Discovery museum has fast start

As memberships soar, children's facility sets marketing goals

Blockbuster summer seen

Officials aim to keep interactive exhibits fresh for repeat visits

May 02, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

After breezing through initial membership projections months ahead of schedule, Port Discovery, Baltimore's new $32 million interactive children's museum, is gearing up for its first summer with aggressive plans to build on its early success.

The museum, which opened in December, reached its six-month goal of 4,500 memberships within its first two months. Now museum officials have raised the stakes, aiming for 8,000 by June 30. And they are well on their way, with more than 6,000 memberships sold.

"You don't buy a membership if you're not going to come back," said Kathy Dwyer Southern, president and chief executive of the Market Place attraction. "Six thousand families in 3 1/2 months have come in and bought memberships. This is important to us, because it's our core constituency."

Overall, the museum reports 133,802 admissions since opening day, nearly 2,000 more than had been projected by mid-April.

Even so, museum officials say they are taking nothing for granted and are focused on keeping the experience fresh.

Making each visit unique is vital to an attraction that relies heavily on repeat traffic to maintain its high volume. Monthly reports show that 15 percent to 20 percent of visitors hold memberships.

"I don't know anyplace else in Baltimore that encourages so much creativity," said Christine Higgins, a Towson resident who bought a membership. "It approaches [children] on their own level."

Many memberships are snagged on first visits to the three-level museum designed by Walt Disney Imagineering as people convert daily admission tickets ($10 adult, $7.50 for children 3 to 12) as they leave, Southern said.

A yearly membership for an adult and child is $40, with family memberships ranging from $65 to $100.

"I think it's a real bargain," said Higgins, who has a 6-year-old daughter. "We've already been four times, so it's already paid for itself."

Although local tourism officials are excited about the early attendance numbers, they say those figures are not necessarily a guarantee of success.

"From my experience in other cities, the first 12 to 18 months are good to look at, but it's 18 months to 36 months that really tell the story," said Dan M. Lincoln, vice president of tourism and communications at the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "Before everyone goes ballistic and says, `This is phenomenal,' we need to wait 18 months and see where they settle in."

Total attendance for the calendar year remains on target for 475,000 -- numbers expected to boost the state's economy by more than $14.5 million annually. But attendance numbers could be even higher.

"Given the blockbuster summer we see ahead, we could very well exceed those numbers," said Bryn Parchman, director of marketing for Port Discovery.

Between 150,000 and 175,000 people are expected to visit this summer, with many of those expected to be tourists to Baltimore.

To make sure that the fledgling museum draws those anticipated numbers over the next few months, a marketing campaign will operate between mid-May and August as part of a larger, two-year campaign.

"While we've had great attendance and visitor response so far, we want to make sure that continues through the summer," Parchman said.

Billboards are in place on interstate highways approaching the city, and museum officials are looking into banners for the Inner Harbor. They also plan to have a presence at all major harbor activities, starting with this weekend's Waterfront Festival.

Museum officials are making arrangements with nearby hotels for summer specials and planning a radio campaign to air during this month and next.

Highlighting the summer will be a national exhibit that will debut at Port Discovery: "Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?" The exhibit, which will allow children to feel as if they are on the set of the children's television program "Sesame Street," will run May 23 through Sept. 19. Marketing for that exhibit will stretch to feeder markets in southern Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia and Washington.

Changing exhibits like Sesame Street can spell success, Lincoln said, along with the ability to promote exhibits so that people know about them.

"Right now, everyone in town is going to Port Discovery, but are they going to go back next year and the year after?" Lincoln said. "Anything new and different gives reason for people to go back again."

Port Discovery officials also say the museum has a built-in recipe for freshness.

"The design concept is that you bring your creativity," Southern said. "We create a setting, a venue and a format, and it's your creativity and risk-taking that makes it work. Because we're about skills and dreams and aspirations, the world is our oyster."

Children also respond differently as they grow.

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