum

Getting the word out

In recent years, organizations that support the Air Force museum have made more of an effort to advertise and market the largest free attraction in Ohio, Sculimbrene said.

“What everybody recognizes more so than what I’ve ever seen before is you can’t just rely on people showing up at the front door of the museum,” he said. “Three years ago, I don’t think that awareness was there.”

The Tourism Ohio brand and Dayton area convention and tourism bureaus highlight the museum in advertising across the state.

“The museum is an asset that appeals to a multigenerational audience and embodies the Ohio. Find It Here. brand,” Tourism Ohio spokeswoman Tamara Brown said in an email, adding it was in featured in a state tourism commercial

“It’s a world-class, one-of-a-kind museum that draws hundreds of thousands of people every year which brings a lot of new faces into the community,” said Jacquelyn Y. Powell, president and CEO of the Dayton Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They’re coming here spending money on hotel rooms and dining in our restaurants.”

The museum has a yearly economic impact of about $40 million, according to previous estimates.

RELATED: Air Force Museum sees boost in attendance since new hangar opened

Museums also face more competition in the digital age.

“As we’ve seen the digital age grow, demands on people’s time has grown,” said Johnna McEntee, executive director of the Ohio Museums Association. “There are more demands on people’s time and they don’t have as much time to wander museum halls as they used to.”

To counter this, museums have engaged in more online programming and community outreach, she said.

In the year immediately after the Air Force museum expansion opened, Hudson noted attendance grew by double digit margins: 19.4 percent between June 2016 and December 2016 and 33 percent between January 2017 and May 2017.

The hangar is home to iconic aircraft such as President John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One; the X-15 rocket plane that flew nearly seven times the speed of sound; and the C-141 “Hanoi Taxi” that flew the first U.S POWs home from Vietnam.

Officials expect thousands to converge on the museum grounds May 17-19 to unveil the restored B-17 Flying Fortress “Memphis Belle,” which will anchor a new and large strategic bombing exhibit in the World War II gallery.

The museum has received indicators many will delay a visit until the unveiling of the Memphis Belle in May, museum spokesman Rob Bardua said in an email.

The World War II Flying Fortress bomber was the first to complete 25 missions over war-ravaged skies of Europe and return to the United States.

RELATED: Memphis Belle gets a makeover for upcoming debut

Air Force Museum Foundation Chairman Philip L. Soucy said the drop-in attendance was a concern but, like Sculimbrene, he said was not overly worried about the museum’s future.

“It’s definitely something we need to keep watch on,” Soucy said. “We’d like to see over a million visitors a year.”

Rising sales

While the number of patrons have dropped, sales at the museum’s gift shop, bookstore, ride simulators, food service and a movie theater were at or near an all-time high, he said.

“Our sales are increasing in spite of the fact we’ve had less folks coming to the museum,” he said.

Air Force Museum Foundation spokesman Chuck Edmonson said in an email final sales figures will not be available until later this year.

The foundation manages the businesses inside the museum. Proceeds have been used to pay for building expansions and some marketing promotions and activities, such as the Living History and Hollywood Film Series and magazine and digital advertisements.

In 2017, for example, the foundation and museum spent $116,000 on marketing activities and promotions, according to the museum.

The foundation led the fund-raising drive for the privately funded $40.8 million expansion in June 2016.

Virtual visitors

While the number of on-site visitors has dropped slightly, more people follow the museum on social media than prior years, Hudson noted.

For example, the number of Facebook followers jumped to 255,507 in 2017 compared to 235,337 in 2016 and 176,519 in 2015.

On Twitter, followers reached 40,300 in 2017, up from 30,895 in 2016 and 10,750 in 2015, figures show.

Impressions or reach of social media posts climbed to 22.5 million on Facebook versus 17.1 million the prior year. Twitter impressions were recorded at 1.8 million last year versus more than 1.9 million in 2016.

RELATED: Seven artifacts you can’t see at the Air Force Museum: A peak insde the storage building

Figures for 2015 were not recorded.

Among actual visits, 41 percent of patrons are from Ohio; 18 percent from bordering states; 31 percent from other states; and 5 percent from foreign countries, according to museum surveys. Five percent were unknown.

The typical visitor is 41 years old and male. More than two thirds of visitors never served in the military and 38 percent are first time visitors, according to museum surveys.

Tourism spending in Ohio reached about $43 billion in 2016, a $1 billion rise over the prior year, according to TourismOhio. The industry 427,000 jobs in the Buckeye State in 2016, a gain of about 7,000 jobs since 2015.

The state had 212 million visits in 2016 compared to 207 million the prior year. Average spending was $111 for a day trip and $380 for an overnight trip in 2016.

Air Force museum visitors

Here’s a snapshot of the number of visitors to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force for the past decade.

Starting in July 2015, the museum changed the way it counts visitors with the installation of a more precise counting method of people passing through the security check-in point. It also closed one entrance to the main atrium, officials said.

2017 - 829,424

2016 - 850,270

2015 - 859,780

2014 - 1,146,087

2013 - 974,044

2012 - 1,232,307

2011 - 1,192,119

2010 - 1,318,715

2009 - 1,277,364

2008 - 1,107,283

2007 - 1,154,096

SOURCE: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

About the Author