When it opens on Saturday, Sept. 26, officials expect the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum to attract an average of more than 800 visitors a day, but attendance numbers from other maritime museums suggest that may be overly optimistic.
A marketing study done in 2009, the same year ground was broken on the $60 million facility, estimated the museum’s average attendance would be 300,000 a year. Of those 300,000 visitors a year, 50,000 to 60,000 would be from school trips.
Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Al Hutchinson told a crowd of onlookers during a ceremony announcing the opening date last week that he believes the museum will be a “tide that lifts all ships.”
Citing the 2009 study, Hutchinson said the museum is projected to attract 300,000 visitors a year, 75 percent of them tourists. “It will help other attractions be just as great,” he said.
Hutchinson also cited research from the University of South Alabama projecting the museum would have an economic impact of $19 million.
Attendance numbers from other maritime museums in the southeast suggest the 300,000 visitor average will be hard to achieve, but maybe not impossible.
“Sounds a little high, but with their location it might reach that, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum Director Don Lynch said. “It’s pretty optimistic.”
In a February interview, GulfQuest Executive Director Tony Zodrow said studies like the one conducted in 2009 are always conservative because museums base other estimates on that number.
Lynch said GulfQuest’s location would be more of a draw than his museum, which is smaller and located in Madisonville, Louisiana.
“[GulfQuest’s] location is a draw,” Lynch said. “All of it is geared to the waterfront.”
While GulfQuest is the only maritime museum solely focused on the Gulf of Mexico, the Madisonville museum is focused on the history of maritime activities around Lake Pontchartrain, Lynch said.
The much-smaller Houston Maritime Museum averages just 5,000 visitors a year, employee Lucia Cerritos said. The museum, which has eight different galleries on one floor, is roughly 6,000 square feet.
GulfQuest, comparatively, is 90,000 square feet and will have 90 exhibits, theaters and simulators on four floors.
The mission of the Houston museum is to focus on the history of Houston and its associated Gulf Coast maritime industry, Cerrritos said.
The Houston museum, which has been open since December 2000, is looking to open a second location, Cerritos said, which officials hope will bring more visitors because it will be located near the U.S.S. Sam Houston, a former Navy submarine. With the vessel as a main draw, Cerrritos said, the new museum hopes to draw 300,000 visitors a year as well.
“Depending on what’s around the museum, I think 300,000 is a fair number,” she said.
It should be noted that Houston had a population of 2.196 million people in 2014, while Mobile was home to just 194,899.
The Nauticus Maritime Museum in Norfolk is probably the closest in size to GulfQuest. The 120,000-square-foot museum on the city’s waterfront boasts roughly 250,000 visitors a year and averages about 1,000 visitors a day during the summer months, museum spokeswoman Beth Bilderback said. Norfolk also has a larger population than Mobile, with 246,139 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census.
The Nauticus Maritime Museum’s 250,000-visitor figure does not include active military members or children, Bilderback said, and the majority of those visitors come to tour the U.S.S. Wisconsin, which is attached to Nauticus. Nauticus is also home to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which has free admittance.
Nauticus also has an attached cruise terminal and a sailing school. In addition, Norfolk is home to one of the largest Navy bases in the country. Bilderback said Nauticus has a 3D theater, but does not house any simulators. When it opens, GulfQuest will have two.
Patriots Point in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a series of ship museums and a 2.5-acre Vietnam War exhibit, sees roughly 250,000 visitors a year not counting active military personnel or children, Public Information Officer Chris Hauff said. “If we counted every person, we’d be close to 400,000,” he said.
Hauff added that the goal of getting to 300,000 paid visitors by 2019 is part of the museum’s business plan.
In addition to its exhibits, Hauff said, Patriots Point has a resort hotel and a golf course on site, helping draw visitors. Nonetheless, he seems confident with GulfQuest’s projections.
“The number is probably pretty accurate,” he said.
Admission prices for GulfQuest will be comparable to those of other large maritime museums. For example, a Nauticus basic ticket costs $15.95 for adults and includes a tour of the battleship on site. It doesn’t include a 3D movie ticket. A basic child’s ticket at Nauticus runs $11.50.
Admission to Patriots Point runs $20 for adults and $12 for children.
Adult admission at GulfQuest will run $18; youth ages 13 to 17, $16; and children ages 5 to 12, $14.
Both the Houston Maritime Museum and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum are $5 for adults and $3 for children.
Officials announced the opening date on Thursday, June 11, at the landing in Cooper Riverside Park. Zodrow and GulfQuest board members said it was a relief to finally be able to announce the date, after years of setbacks and delays.
Zodrow said that while he’s been working on the project some 10 years, the board was initially formed in 1993 to begin studying the idea.
“For the board, this has been a 22-year journey,” Zodrow said last week. “It’s a great sense of relief.”
The museum, which represents a $62.3-million investment, is about 85 percent complete, Zodrow said. Left to be resolved are installation of some of the exhibits as well as the cafeteria and the gift shop.