GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico struggled to attract attendance in each of its 13 months in operation. Records provided by outgoing Executive Director Tony Zodrow indicate the museum was unable to maintain a steady admission base, which ultimately led Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson to take over the $60 million facility and temporarily close it to the public.
A GulfQuest activity report released during a Sept. 8 meeting of the museum’s board of trustees, shows the facility attracted 73,343 visitors in the 11 months it was open, between September 2015 and August 2016. A report from the museum in October 2016 put the total attendance at about 80,000. Before it opened, museum officials had estimated 200,000 visitors would be required each year for the museum to operate in the black. Attendance projections had the number of visitors well beyond that.
In its first 35 days of operation, from Sept. 26, 2015 — when it opened after years of delays — through the end of October of that year, GulfQuest welcomed just 8,763 visitors through its doors. The attendance numbers didn’t improve from there.
In June 2016, GulfQuest welcomed 8,709 visitors, its second-highest attendance total in 13 months. The museum saw its lowest attendance in August 2016, when just 4,229 visitors passed through its doors. Attendance levels vary from there, with the summer months of June and July seeing 8,709 and 7,097 visitors, respectively. March saw a total of 7,009 visitors as well.
Stimpson has said from the beginning that in order to attract more visitors, the museum would need to be more fun. The city has already contacted representatives with the parent company of Ripley’s Believe It or Not to get ideas on how to make the museum more popular. Stimpson added that the city has also been in contact with Hugh Darley, from Idea Inc., for suggestions. Darley, Stimpson said, has worked with the USS Alabama and a number of cruise lines.
“The word ‘museum’ sends a message to a lot of people of ‘boring,’” Stimpson suggested. “In today’s society, we want to do things that are fun.”
The administration acknowledges the challenges of what they’re trying to do. In a previous interview, Zodrow said most of the museum’s exhibits were funded through new market tax credits. The credits remain in place until 2020 and 2021, respectively, he said. This means that the city will most likely have to maintain the exhibits the tax credits paid for until those dates.
“We have to maintain the integrity [of the museum], but make it fun so it can be successful,” Stimpson said. “We want to maintain the integrity of the concept, but we have to make revenue.”
Stimpson envisions a third party running the museum and the city paying off the more than $2 million in debt each year on the building.
The museum held a series of camps on various topics throughout the summer. Those camps, held from the last week of June through the end of July, attracted 45 campers. The first week and third week of the camps brought in eight visitors each, according to the report.
GulfQuest had 114 classroom programs scheduled for 2016 and 2017, according to the report. Most of the scheduled visits came from third- and fifth-grade classrooms with 30 students each. A total of 40 schools planned field trips to the museum for 2016 and 2017.
Stimpson has called for the field trips scheduled from this month through 2017 to be canceled. For the time being, a “gray period,” as Stimpson calls it, will see the museum open its doors only for special events already on the books and days when the Carnival Fantasy is in port.
“It’ll be open for special events,” Stimpson said in an interview early last week. “We take cruise day as a special event, but we’re not currently scheduling events. It’ll be directed at cruisers until we get better at what we’re doing.”
The activity report also reveals the revenue GulfQuest brought in from admission during the first and second quarters of 2016 and projections for quarters three and four.
During the first quarter of 2016, the museum made $125,189 in “general and group admission,” $63,468 in “educational programs,” $16,410 in “special events” and $20,033 in “memberships,” according to the report. The first quarter total was $225,100. Admission revenue increased in the second quarter of 2016 to $292,819, but the revenue from memberships dropped significantly to $8,739.
Revenue projections for the third quarter of 2016 dropped to $203,971, while they increased for the fourth quarter to $357,193. The total revenue projections for 2016 came to just over $1 million. Other revenues for the year to date in September included the lease of The Galley restaurant at $14,063, parking fees of $8,910 and vending machine commissions of $898.
As for expenses, the report shows GulfQuest paid $710,000 on “operating expenses” in the second quarter alone. The expenses for the quarter included $293,612 in salaries, $107,000 in “accrued utilities,” $57,153 in advertising and $84,238 in “interest expense.”
The numbers mean the museum lost a total of $417,181. In fact, according to the numbers provided, admission in the second quarter alone didn’t cover the museum’s expense for salaries during the same time period.