Catching up with Mob Museum executive director Jonathan Ullman

Jonathan Ullman, executive director of the Mob Museum, poses in the lobby of the museum in Downtown Las Vegas on Feb. 13, 2012, the day before the museum’s grand opening.
Photo: Steve Marcus

The Mob Museum opened on Valentine’s Day, and in the summer, it passed the 100,000 visitors mark. What is your feeling for how the museum has been received so far? It’s been good. We’re excited how positive the guest reaction has been. From our on-site comment cards, 96 percent of responses are good or excellent. We have tremendous ratings on TripAdvisor and Yelp, we’ve been getting great national coverage, and recently won an award from AAA magazine. It’s really thrilling how well-received the product is, knowing that people are learning a lot but at the same time it’s very entertaining, engaging and unique.

As a brand new organization, has that recognition and response been a surprise? I wouldn’t characterize it as surprising. It’s heartening, energizing to get that feedback. The typical first-time visitor doesn’t know what to expect. Most people are not thinking it’s going to be as robust and rich in terms of the amount of information and number of exhibits. It sounds immodest to say but people are typically blown away with the experience.

Mob Museum Opening

I’ve heard the same thing, that the Mob Museum is a place you have to go back again and again. We are constantly hearing people say they had no idea how much was here, that they spent two and a half hours and they need to come back. We have locals and members that have literally been here a dozen times already. For the long term, we know we have to continue to add to the experience so that it continues to be, particularly for locals, a place you want to return to. So we are putting a lot of energy and resources into creating special programming like our Speakers Series. That’s something that’s pretty cool because these speakers are the crème de la crème, national figures in their field.

You must be working to generate awareness of your membership program as well. We have single, duo and family memberships. So if you’re a local, it’s 10 bucks to come once, or for 25 bucks you can come back as many times as you want over the course of a year and you’ll receive discounts at our store and for special events like the Speakers Series. And then we have what we classify as donor memberships, which are more oriented to the people that really appreciate what the museum is all about in terms of our educational mission and what we’re trying to do Downtown, helping to add to the vibrancy and revitalization of this area.

The timing of the museum’s opening was perfect considering how much is happening Downtown this year. Is there a flip side to that? Is it difficult to stay relevant with so much excitement and so many different developments coming around? We had our time in the limelight when we first opened. We had a remarkable amount of media coverage, and we still get extraordinary coverage, particularly out of market. Just last week there was a great article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Word is still getting out and that’s great, but it’s also really important that the whole area does well. We want to have a bigger-picture view, that all ships will rise. Having the Smith Center open, even if that shifts the spotlight, is really good for Downtown and by virtue, really good for us, just as the opening of the Neon Museum and children’s museum will be. It all adds to the canvas of what Downtown has to offer.

More Mob Museum

And it will continue, right? Your immediate area will change dramatically when the Lady Luck casino site re-opens. How do you see that playing out? Fifth Street Gaming is as good a neighbor as you could hope for, and we already collaborate on a number of different promotions. One of the challenges we have had is being on the perimeter, so to speak, of the entertainment district of Downtown Las Vegas. From what I understand, the Downtown Grand is set to open up in third quarter or early fourth quarter of next year, and that is going to be a dramatic change, as will the opening of Zappos’ headquarters. To go from having construction on three sides to thousands of people playing and staying, and having that foot traffic, is going to be great.

How do you decide whether to market the Mob Museum to tourists or focus on locals? We are working to find the right balance. So many tourists flood this market, and 65 to 70 percent of our guests are tourists. Over time we think that will grow a little bit. There are definitely niche markets out there. Not to generalize, but it seems that whatever our fascination is with royalty in England, there’s the same amount of their fascination with the mob, and we know it is pronounced across the U.S. But it’s critically important that we reach locals. Remember, the genesis of this is that it’s a city-driven project, and when the federal government gifted this building to the city, the two deed covenants were that the building be rehabilitated and repurposed for a cultural use. The building is one of the only examples of Depression-era neoclassical architectural you can find in Las Vegas, it’s on the National Register of Historical Places, and it’s going to be nominated for Federal Landmark status. We believe this is a treasure to the community and should be a point of pride, something residents are excited about and what to show off to people that come to visit. That’s what a museum should be.

The Mob Museum recently partnered with a local shooting range for a promotion package that allows people to fire 1920s-era guns along with their museum admission. That’s a slightly edgy collaboration. I’m a museum guy. I’ve spent my whole career in nonprofit museums. Las Vegas is a unique market; you have to be creative. And in a museum about organized crime and law enforcement, weapons are part of the story you’re telling. To be successful in this marketplace, we know we won’t compromise on the educational value of the experience or the authenticity of the product we put out there, but at the same time it has to be highly engaging and entertaining.

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Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years. He currently covers entertainment, music, nightlife, food ...

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