In the driver’s seat | nnbusinessview.com

In the driver’s seat

John Seelmeyer

Baby boomers, the sons and daughters of men who defined their very existence as “a Buick man” or a lifelong Ford guy, grew up singing along to hits about Little GTOs and Hot Rod Lincolns.

But the younger generations that followed aren’t nearly so car crazy, a trend that perplexes executives of transportation museums around the country.

As the newly elected president of the National Association of Automobile Museums, Jackie Frady is getting a good look at the challenges faced by nearly 100 transportation museums in the United States.

Frady, executive director of the National Automobile Museum, says the visitor attraction in downtown Reno faces many of the same problems that beset the other 94 museums that are members of the national association.

But she says the Reno museum, home of The Harrah Collection of vehicles, has some strengths that help it weather economic storms.

The National Association of Automobile Museums includes institutions ranging from the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., to the Packard Proving Grounds Historic Site in Michigan.

Most of them, Frady says, have struggled with falling attendance through the recession.

Attendance at Reno’s National Automobile Museum, for instance, currently is running about 70,000 visitors a year a decline of 17 percent from pre-recession figures.

That pinches revenues, and the pinch becomes all the tighter because fewer visitors translates into lower sales at the gift shops that are a critical piece of the economic puzzle for most museums.

Moreoever, the pace of revenue-generating special events corporate parties, weddings and the like has slackened at many automobile museums.

That’s led to the soul-searching about the role of automobile museums as they seek to sharpen their focus to provide their core services, Frady says.

And it’s led many museums to redefine their relationship with sponsors as they increasingly seek in-kind contributions or creation of marketing partnerships rather than cash donations.

The effects of the recession are likely to disappear at some point, but the longer-term questions posed by the relationship of Americans to their vehicles continue to puzzle executives of automobile museums.

Visitors to museums across the country clearly are growing older, Frady says, as younger audiences simply don’t have the same connection to cars as their parents and grandparents.

Sharing tips, members of the all-volunteer National Association of Automobile Museums look for ways to bring more young people into museums, whether it’s through school field trips or high school proms.

And once those young visitors are inside the museum doors, they’re likely to hear more of the human-interest stories about historic vehicles and less of the gear-head talk.

While the National Automobile Museum in Reno works hard to widen its visitor base, Frady says the institution has some advantages that have helped overcome the recession.

The fame of The Harrah Collection once the private collection of casino entrepreneur Bill Harrah draws visitors. The museum also is helped by its location in a busy tourism market as well as a steady stream of recognition for the museum from travel and automotive organizations, Frady says.

(The museum’s quarterly magazine, “Precious Metal,” was honored by the museum association as the best publication produced by a large automobile museum last year.)


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