When the Mark Twain House opened a new education center adjacent to its historic landmark in 2003, the nonprofit was riding high from free exposure gained from a Ken Burns documentary that was broadcast nationally on PBS in January 2002.
The documentary had helped boost the center’s attendance from 63,000 a year to 70,000, and center officials optimistically projected that the new education center, designed by world renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, would drive up visitor counts up nearly 50 percent, to 100,000-110,000 a year.
At least that was the estimate. It proved to be deeply flawed.
Like many museums that operate on thin margins and with minimal marketing budgets, the Mark Twain House could not sustain the level of broad exposure the Burns special provided.
“[The Burns documentary] amounted to a national marketing campaign,” said Jeffrey Nichols, who was appointed the executive director of the Mark Twain House in March. “We can’t match that kind of marketing campaign.”
Nichols, who was previously deputy director of the Mark Twain House, acknowledged that the center conducted no formal analysis of visitors.
“We did an internal estimation,” Nichols explained.
“At the time, our staff members contacted other organizations that had gone through a similar construction project with a track record that attracted people, and some market analysis was done,” he said. “But we had no formal visitor analysis.”
Twain officials also improperly calculated the cost of renting out its education center, Nichols added. As a result, its rental enterprise actually cost the center more money than it brought in.
“We had success in renting the facility, and it did help with the cash flow,” he said. However, an independent audit done in 2006 — three years after it opened — determined that its rental enterprise was “not financially viable.”
Twain closed down its rental operations in 2007 for a year to revise its business plan. Four months ago, it restarted the rental enterprise, this time with a new pricing structure and a plan to focus primarily on corporate events.
Since the construction of the new education center, the Twain House hasn’t come close to attracting the 100,000-110,000 visitors it once projected, and it has had to lay off employees. Visitor numbers have climbed back up to its high of nearly 70,000 and its rental business is picking back up and helping with cash flow, Nichols said.
“We are going through a challenging time,” he said, noting that the Twain House recently put on the market another landmark nearby building, 66 Forest St., where its offices had been located.
With utility costs skyrocketing 225 percent this year, Nichols describes the Twain operation as a “fiscal challenge.”
The Mark Twain House isn’t alone when it comes to inflating visitor estimates. While the Mark Twain House officials incorrectly estimated the drawing power of its new education building, a feasibility report prepared by a Massachusetts-based museum consulting firm called ConsultEcon also markedly miscalculated the draw of a new, $3.7-million history and education center constructed in the basement of the Old State House.
ConsultEcon projected a first-year attendance figure of 63,000. Instead, only 13,000 people showed up — an 80 percent shortfall. That led to discussions about possibly closing the prominent landmark’s doors by the Connecticut Historical Society.
Last March, Robert Brais, vice president of ConsultEcon, explained that the estimate of the attendance potential for the new history center was based on several factors, including marketing.
But CHS was cash-strapped, unable to sustain marketing or advertising efforts as it scrambled to pay for skyrocketing utility costs while facing extensive, deferred maintenance costs.
“You have to have all of these things in place,” said Brais, noting many factors must be achieved in order for an attraction to realize its attendance potential.
CHS officials had not returned calls requesting comment as of press time.