Arts » Culture

Night at the Boozeum

Adult Nights are a boon to local museums

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The Old Idaho Penitentiary is the rare tourist attraction that did better during the recession than before. Around 23,500 people visited in 2008, and that number jumped to 45,000 in 2012. The attendance spike more than doubled revenue from 2007-2012.

"We saw a bit of an increase because we're a cheaper venue," said Amber Beierle, education specialist for the Old Idaho Penitentiary.

But being cheap and local isn't the only thing the old pen has going for it. Beierle also attributes that uptick in revenue to a concerted decision to loosen up from the stuffy image historical sites tend to have.

"That is a newer thing," said Beierle. "We do a lot of family friendly events. But we really listen to people and we really take the comment cards seriously. And people said they wanted an adult event, so we did one."

Singin' in the Slammer gave 21-and-up karaoke enthusiasts the chance to sing "Jailhouse Rock" in a truly unique location. The pen also began staging the adult-focused Frightened Felons event and the after-hours Bars and Ballads series.

For the pen, these events have been a big success, bringing in hundreds of participants and tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. And, arguably, one of the most important elements of that success is beer.

"We're realistic about the novelty, that people were like, 'I have a beer in the Old Pen, where people were in prison, where they made their own liquor,'" said Beierle.

As a state-funded agency in an age of austerity, the Old Pen needed to find new ways of getting people in the door. And from Beierle's perspective, these adult-themed events have worked well.

"Having these weird, unique things, what it does is bring in a new audience and get them invested," she said.

And other cultural institutions, like the Idaho State Historical Museum, are trying out the strategy themselves.

"A lot of events in our past have been geared toward having speakers," said Anne Schorzman, event coordinator at the Idaho State Historical Museum. "And the last two years, we've decided to have this theme party, based around the event. And show people that history is fun and that coming into the historical museum can be a really fun experience."

Instead of karaoke, the museum decided to have a fashion show: Cocktails and Couture.

"We saw it as a way to showcase history in a way that made it really interesting," said Schorzman. "You could come see something and have a drink and have a little bite to eat."

And it was a big shift for the museum, not just in tactics, but in appeal. Not only was the event more popular than the standard speaker event at the historical museum, but Schorzman said it succeeded in bringing out a different demographic than usually attends.

But she doesn't credit the booze.

"One thing I have noticed is that people like to get dressed up in different kinds of period clothing," said Schorzman. "Maybe vintage clothing is one of their things more than drinking."

But the historical museum focused a little more on the booze with Prohibition Underground, a roaring '20s, speakeasy-themed casino night at the museum, which was also a big success.

Schorzman said the ISHM will continue with these kinds of events, though probably only at the rate of one per year because of the logistics of planning. She said it's better to do one good event than lots of small, bad ones.

"We want to appeal to a broader range of people, and fun seems like the common denominator," she said.

A 2011 report from the White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group dug into the question of whether alcohol belongs at family event centers. It found that somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of adult Americans don't drink, but there are those who do consider it a major part of socializing. The report made a big point of the fact that Chuck E. Cheese not only serves beer, but calls it the "dad pacifier."

"When [family entertainment centers] serve alcohol, it broadens their market to more than just families with children; it greatly increases their appeal to adults," the report said.

Cultural institutions like the penitentiary and the historical museum may not be in the same category as go-kart tracks and water parks, but they are competing for the same dollars and attention from the community.

Arguably the most successful has been the Discovery Center of Idaho's Adult Night series, which has drawn thousands of Boiseans into the facility to get scientifically sloshed with themed presentations, food carts and beer.

"I'm not going to say the hook is the alcohol," said Doug Lambuth, marketing director for DCI. "But when you want younger people to come out, that is something that makes it more interesting for them to come out and say, 'I can do this and relax socially.'"

Young adults are the hardest demographic for the center to reach. But the museum hopes that if they come and have a good time at adult night, they'll come back with their kids, siblings, nieces or nephews.

And so far, Lambuth said it's working.

"The first one drew 150," said Lambuth. "And then a couple months later, we did the second one and it was well over 300 people. About three months later, we held our third one and it was over 800 people."

Adult night events can nearly triple the Discovery Center of Idaho's revenue for a typical day. And while Lambuth doesn't have data on return visits yet, anecdotally, he said there has been an increase in attendance.

But does it sully the museum's mission to fill up the place with beer and shenanigans? Not according to Lambuth.

"You just have to think about how you put it out there. Don't create the wrong impression, like all of a sudden, here you are at the Discovery Center/XXX theater," said Lambuth. "Never ever would we want to start an image like that, because it in no way goes along with our mission."

But 800 Boiseans having a beer while learning about the science of brewing? It's hard to argue with that.

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