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Bubblefest highlights museum strategy for drawing visitors

David Cinquino is a man in motion: upstairs, downstairs, around corners, through doors, down hallways.

After showing off the “Tekno Bubble Dance Room” on the first floor of the Buffalo Museum of Science, where kids chased glow-in-the-dark bubbles illuminated by black lights on the beat-pounding dance floor, he heads upstairs.

With Saturday’s attendance figures for Bubblefest already in his head, Cinquino is promoting the museum’s next big event while negotiating the maze of museum exhibits filled with happy kids and their tiring parents.

The bid to attract and keep museumgoers at the Science Museum is clearly a science of its own. And staffers like Exhibit Director Cinquino know that all too well. A typical Saturday at the museum might attract 500 visitors, but events like Bubblefest can draw up to eight times as many people. Cinquino knows that’s not an opportunity the museum can afford to waste.

Already talking up the museum’s next big event – DinoDaze in November – he walks through a doorway and stops.

“The bubble-blowing robot was right here,” he says, momentarily dismayed at the empty space before moving on to the next cool, bubble-themed experience as the clock ticks down to closing time.

The seventh annual Bubblefest kicks off a yearlong laundry list of activities designed to keep loyal museum members and lure in new ones with more special activities, and well, just more. Of roughly 20 Bubblefest activities and shows on Saturday, nearly half are new or have been reconceived to make sure that people who return year after year experience something different, he says.

And the activities are carefully spaced through all three floors of the sprawling museum space. That’s not only practical – the museum has to spread around up to 4,000 visitors on Bubblefest day – it’s also strategic, leading parents and children to discover or rediscover parts of the museum they may not have seen in months or years.

On the first floor, a group of five siblings and cousins interrupt each other with excitement as they explain how they turned black strips of paper into shimmering, iridescent works of art with a pan of bubbles tinted with drops of colored nail polish.

“And then you scoop it,” interjects 7-year-old Nadya Ahmed, “and when it dries, it looks really pretty.”

On the second floor, parents and kids watch adults make frozen bubbles out of liquid nitrogen and blow bubbles made of glass.

And on the third floor, kids take advantage of the museum’s new, homemade bubble-making machine, created with a shop vac hose and a piece of black, weed-killing screen. The machine loads a kiddie pool with suds that Owen Olsen, 7, piles on his head, off his chin and onto both hands before carrying more to his siblings in an effort to make them taller.

“Ha ha!” he says, after dumping a fresh pile of suds onto his 5-year-old brother’s head. “You look funny.”

It isn’t just the younger kids getting in on the action, either. The activity staffer has older kids building bubble wands out of K’nex construction pieces. Earlier, some were even designing and building them on the museum’s 3-D printers.

Despite the new activities and Saturday’s crowds, Cinquino says Saturday’s Bubblefest attendance is down by roughly 500 visitors compared with last year.

That makes it more critical that those leaving Bubblefest have reason to return in future months, even though the museum is not planning to host any special traveling exhibits.

To that end, museum ticket sellers distributed full-color fliers to visitors promoting the museum’s next events through January. The sheet makes it clear that the events are included with museum admission and are free for members. Each time visitors return for one of these special events, a new flier will showcase the next several, Cinquino says.

He hopes that visitors who come for these special events aren’t just attracted to the special activities, but are attracted enough to the exhibits to return on non-event days.

He points out that every museum exhibit get a tweak or upgrade every six months so that returning museumgoers see something fresh each time. In fact, the exhibits here aren’t even called “exhibits” anymore because that implies something static and unchanging, Cinquino says. Now, they’re called “studios.”

The Jackson family leaving the “Bubblemania” show doesn’t recognize the subtlety, but they do recognize the changes. The father, Dakarai Jackson Sr., says he hasn’t been back to the Museum of Science in 25 years. Now, he’s here with his wife and two sons, all sporting Yankees gear as they reluctantly leave the museum at closing time.

His last, vague recollection of the museum included memories of dry exhibits that required lots of reading.

He came back on the recommendation of a friend who forwarded him a Facebook post promoting the event. Now, he can’t get over the museum’s big touch screens and interactive stations. The whole place seems bigger, he says. “It’s a lot more updated.”