When GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico board of trustees chairman Mike Lee had to tell a neighbor the facility wasn’t an aquarium, he realized maybe more marketing was needed.
“I said ‘my own neighbor hasn’t figured out it’s not an aquarium,’” he said. “We have to get the word out and we have to get some marketing dollars. We have to spend them in a smart way … ”
An emphasis on targeted marketing may help the museum, after it fell well short of projected attendance numbers in its first year with only 80,000 paid visitors, Lee said. By the board’s own projections, GulfQuest was expected to draw closer to 200,000 visitors in the first year.
“The 200,000 sounded reasonable to me because, looking at the battleship and other venues, you know, that’s — I go back to again, we know we have a good product — I think that’s a reachable figure,” he said.
Numerous delays during building construction forced museum leadership to blow through cash reserves early and left them with a paltry marketing budget, Lee said. He was quick to note that the trustees were not pointing fingers.
“One of the things that has created some struggle for us now, by the time we opened, we had already used a couple of years of operating expenses we didn’t intend to use originally,” Lee said. “We spent some more on getting the building done. We really had exhausted our reserves. We didn’t really have a lot of revenue.”
In addition, the delays kept the museum from opening until the end of September 2015. Lee said trustees had been aiming to open in the summer, which would have given them a better shot at hitting the 200,000 projection.
“We do need some time and the biggest stumbling block we’ve had is no time,” Lee said. “We opened at the end of September, which is a terrible time. We missed that whole summer.”
The delays also had a negative impact on local public opinion, which has been hard for the museum to recover from, Lee said.
“One of the things we’ve had to battle is people saying ‘I’m never going down there. That was a mess,’” he said. “The marketing, again, is where you overcome that negative publicity. We’ve got to get the word out on how great the response is by everyone who has been there.”
Last week the museum announced discounted admission for residents of Mobile and Baldwin counties in an effort to get more locals through the doors.
“I don’t know the answer yet to motivating the Mobile folks to get in there, because that’s what has been missing more than the tourism component,” Lee said. “How do you overcome, you know, your friends and neighbors thinking it’s an aquarium? We’ve got to get that message out.”
During the promotion, which runs through the end of the year, admission for locals will drop from $18 to $15 for adults, and from $16 to $14 for senior citizens and youth ages 13 to 17. Prices for youth ages 5 to 12 will drop from $14 to $12.
“This is one of several strategies that start-up attractions consider after a first year,” GulfQuest executive director Tony Zodrow said in a statement. “It generally takes about a year to figure out what the area can support, and we decided the holiday season was the right time to roll out this particular strategy. We will evaluate this program at the end of the year and, based on the levels of participation, make decisions going forward.”
Lee said he’s optimistic, as well, that the return of Carnival’s Fantasy cruise ship in early November will help boost attendance at the museum. The ship is expected to bring 185,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members annually to the Mobile, Alabama Cruise Terminal.
“They’re going to flock to the place next door,” he said. “I think you’re going to get a good response from that.”
The delays, which Lee said left the museum with virtually no cash reserves, also had a negative impact on a deal the trustees made with the city to pay utilities. At the time they made the deal, Lee said, the trustees were flush with cash from excited donors and had come off a very successful capital campaign. Once the delays hit, Lee said, the money set aside to pay utilities dwindled.
“Somewhere way back when we made our agreement we were kind of flush with money and brave, and didn’t fight that hard enough, maybe,” he said. “I think if you check into some of the other [venues] around town, the city does pay the utilities.”
The leadership of the museum is currently working on a plan with the city to get some financial help. Lee said forgiving the $400,000 they owe in back utility payments might be the help they need.
“I think we have a solid plan,” Lee said. “We’ve got a lot of donors who … have said, ‘if the city will help, we’ll help again.’ I think we’re trying to create a matching fund approach.”
However, GulfQuest is committed to making changes that will help it be more successful in the future, Lee said. For instance, he said, the museum is looking at cutting payroll and possibly using more volunteers.
The board has also created a marketing committee it hopes will help get the word out about the museum in the future, Lee said.