The Museum of Illusions has announced plans to open its largest location yet in Charlotte, North Carolina in autumn 2022. Like its other venues, this new attraction will feature mind-bending optical illusions, interactive illusion rooms, holograms, and brain-teasing exhibits, plus retail opportunities.
The Museum of Illusions began in 2015 and has since grown rapidly. It currently operates in 36 locations across 24 countries, including the US, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, China, Korea and India. An additional 20 venues are scheduled to open soon.
Charlotte was chosen as the latest area due to its reputation as one of the fastest-growing markets in the US. The city has a large population of young people and is home to several universities.
“Museum of Illusions is thrilled to be expanding our global footprint to a city as innovative and progressive as Charlotte,” says Jonathan Benjamin, CEO of the Museum of Illusions, an accomplished franchise and corporate executive with two decades of experience.
The flagship Charlotte venue will showcase new design concepts and innovative exhibits. Benjamin adds:
“Not only will Charlotte’s Museum of Illusions serve as our largest US location to date, but it will also be the birthplace of multiple new style and design concepts that will go on to be featured in future Museum of Illusions locations worldwide.”
Inside the Museum of Illusions
Describing the Museum’s concept, he tells blooloop:
“It is basically a collection of mind-altering exhibits, artwork, and experiential-type interactive entertainment, things that just defy reality, where you look at something and say, ‘That doesn’t look right,’ so it causes your mind to have to alter its own sense of reality.
“The other thing is that it’s also very hands-on in the sense that we encourage people to interact with several of the exhibits, and take photos if possible. It’s essentially an example of the type of experiential type of museums that are dotting the globe at the moment.”
The Museum of Illusions concept, inspired by the “Brain Games” TV show on the National Geographic channel, was founded by Roko Zivkovic and opened in Zagreb, Croatia in 2015.
A huge museum chain
Since then, it has become the biggest museum chain in the world, even contriving to open eight new locations during the pandemic.
“I think the founders were pretty overwhelmed not only at how well it was received, but at the clamour from the start from visitors asking if there were any other locations, or whether they could open a location somewhere else.”
“What started as a fun, entrepreneurial idea exploded in a very short period of time. Now there are locations in 24 countries, and a number of other ones that will be opening very soon.”
This includes the flagship venue in Charlotte. Additionally, he says:
“We are also opening up in Atlanta, shortly after Charlotte. That’s going to be a flagship location, as well. We are also opening in Rome, Italy; Brussels; Washington, D.C.; Montreal, Canada; Scottsdale, Arizona. The list is, is getting longer every day.”
Secrets of success
So what accounts for the chain’s phenomenal success?
“I can’t really explain it, other than to say that it has caught people’s imagination, and is extremely popular. We have tremendous relationships with some existing franchisees of ours, entrepreneurs themselves, who saw the vision, saw an opportunity, and felt a need to be able to bring this type of family entertainment into their communities. It has just been a tremendous success.”
Until this point, all the locations have been franchises. Going forward, company development has been added into the mix. The first two company-owned locations will be Charlotte and Atlanta. Rather than signalling a new direction for the company, this is, he says, an addition to the business strategy:
“The franchise locations are with franchisees who, in many cases, left very successful careers to pursue this concept, and who are finding it financially very rewarding, as well as a change of lifestyle from more stressful employment, and a way of giving back to the community.”
The Museum of Illusions is integrated with the communities where it is located, welcoming groups of disadvantaged schoolchildren on field trips, among other initiatives.
“Our franchisees are amazing. We want to accelerate that growth internally, as well.”
Expanding the Museum of Illusions
Touching on goals and missions in terms of expansion, he says:
“Simply stated, we are looking to have a hundred open museums around the world within the next four, four and a half years. We have 36 open now, and should easily be at 50 or more by the end of next year. We’ve got a pretty good pipeline that goes beyond that already for other locations. Right now we are on four continents.”
There is something reminiscent of a Victorian cabinet of curiosities about the Museum of Illusion concept:
“At the same time, it’s not at all static,” Benjamin points out. “We change exhibits; we have exhibits that tour the world, and we occasionally have live entertainment there in the form of illusionists, magicians or something similar. That all helps to keep the folks engaged and entertained. We also do private events, corporate buyouts, sponsorships, and so on.”
The offering is kept fresh and repeatable.
“We continually strive to improve,” he says. “We go through reviews and feedback. Even going through reviews posted for every location around the world, we haven’t found many negative comments, though it’s impossible, of course, to please absolutely everybody.”
“There was, though, one comment that kept popping up: people loved the museum, but they were sorry it wasn’t bigger. Taking the cue, we went back to some actual customers and, really seeking to address this and to make a positive contribution to those concerns, we decided to make some grander exhibits, increase the size of the museums themselves and their capacities, and make it a little bit easier for groups to follow and flow through the museum spaces.
“This is something we are implementing in Charlotte, and then, soon after that, in Atlanta.”
What makes a good site for a Museum of Illusions?
Benjamin outlines the criteria that a venue for a Museum of Illusions must meet:
“We will invariably look for areas that are city centres where there is a lot of activity and a range of other types of entertainment facilities. That may be other museums or theatres or performance venues. It has to be somewhere likely to appeal to people as a destination for tourists, and for people outside the area, somewhere with conventions, hotels, and shopping.
“Typically, if someone is going to go somewhere as a destination entertainment, there are other things they’re planning along the way. It might be dinner, it might be a movie. It helps to have those as co-tendencies. We like visibility and a high footfall.”
“We actually did a study before we launched our ambitious growth strategy to solidify the model, identifying where the best opportunities would be, not just in terms of cities around the world, but also the locations within each of those cities.”
The planning is meticulous:
“Significant investment goes into each venue. They are for-profit, and, ideally, if our franchisees are going to be happy, they want to make some sort of profit as well. Then our shareholders that own the company also have some profit motive.”
Attracting a wide audience
In addition, the target demographics are broad:
“Families, and then school children all the way up to seniors are a core demographic,” he says. “Depending on the city and the concentration, a proportion will be tourists, but overall it’s probably 80 to 85% locals.
“The biggest cluster in most locations would probably be those in their early twenties through late thirties: the Facebook, Instagram, TikTok generation.”
“School children really love the Museum,” he adds. “It’s a field trip where you’re encouraged to bring your smartphone: you don’t have to switch it off and put it in your backpack, or deposit it in a basket until the trip is over. It’s very exciting for them.”
Instagrammable experiences at the Museum of Illusions
The experience is eminently photogenic and Instagrammable, so marketing is largely social media-driven, and self-generating.
“That’s a big part of our push,” says Benjamin. “At the end of the day, it’s about crowd-pleasing: it’s good, clean, fun family entertainment.”
It is also, to a degree, edutainment; the museum offers interactive and immersive illusion exhibits, teaching guests about vision, perception, the human brain, and science, according to the museum’s website:
“In many ways, much of what you see at the Museum of Illusions is science and math-based. Wherever possible, we’re attempting to get these locations STEM and STEAM certification. They offer something fun that kids can do that is also actually educational. It is also very appealing to school boards as they are planning the curriculum for field trips.”
Seeing is believing
Commenting on the exhibits, he says:
“I sum it up by saying that you have to see it to believe it. You will look at something and it will appear to be a certain way, but then if you look at it through a camera, it will look completely different. If you’re looking at it through a lens, or if you just move your head side to side a little bit, you’ll see things that confuse your brain but, at the same time, stimulate it in a positive way.”
“These are things, too, that you’re experiencing in their natural state. The illusion is real. There’s no VR or AR or animation used to achieve those effects. These are things that, in many instances, have been in the public domain for hundreds of years. We name them accordingly. These are things you can read about, or look up on the internet. They don’t really translate well to video; there’s no substitute for experiencing them, touching and feeling them, in real life.”
It is, in short, a very old concept reworked for a new age.
Retail plays an important role in revenue for each venue, in addition to the ticket price:
“Merchandise is key, whether it’s simple things like key chains and T-shirts to gifts, games, puzzles, and illusion-based curiosities you can bring home. Of course, a lot of it is for children, but there are children of all ages.”
In terms of benefiting the local area, he adds:
“This is a great way to be able to generate foot traffic for the surrounding retailers; we bring hundreds of thousands of visitors per year per location, many of whom will linger in the area to shop and to dine.”
The museum is set to open 20 new locations, including sites in Melbourne, Australia, London and Dublin. The company has plans to open other US museums soon, including sites in Atlanta, Austin, Boston and Nashville, and there are further global plans in the pipeline.