Launched as part of an ongoing initiative to inspire an interest in and understanding of science and natural history, Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, debuted its all-new, adults-only science series, Fernbank After Dark in February 2017. Held from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on the second Friday of each month, Fernbank After Dark features experiences themed specifically to the science-based topic of the month, as well as live music, films in the Giant Screen Theater, small bites, and a rotating menu of craft cocktails and beers for the 21+ crowd.
Martinis and IMAX, the forerunner to Fernbank After Dark, was a 20-year-old program that had been highly effective in bringing young professionals to Fernbank. As these young professionals started having families, they became members and stayed loyal to the museum. However, the museum found Martinis and IMAX was becoming less effective in attracting new young audiences.
Fernbank’s research showed that millennials wanted their own event that involved science, offered memorable experiences, and wasn’t as closely associated with alcohol, and Martinis and IMAX wasn’t providing that. With those findings in mind, the museum developed a brand new event: the Fernbank After Dark Adult Science Nights. Each month’s event features a specific theme with everything developed through the lens of science, and while those under 21 were able to attend Martinis and IMAX with their parents, Fernbank After Dark is strictly for the 21+ crowd. Staff develops science demonstrations and encounters that correlate to each theme and feature plenty of “wow” factors and “ooh” moments. Guests are invited to enjoy all of the museum’s indoor exhibitions, including A Walk Through Time in Georgia, Reflections of Culture, traveling temporary exhibitions and more. Films are shown in the Giant Screen Theater at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Additionally, from May to September, Fernbank After Dark visitors have access to the outdoor experience, WildWoods.
In celebration of the giant screen film Dream Big, Fernbank After Dark was themed “Engineering and Technology.” iOS developer Big Nerd Ranch was onsite to demonstrate how the internet of things (the interconnection of computing devices embedded in everyday objects) and chatbots (computer programs that conduct conversations via auditory or textual methods) work together. Fernbank staff led engineering activities such as creating a building out of playing cards and a weight-tolerant bridge out of pasta. “Night at the Science Fair” featured the films The Search for Life in Space and Extreme Weather 3D. Other themes have included meteorology, carnival science, meteorology, and life hacks.
Museum staff didn’t yet know which films would be on the theater schedule when they planned the 2018 themes, so at first not all film topics have directly corresponded to the activities each month; however, Fernbank has brought in movies just for the After Dark program, and they do make strategic changes to make sure movies are relevant to the audience. Fernbank has already determined its 2019 film schedule and will plan next year’s program themes to complement the films.
To launch the series, Fernbank went directly to millennials on social media. The campaign focused heavily on Facebook and Instagram, and digital ads followed millennials on their web journey. However, they couldn’t rely just on digital ads since many people use ad blockers on their web browsers, so Fernbank also went to festivals that had similar audiences. They gave away t-shirts and had people signup for the Fernbank e-news for a chance at a prize wheel; offered Snapchat filters; ran spots on public radio, which has an engaged millennial audience that likes to go out and do things; distributed coasters, postcards, and posters around town at places frequented by this audience; sponsored posts with local influencers; invited local journalists to attend; and more.
Fernbank After Dark tickets are $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers, with a $5 up-charge to see a film. The series has seen strong attendance and many sold out events. Since launching the series, 40 percent of those attending have purchased a film ticket as part of their After Dark experience. It’s important to note, however, that with an event attendance capacity of 1500 but only 897 theater seats available per night, the highest percentage of attendees who could see a film is about 60 percent. Fernbank is considering testing 20-minute films during the four-hour events so people have more time to participate in what’s going on outside the theater and to give more people the chance to see the films.
The museum has seen an increase in millennial visits and online ticket sales, and with online ticket sales, they’re able to learn more about who’s coming and how to better design programming that will reach that audience. A major benefit of building this audience is that they are the next candidates for family membership. “A large number of people who come now with their families say they used to come to Martinis and IMAX, or that it was even a first date for them, and now they bring their kids to the museum,” says Brandi Berry, Fernbank’s VP of Marketing and Communications. “Martinis and IMAX served its purpose. It was their first experience at the museum, it was memorable, and anyone who had been to the event still remembers it fondly.” But, she explains, ”This is a different audience for us, and we had to put our brains in gear to figure out what we had to do differently to find this audience. It’s exciting for us.”