Rising tide brings flood of visitors to attractions: Leaders say cultural sites don’t compete

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Indianapolis Zoo’s splashy new dolphin exhibit has drawn waves of sightseers since it opened Memorial Day weekend, but other local attractions aren’t worried the flood will wipe out their summer crowds.

The timing couldn’t be better, observers said: just after the grand reopening of the renovated Indianapolis Museum of Art and before the debut of an expanded Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

Indianapolis attractions seem primed to blow visitors out of the water.

“To me, it’s a very tangible sign that we’re onto something,” said Keira Amstutz, director of cultural development for the city. “I don’t think it’s a competitive issue. The more awareness, the more exposure we can get, the better. We want to grow the pie bigger.”

So far, so good.

The new IMA drew more than 18,300 guests for its May 6-8 reopening. More than 38,600 showed up on race weekend to see the zoo’s Dolphin Adventure. Thousands were expected at Eiteljorg events June 11-12.

“I say a rising tide lifts all boats,” said John Vanausdall, Eiteljorg’s president and CEO. “We need a critical mass of things to IBJ Photo/Robin Jerstad do and see if we want people in Cincinnati to get in their cars and drive to Indianapolis for the weekend. … Now we’ve got it.”

Indeed, the city’s embarrassment of riches this year prompted the Cultural Development Commission’s $2 million promotional campaign, dubbed Indianapolis 2005.

As part of that effort, the zoo, IMA and Eiteljorg-plus Indianapolis Art Center, Indiana State Museum and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis-each got $50,000 for marketing. They decided to combine the money and collaborate with the citywide campaign.

“This is an example of how far we’ve come,” Vanausdall said. “We all agreed it made sense to pool the money, and that’s what we did. No one was selfish.”

It’s not surprising, then, that no one sees a downside to the crowds flocking to other attractions as new exhibits come on line. They’d rather discuss synergy than waste energy on perceived competition.

“If we were in Florida, you could put a fence around the city, call it Indy World, and charge $60 to get in,” zoo President Michael Crowther said, repeating a comment he made when Indianapolis 2005 was launched. “It’s like a theme park without walls.”

That analogy is fitting, said Steve Balgrosky, a vice president at Los Angelesbased Economics Research Associates, a consulting firm that focuses on the entertainment and leisure industry.

Improvements to multiple venues in the same market can in fact be complementary, he said, citing ever-evolving amusement options in Orlando, Fla., home to Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World and a bevy of other tourist attractions.

“Generally, when you get people excited about what’s going on in one arena, you trigger their interest in other things,” Balgrosky said. “Especially out-of-town visitors. They can lengthen their stay and do more while they’re there.”

That’s the idea in Indianapolis.

Although the main audience is still local, promotional efforts are extending farther afield than ever before. Most of the $300,000 in pooled money is earmarked for out-of-market advertising, said zoo Marketing Director Eric Eley.

For years, the zoo also has partnered with the Children’s Museum and locally based General Hotels for a package that offers travelers discounted tickets to both attractions if they stay in Indianapolis overnight.

The zoo may well have benefited from the arrangement last year, when the Children’s Museum opened its heralded Dinosphere exhibit. Museum attendance was up nearly 30 percent in 2004; the zoo and White River Gardens attracted a record 1.2 million visitors.

Zoo attendance projections for this year are conservative, given variables like the weather. But Mother Nature permitting, Crowther said he expects the strong response to the revamped dolphin exhibit to continue.

As much as 80 percent of the extra visitors could come from outside central Indiana, he said, a testament to developments at the zoo and elsewhere.

“In order to get somebody to travel three hours, you have to provide at least a five-hour experience at the other end,” Crowther said, citing industry lore. “With what’s happening in Indianapolis right now, we’re certainly worth the trip.”

Balgrosky said attractions should expect a lingering boost from major improvements like the dolphin exhibit. Or the museum expansions. Or Indianapolis Art Center’s new Artspark, scheduled to open Aug. 20-21.

“There is generally a long-term positive impact from a well-designed capital improvement program,” he said. “Facilities have to be revitalized on a fairly regular basis to help to guard against [audience] erosion and hopefully kick attendance up a notch. … It really does pay off in terms of visitor revenue.”

Zoos, especially, have struggled to fund capital improvements given their complicated missions that often include species propagation and conservation as well as education, Balgrosky said.

He said the Indianapolis Zoo appears to get that.

“The way to help more animals is to get more people in the gates,” Balgrosky said. That fact isn’t lost on Crowther, who offered a primer on the bigger picture as a preamble to a discussion of Dolphin Adventure’s success.

The road to achieving a successful and sustainable global ecology is a long one, he explained, and it depends in large part on zoos’ ability to forge a connection between people and animals.

Once humans are engaged and enlightened, they are empowered to make a difference, he said. And that, more than anything else, is the motivation for the new exhibit.

“We wanted to bring in more people, expose them to the message, and let them fall in love,” Crowther said.

The same can be said for the other venues-and the cultural community as a whole.

“I think it all adds up to [the fact that] there’s a lot to do in this town,” said Lawrence A. O’Connor Jr., interim executive director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “And there are plenty of people to do it. … The more buzz there is, the better off we’ll all be.”

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