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Tourist trapped? Layoffs hit S.F. Exploratorium as attendance lags despite $300M redesign

Image Credit: Jolie O'Dell/VentureBeat

The Exploratorium’s makeover has not attracted as many admirers as hoped.

The recently revamped museum laid off 80 of its 435 paid positions today, which is around 18 percent of its staff. Communications and marketing director Sabrina Smith told SFGate that the museum had projected a daily attendance of 6,000 to 7,000, but the reality was around half that.

Ticket revenue also fell below the target. The museum anticipated that the average ticket revenue would be $15.50. However fewer tourists (who pay full price) and discounts for Bay Area residents, youth, teachers, students, and seniors, caused the actual average to be $12.50.

As a result the museum is eliminating 34 full-time permanent employees, all seasonal employees, and will leave unfilled positions vacant.

The new Exploratorium officially reopened on April 17 in its new location at Pier 15. The museum has a long history of supporting hands-on education and getting kids excited about science. In January 2013 it closed the doors at its Palace of Fine Arts location and went through a $300 million redesign. The new facility has 330,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibits, 600 total exhibits, as well as 1.5 acres of free space, two restaurants, and a promenade.

Silicon Valley heavyweights played an important role in the revamp. LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, Twitter and Square cofounder Jack Dorsey, former CFO of eBay Gary Bengier, Playdom cofounder Dan Yue, Google’s senior vice president of commerce Jeff Huber, and dean of infrastructure for Khan Academy Craig Silverstein are all on the board,  With its heavy emphasis on creativity, questioning, and making, support of the Exploratorium appeals to many who have been made wealthy through entrepreneurship.

“The Exploratorium’s experiential approach to learning makes it an incubator for innovation outside of school, where most learning actually takes place,” Silverstein said last year. “The Exploratorium’s methods of discovery and inquiry have made it a training ground for scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs. The big idea for all of us in the Valley is to find new ways to inspire critical thinking and independent reasoning skills.”

Fostering the next generation of innovators is an important part of the startup ecosystem. Many successful entrepreneurs become mentors and/or investors, and putting money into the Exploratorium is part of driving the innovation engine.

Maybe ticket sales will go up over time. Maybe the Exploratorium’s board members will provide additional support. Or maybe, like the startups working just a few blocks away in SoMA, the Exploratorium team will put their heads down, brainstorm, and come to with strategies to attract more visitors.


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