Monday, August 29, 2005

 

Shipwreck showcase

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St. Petersburg Times
By Mark Albright
August 29, 2005

Tampa's Odyssey Marine Expeditions combines a museum and store in New Orleans to generate interest in its finds.

NEW ORLEANS - In a crowded storefront on the teeming French Quarter riverfront, a message over a tiny window beckons passers-by to peek inside the steel tank. What they see is an underwater robot picking up gold coins and an invitation to come drive this remote control rig.
That's the hook designed to pull in customers to a new attraction here developed by a Tampa company that's taking a side trip into the world of storefront museums.

Inside are hands-on, museum-style exhibits of the high-tech equipment that shipwreck salvage companies use to meticulously pluck treasures from the sea bottom. One-of-a-kind computer games outline the science behind archaeology, and how artifacts are used to reassemble history. The story is set against the backdrop of real treasures from the deep told in incredibly sharp high-definition video of the recovery of the SS Republic, which sank 140 years ago.

Odyssey Marine Expeditions Inc., which finds and salvages historic treasure-laden ships, sees the experience as a vehicle to turn most of the artifacts, effects and rare coins it exhumes from the ocean bottom into cash.

The company is negotiating deals to open a second of its Odyssey's Shipwreck and Treasure Adventures within a year. Its hometown Tampa Bay area is high on the list of the 10 markets in the running. If the initial $3.7-million development cost in New Orleans provides the return, company officials envision up to 50 of them in major markets around the world.

"This has been part of our plan since the beginning," said Greg Stemm, a director and co-founder of Odyssey. "The attraction answers all the questions people ask us about how we do this work and gives them a taste of what it's like to be on one of our expeditions. We are using it to build a community of shipwreck artifact fans around the Odyssey brand."

In a shopping complex shared by Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Virgin Megastore and Hooters, the museum comes equipped with gift shops front and rear. Patrons can buy effects as pricey as Civil War-period gold coins for $1,100 and up or resin replicas of delicate ceramics they've just seen exhumed from the ocean floor for as little as $12.

Of course, there is a full load of themed T-shirts featuring a beaming cartoon logo of Zeus, Odyssey's 8-ton underwater robot that's the workhorse of the company's deep-sea recovery effort.

If it all sounds like theme park tactics, the resemblance is intentional. Odyssey's entertainment wing is steered by a cadre of former Sea World, Busch Entertainment Corp. and Walt Disney World executives. The exhibits are modular, so they can be moved to other locations easily. The computerized videos and flat screen displays can be reprogrammed within days to tell the story of other vessels Odyssey recovers in the future.

"We've packaged the story to educate and energize people of all ages," said George Becker, chief operating officer of Odyssey and a former general manager of Sea Worlds in San Diego and San Antonio. "We designed it for the whole family. This is all about bringing history to life. New Orleans is all about history."

As a Confederate and Union ship, the Republic's home port was New Orleans. It went down in a hurricane off the coast of Georgia, loaded down with cash and other goods intended to resupply the Louisiana city at the beginning of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

The location in the French Quarter provides the historical atmosphere while the city, which drew about 10-million tourists in 2004, provides the traffic.

The exhibit got a warm welcome from city tourist industry leaders who have begun marketing New Orleans as a family destination rather than one known mostly for its adult diversions and overindulgences. In recent years, the city has dramatically bolstered its collection of art and children's museums and sees the success of the 5-year-old D-Day Museum as a catalyst for more.

That leaves Odyssey competing for attention with some high-profile draws, as well as a vast established collection of private exhibitions that appeal to young kids, known in the industry as the most influential decisionmakers in prodding parents to check out storefront-size attractions.

New Orleans has a wax museum, a Mardi Gras float museum that includes Segway rides, haunted ghost tours and the Voodoo Museum (which offers flashlights upon request after alerting guests there are live snakes on the darkened floor, albeit in cages).

And most of them, along with the plethora of government-supported museums, charge less than the $13.95 a head, $8.95 for children, Odyssey is seeking.

Indeed, for Odyssey the new competition won't be letting up. In 2006, distiller Brown and Froman opens a similar exhibition offering a tribute to its Southern Comfort liquor that originated in New Orleans, and Tabasco sauce maker McIllhenney Inc. opens an homage to the history of the hot pepper. If that's not enough the Insectarium opens in the historic old Customs House featuring all manner of live bugs and a cooking class.

"It's going to be pretty gross," said Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But what makes this a great place is this has always been a town that likes to be entertained. So we create things that other people like, too."

The common perception of shipwreck salvagers is one of entrepreneurs living out an adventure that's somewhere between Jacques Cousteau, Steve Zissou and grave robbers. It's an image Odyssey hopes to redefine with a focused marketing push that explains the company's role in researching archaeology, charting history and unraveling the mysteries of the sea. It also is taking some of the sting out of the idea of selling artifacts to pay for the high-tech research tools that make the work possible, but offends many purists in the academic world.

The attraction is hardly a first. Key West treasure hunter Mel Fischer for years has sold shipwreck artifacts from a museum. But he found the format doesn't travel well after closing a venture in Orlando. In Charleston, S.C., a new museum displays the wreck of a recovered Confederate submarine. Attractions marketers, however, have been reinvigorated by the popularity of several exhibitions from the wreckage of the Titanic.

Odyssey's marketing effort goes far beyond a state-of-the-art Shipwreck Adventure. Odyssey self-published a book about the Republic and the recovery that debuts Sept. 6. That follows a National Geographic spread last fall, an MSNBC/National Geographic documentary and a guest tour of the network talk show circuit.

Odyssey, which sold about $25-million in artifacts in 2004 mostly through wholesalers, has recovered about a quarter of the artifacts from the Republic that one hired expert estimates could fetch $75-million if sold at retail prices. In addition to being a revenue generator, the exhibition is supposed to be part of Odyssey's answer to generating more sales.

The company recently sold Republic coins on the NBC Shop at Home channel and is filming infomercials. Each Shipwreck Adventure patron is offered a free DVD of the retrieval work (the company has 3,500 hours of raw high-definition film). If they are interested in direct sales offers online, in the mail or from the company, a sales force of two dozen people at its call center in Tampa will spring into action.

Initial buzz has been positive among visitors.

"I love it because it tells the story of how this is done so simply," said Shelly Steele, a 52-year-old tourist from Atlanta. "My husband is a big history buff and an engineer. We've been coming to New Orleans for 16 years and every year they have something new like this."

"I'm a big video game player and the technology they've used is really cool," said Luke Cashio, a 23-year-old cook at Cafe Beignet.

Competitors are a bit skeptical.

"The technology is a big wow," said Antoinette Alteriis, general manager of the nearby Ripley's who plans to take her son for a visit. "But it is going to be difficult to get that many people" to walk from the small storefront at street level up three floors to the museum.


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