Aquarium Attendance Soars!!! Add Charleston to the list of cities where waddling, feathered fish-eaters are credited for corralling visitors.
“We’re witnessing the power of penguins,” said Kevin Mills, the aquarium’s president and chief executive.
Attendance last month topped out at nearly 59,000, about 21,000 more than April 2008. More than one-third of visitors this year have been locals, compared to about a quarter last year.
Those results align with the aquarium’s goal of bringing in more area residents as vacationers cut back on travel.
The aquarium opened Penguin Planet on March 21 with four male warm-weather birds on loan from SeaWorld San Diego.
The exhibit cost $162,000, but staff listened hopefully to the anecdotes of zoo and aquarium officials in other cities where attendance swelled by as much as 30 percent after penguins arrived on the scene.
Mills said the aquarium has yet to roll out its traditional ad campaign with billboards and bus signs. So far, the attraction has relied primarily on social media to spread the word.
Though billed as a one-year attraction, the penguins could stay a little longer if their success continues and if the aquarium’s partners agree to an extension, according to Mills.
Otherwise, he said, the aquarium will look at bringing in another, equally high-profile aquatic critter.
“I think that we need to continue each year to look at opportunities to provide local families with animals from the other side of the world,” Mills said.
The aquarium said it has gathered more than 500 new memberships since January, with the average member spending about 20 percent more compared with last year.
The attraction began offering a new membership package that includes two guest passes and, in recent months, rolled out two new children’s stations and a touch tank with stingray petting.
Because of last year’s attendance slump, the aquarium required all 82 full-time and part-time employees to take 10 unpaid days off between December and February to save an estimated $110,000. Before that, the attraction froze hiring and nonessential spending.
Given the recent success, Mills said he does not foresee further cutbacks.
“We have weathered that storm,” Mills said, adding that the aquarium is “feeling very bullish” about the rest of the year.