5 min

“The vast majority of visitors were coming and having a lovely day without leaving any data,”

says Pete Dickinson, Director of Communications and Audience Insight at the Science Museum Group, “and therefore we had no ability for us to try and build a longer term relationship with them.”

That was before the Covid-19 pandemic. The Science Museum Group, whose five museums are located across England in London, Manchester, Bradford, County Durham, and York, have long operated without tickets for anyone to come and enjoy the free offering. But when the UK government announced that museums would be able to reopen in the summer of 2020, the required safety measures included timed ticketing for all visitors.

Timed ticketing is a big operational change from an open-door model. SMG had previously ticketed for special exhibitions and events, but otherwise had never asked visitors to prebook tickets. But with the technology already at hand, they were able to introduce free timed ticketing. “Tessitura were fantastic in helping us to make that pivot quickly and smoothly, and in a really cost-effective way,” Pete says.

And they discovered that advance ticketing offered a lot of advantages.

Beginning the customer journey early

One key advantage, Pete notes, is that “Free ticketing gives you the opportunity to begin the customer’s journey early.” In the online reservation path, the museums can shape a visitor’s online journey and suggest additional items. “We have an opportunity to let them know about some of the activities that they can do in the museum, and particularly the ones that they would need to pre-book,” Pete explains. “Flagging some of the activities that they can do is a real positive for the visitor. And obviously from a commercial perspective, there’s an upsell opportunity.”

“Free ticketing gives you the opportunity to begin the customer’s journey early.”

For example, the National Railway Museum, York, added a message to the online reservation path suggesting to avoid the queues and buy a lunch in advance. Customers booked over 2,600 lunches from reopening to December 2020. In response to that success, Science Museum Group rolled out online lunch purchases at all their sites.

Screenshot of Science Museum website with options to purchase a lunch, souvenir book, or a face covering.

The Science and Media Museum, Bradford, took a similar approach and opted to upsell guidebooks with the free museum admission. In two months they sold 80% of the guidebooks they’d sold in the whole of the previous year.

In two months the Science and Media Museum sold 80% of the guidebooks they’d sold in the whole of the previous year.


The online journey makes it easy for the museums to suggest a donation, and for visitors to make a contribution. After choosing their time slot, a customer has several options: not just free admission for an adult or child, but also the option to donate £5, £10, or £20 for each ticket. These donation amounts prompt visitors to consider how much they value their museum visit, and making a donation is a seamless part of their online reservation.

“We’ve way outperformed the assumptions that we made,” Pete said, “about the level of donation people would choose to give as part of that online booking journey.” To build on this in the future, he adds, they are “exploring opportunities to allow visitors to give regularly in relatively small levels.” They hope to roll out these small recurring donations later this year.

SMG also created space in the online path to let visitors share any access requirements they might have. This not only helps museum staff prepare for specific accessibility needs, but also communicates to visitors that their needs are taken seriously.

Screenshot showing a selection of times to select, a grid of pricing options from Free to £20 donation, and a space in which to list any special access needs.


Best of all, advance ticketing allows SMG to begin to know who their visitors are. Once a customer books their ticket, the museums can begin to build a relationship with them. The museums now send automated pre-visit emails to each customer. Those emails let the museums communicate essential information like logistics and safety measures, as well as opportunities to enhance their visit.

“It’s part practical and part inspirational,” Pete says. “You want people to know how to get to your venue, to be aware of all of the things they need to know to have a safe and comfortable visit,” and also share “the other fantastic opportunities to help them to discover more about what’s on offer.”

“It’s part practical and part inspirational.”

Removing barriers 

Overall, Pete said, the museums felt a strong desire “to make everything as smooth as it possibly can be for the visitor.” That meant a straightforward online purchase path, as well as a centralised call centre for all five museums. For walk-up visitors, they made sure it was easy to reserve tickets on mobile. And at every museum, “There was always a ticket desk where you could just get a paper ticket… If we did get a walk-up and someone didn’t have any technology, we made sure that was not a stressful experience.”

Seamless entry

The five museums installed contactless scanners to check visitors’ tickets safely. “All of our visitors now scan in on arrival,” Pete says, and into paid experiences such as Wonderlab at the Science Museum. The scanners also help them comply with government regulations about re-scanning after a visit to the museum café, for example. “And we’ll be able to let visitors know about that,” Pete says, “and all of these things that could be a bit discombobulating during the visits.”

Photo of a small black device on a stand, with a sign behind it reading Ticket Scanner and showing a mobile phone with a square barcode on it. 

Building relationships

The visit is not the end of the museums’ relationship with their customers. Now that they have collected customer data, “we follow up all visits with an email inviting visitors to feed back.” According to Pete, these online surveys were “incredibly important in those early days of reopening, to understand: were the measures that we were taking the right measures? Did people feel comfortable? Did they feel safe? Did they have a great day?”

While the museums had previously done exit surveys through market researchers, being able to email customers automatically has sped up the process. “The instant feedback loop has been fantastic in terms of reviewing the offer, reviewing the steps we’ve been taking, and therefore allowing constant improvement.”

“The instant feedback loop has been fantastic.”

And many visitors have chosen to continue engaging with the museums. “A huge number are signing up to stay in touch with us,” Pete says, giving the museums “that opportunity to begin to build a longer term relationship.”

Furthermore, “the pandemic has to some extent coincided with — and also driven — our own efforts to create more content outside of a visit.” Whether that’s online climate talks or the Never Been Seen digital collection tool, they now have the relationships “to go on inviting people to enjoy this content. And in doing so we’re deepening the relationship that people have with us.”

During the lockdown period, Pete reports, “visits to our online collection grew by 800,000 to 1.2 million.” By February 2021, 250,000 people had engaged with Never Been Seen. “It may be one month, one year, or a decade before they’re able to come physically back to the museum,” he notes, “but if they’re engaging with our collection, engaging with our content, then that’s fantastic.”

“A phenomenal experience”

Reflecting on the successes of reopening in 2020, Pete takes pride in how the museums’ operational changes made them “look professional from day one of reopening, and the customer experience was slick.” On top of that, “We immediately had better data than we’ve ever had before. So it was really a phenomenal experience for us. And we couldn't have done it without a partner like Tessitura.”

“We immediately had better data than we’ve ever had before. And we couldn't have done it without a partner like Tessitura.”

Looking toward your own reopening? 

If you’re looking to get started with timed admission, contactless scanning, or anything else you need to reopen effectively, just reach out — we’re always here for you.

Get in touch ›


Top photo: The Science Museum, London, as seen from Exhibition Road, via Wikimedia Commons.


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