Museum looks for new ways to increase revenue
By Emily Ford
SPENCER — The local economy will take a $1 million hit this year with the 25 percent drop in visitors to the N.C. Transportation Museum, a tourism official said.
In the past, the Spencer museum has attracted about 100,000 people a year, said James Meacham, executive director for the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. A 25 percent decrease in attendance means a $1 million loss for Rowan County’s $120 million tourism economy, Meacham said.
New admission fees are keeping people away, he said.
“It’s the ticket price increase,” Meacham said. “Attendance at other tourist sites in Rowan County is either flat or up.”
Previously free, the museum started charging general admission in July after the state cut funding in half to $576,000. Admission fees — $10 for an adult and $6 for a child — include a train ride, which previously cost $6 for adults and $5 for kids.
Even though people who rode the train in the past will pay only $4 more for an adult and $1 more for a child, the $10 sticker shock at the gate has had an impact, Meacham said.
“In this economic environment, ten dollars is a lot,” he said.
Meacham suggested charging $5 admission and an additional $5 for those who want to ride the train.
Once people decide not to visit the transportation museum, they are unlikely to visit a different Rowan County tourism attraction instead.
“These visitors aren’t being captured at other sites,” Meacham said. “The transportation museum has a specific market in heritage tourism.”
The typical day visitor to Rowan County spends between $50 and $75 on gas, food and entertainment. In total, people spend about $7.2 million each year going to the transportation museum, including the train ride and gift shop purchases, he said.
The museum makes up about 5 percent to 6 percent of the local tourism economy.
For visitors to return, the transportation museum will need a strong marketing strategy, Meacham said.
“They will need to push the envelope, marketing-wise,” he said. “They will need really sell it to the visitors with a compelling story.”
To become self-sufficient as the state intends, the museum must not only recover the visitors who left but also attract new customers, Meacham said.
It’s too early to know if the museum, which has relied on state funding since it opened in 1983, can survive with no taxpayer support.
“The museum is at a crossroads,” Meacham said. “If the leadership makes the proper strategic decisions at the right time, they will continue to move forward.”
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While the search continues for a new executive director, other museum leaders say they will try new ways to lure visitors. They plan to advertise new activities, changing exhibits and rental venues in a stepped-up marketing campaign, and they’re attempting new partnerships with private businesses.
For a recent Jingle Bell Express train ride, CiCi’s Pizza bought advertising space on each golden ticket sold to passengers.
The museum offers some of the most unusual rental space around, interim Executive Director Brian Howell said.
“We’re finding that this facility provides a very unique experience for corporate meetings and weddings,” said Howell, whose wedding reception was held in the Roundhouse.
From a conference room that holds 25 people to the Roundhouse that can accommodate 300, the museum plans to aggressively market the location for political events, dinners, historical gatherings and more.
“There are an immense number of weddings at Fort Fisher,” said Keith Hardison, director of the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites. “You wouldn’t think people would want to get married at a Civil War battlefield, but they do a huge business there.”
Rental fees are competitively priced from $15 for two hours under the picnic shelter to $600 for five hours in the Roundhouse.
Hardison and Howell said they knew attendance would fall when the museum started charging admission.
“Ultimately, based on a new approach we will take with the museum, we will grow those numbers and make up for what we’ve lost over a period of time,” Hardison said. “Certainly not in the second year. It will take three to five years to achieve parity.”
When something has been free for so long, it takes time to change the mindset of visitors, Marketing Director Mark Brown said.
“It’s a major paradigm shift,” Brown said. “Either they will be convinced and they will come back, or else new people will come along.”
The N.C. General Assembly has launched a sweeping review of state museums, parks and other attractions to determine appropriate staffing and funding levels.
“Some museums are getting funding because of political patronage,” said Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican and chairman of the Senate appropriations committee overseeing general government.
Brock praised the transportation museum, and said staff has “done an excellent job.”
“Attendance is off a little bit this year, but school groups are cutting back,” he said. “There are a number of factors, not just the admission charge.”
Meacham put all the blame for plummeting attendance on the admission fee and said he eagerly awaits the results of the legislature’s study, scheduled to be released in March. The review could help bolster the argument to provide state funding for another year to the Spencer museum.
“I will be sitting here with watchful eyes to see how the transportation museum compares to other sites,” he said.
The study follows budget cuts this summer that forced tourist attractions like the transportation museum to cut hours or special programs, lay off workers and increase admission fees.
Meacham laughed when asked if he thought the state should have studied the issue first, then made cuts.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau has a vested interest in the success of the transportation museum, he said.
“We on our end will continue to do everything we can to help them,” he said. “Everything they’ve requested, we’ve fulfilled.”
So far this year, Salisbury and Rowan County tourism authorities have awarded the museum $15,500 in grants for marketing and special events, up from $6,500 last year.
If the museum can’t generate enough revenue to become self-sufficient by the state’s deadline, would the state allow the museum to close?
“You can’t completely put that out of your mind,” Meacham said. “We are in a different environment. The state has to balance its resources, and there are critical needs. People are hurting.”
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In just 12 months, the museum could go from 100 percent to zero funding from the state.
“We have had a very short period of time,” Howell said. “We’ve had to think in a different way than we ever had to before.”
While the museum pursues new ways to make money, it also had to cut costs with the elimination of seven positions, including four layoffs, Hardison said.
For the first time, the museum must act like any other business in the private sector. When revenue comes up short, businesses “face a tough decision of belt-tightening,” Hardison said.
“And if someone in the private sector has to do it, they have the right to expect the government to which they pay their taxes, to abide by the same business practices,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.
“But we have the responsibility to make sure this museum is in as sound condition as we can make it, not only for the future of this museum, but for the future of this community.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
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