As the NASCAR Hall of Fame finishes its first summer, the uptown museum is entering what is usually a more difficult time for halls of fame to attract visitors – the fall and winter.
The NASCAR hall had 102,000 visitors from its May 11 opening through Aug 8. Hall officials said they’re pleased with the first three months, but the early attendance suggests the hall will fall short of a projected 800,000 visitors in its first 14 months and its budgeted first-year attendance of 575,000.
If the hall’s average attendance continues for the rest of the year, the hall would have 410,000 visitors. But that could be difficult to meet because the hall’s strongest period for attendance may be the summer, when kids are out of school and people take vacations.
Dewey Blanton, a senior manager with the American Association of Museums, said art museums and more academic-themed museums have steady attendance throughout the year. But sports halls of fame are dependent on the summer, he said, in part because they are dependent on tourists.
“Anecdotally, for Cooperstown (the Baseball Hall of Fame) and the Tennis Hall of Fame, the bulk of their business is in the summer,” Blanton said.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, usually draws 200,000 people a year. Half of those visitors come in July, August and September, when the hall has its enshrinement ceremony for new members and the NFL plays a preseason game next door.
In the first quarter of the year, during winter, the hall only draws 10 percent of its annual attendance, or about 20,000 people.
The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which draws 450,000 people annually, gets about 80 percent of its visitors in a six- to seven-month window between Easter and Halloween.
“The whole idea is to get out of that seasonal thing,” said Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall, which was used as a benchmark for the NASCAR hall.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is already showing signs that attendance is dipping as summer winds down.
Attendance in July averaged 1,075 people a day. For the first week of August, the hall drew 844 people a day. And the hall’s entrance is noticeably less busy, as fewer people are coming compared with earlier in the summer.
Attendance is critical because ticket sales are budgeted to be $11.5 million this year, more than 70 percent of all revenues.
The hall will get a boost in October, when Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the Bank of America 500. The hall will have extended hours in the week leading up to the race, and may draw thousands of additional fans.
The hall, which is connected to the Charlotte Convention Center, is also counting on getting visitors who are in Charlotte for conventions.
Winston Kelley, the hall’s executive director, told the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority board Wednesday that the hall is considering how to celebrate events like Halloween and Christmas to attract visitors. He also wants 2011 Hall of Fame nominees to make appearances.
This week, the hall will give half-price admission to K-12 students who donate a pack of pencils to a school-supply drive.
When Charlotte won the hall over other bidding cities, including Atlanta, one reason was its proximity to drivers, who live in the area.
“The special events that resonate are the ones that appeal to racing fans,” Kelley said.
Hall officials said that 70 percent of its visitors live 100 miles or more from the hall. They said they’re pleased that so many out-of-town guests are coming because it shows the hall is fulfilling its role of improving local tourism.
And a survey of visitors by the hall found the vast majority enjoyed their experience at the racing shrine.
“Now our opportunity is the local market,” said Tim Newman, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which operates the hall. “We are starting to make some in-roads.”
Newman also told the CRVA board that some Charlotteans were wary about coming to the hall soon after it opened because they were worried about crowds.
Kelley said the hall will stop selling time-specific tickets for the hall, which are used to control crowds. With the exception of race week, they aren’t needed, he said, and could make potential visitors believe the hall will be crowded.
“The key point is that we have a great product,” Newman said. “If you have a great product, we’ll get there.”
UNC Charlotte economist Craig Depken said focus on locals is a reasonable alternative to boost attendance.
“The reality is travel numbers are down, tourism numbers are down (from before the recession),” Depken said.
He said the key to keep locals coming back is to change exhibits. Another strategy is to “create a culture that values the hall as a great, Charlotte resource.”
Depken said he visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, six times in the 11 years he lived in Dallas.
“Did I need to go six times? No. But I took visitors. It was a rite of passage,” Depken said.
Through the first 39 days of fiscal year 2011, the hall’s attendance was 40,063 people. The hall hasn’t released any revenue numbers from the current fiscal year, but that attendance would suggest the hall has generated about $18,500 a day in ticket sales.
If that were consistent for the rest of the year, the hall would generate $6.7 million in admissions revenue. The CRVA budgeted $11.5 million in ticket sales for this year.
When Charlotte was bidding for the hall in 2005, two competitors – Atlanta and Kansas City – said their halls would draw 1 million people in their first year.
The CRVA, which manages the Charlotte Convention Center, Bojangles Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium, is responsible for the hall’s operating budget. If the hall were to run an operating deficit, the CRVA could cut expenses and also tap into a $24 million reserve fund from a 2 percent increase in the hotel/motel occupancy tax.
After the hall completes its first year, it will have a challenge keeping visitors coming back.
Young, of the Country Music Hall of Fame, said new halls or museums usually have a “12-18 month honeymoon. You are brand new.”
Attendance then declines, he said.
The CRVA has said it expects 400,000 people to visit the hall in future years, down from its first-year budget of 575,000.
The Georgia Aquarium, which was used as a comparison for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, had a blockbuster opening year of 3.5 million visitors in 2006. Attendance then slipped to 2.6 million in 2007 and 2.2 million last year.
Aquarium spokesperson Meghann Gibbons said such a decline is typical, and that new attractions will see a 25 percent decline in attendance after the opening year. Though the NASCAR Hall of Fame won’t attract nearly as many people, hall officials can hope their crowds are as consistent as the aquarium.
Fifty-eight percent of the Georgia Aquarium’s attendance is from April through September, a six-month period.