Tuesday, September 06, 2005


A marooned showcase


St. Petersburg Times
By Mark Albright
September 05, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - The sign in the French Quarter storefront beckons passers-by to peek in a tiny window of the steel tank. Inside is an underwater robot that should be picking up gold coins, and an invitation to come in and drive the remote-controlled rig.

That's the hook that by now was supposed to be reeling in the curious to a new shipwreck attraction that represents a Tampa company's first step into the storefront tourist attraction business.

Instead, Hurricane Katrina abruptly shut the place down two days after the grand opening hoopla. Nobody's guessing when the barricaded attraction might reopen.

Winds and floodwaters did minimal damage in the French Quarter, leaving the new Odyssey Shipwreck & Treasure Adventure with nothing worse than wet carpet from a roof leak. But looters, some of them armed, plagued the streets all week. A tense mass evacuation of tourists and residents is depopulating the city for an untold number of weeks, leaving indelible images in many travelers' memories.

So now, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history has the Tampa creators of an attraction about a ship sunk by a hurricane 140 years ago pondering what do after this latest storm may have brought down New Orleans.

"It's been a week of 22-hour days," said an exhausted Greg Stemm, co-founder and director of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. After the National Guard set up a command post by the company's riverfront attraction, colleagues tracked down most of two dozen now-homeless employees in New Orleans, and fellow workers arranged to house them in Tampa.

That's not how it was supposed to be.

Odyssey, which finds and salvages historic, treasure-laden ships, envisioned its 90-minute adventure attraction as a vehicle to turn artifacts, effects and rare coins it exhumes from the ocean bottom into cash.

Inside are hands-on museum-style exhibits of the high-tech equipment that shipwreck salvage companies use to meticulously pluck treasures from the 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 destined for New Orleans.

The company is negotiating to open a second of its Adventure attractions within a year.

Odyssey's 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 ever provides the return, company officials envision up to 50 of them around the world someday.

While a venture into the attractions world appears to be a side trip, it isn't.

"This has been part of our plan since the beginning," Stemm said. "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."

The common perception of shipwreck salvage is of entrepreneurs living out an adventure that's a mix of Jacques Cousteau, Steve Zissou, Indiana Jones and grave robbers. It's an image Odyssey hopes to redefine with a marketing spin that explains the company's role in researching archaeology, charting history and unraveling the mysteries of the sea.

Making its retail face an education exhibit also takes some of the sting out of the idea of selling artifacts to pay for the high-tech research tools that make the work possible, an idea that offends many purists in the academic world.

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

The French Quarter provided the historical atmosphere while the city, which drew about 10-million tourists in 2004, was supposed to provide the traffic. Some of the gold coins on display were hammered just down the street in a building that once housed a U.S. Mint and lost some of its roof to Katrina.

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

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

If it all sounds like a theme park, the resemblance is intentional. Odyssey's entertainment wing is steered by former Sea World, Busch Entertainment Corp. and Walt Disney World executives.

The exhibits are modular, so they can be moved from city to city. The computer graphics, CGI videos and flat-screen displays can be redone within days to tell the story of other vessels Odyssey recovers in the future.

"We 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."

The approach is slick, but the idea is hardly a first. Florida treasure hunter Mel Fischer for years has sold shipwreck artifacts from a Key West museum. But after closing a branch in Orlando, he learned the format doesn't travel well. 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 private exhibitions from the wreckage of the Titanic.

The attraction is only one dimension of Odyssey's broader marketing effort. The company self-published a book about the Republic and the recovery that debuts this week. 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 $24-million in artifacts in the past year mostly through wholesalers, has recovered about a quarter of the artifacts retrieved from the Republic that one hired appraiser estimated could fetch $75-million if sold at retail prices. In addition to being a revenue generator (admission is $13.95), the attraction also is a way to drum up more artifact buyers.

The company, which needs a long sales pitch to romance the history of its artifacts, sold Republic coins on the NBC Shop at Home channel and is filming infomercials. Each Treasure & Shipwreck Adventure patron is offered a free DVD of the retrieval work (the company has 3,500 hours of raw high-definition film). In return their name goes on the list of prospects for getting sales offers online, in the mail or over the phone from a sales force of two dozen at its call center in Tampa.

In its abbreviated run before Katrina, the initial buzz was positive among the few visitors.
"I loved how 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 had something new like this."

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

The attraction got a warm welcome from city tourist industry leaders who mapped plans to market New Orleans as a family destination rather than one known mostly for its adult diversions and overindulgences. In recent years, the city had 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. Three more museums are scheduled to open in 2006.

The storm, however, tossed all that as priorities shifted to saving lives, restoring order and pumping several square miles of polluted floodwater out of the devastated city. Water and electricity service are expected to be out for weeks, if not months. Pumping out the floodwaters could take just as long. Some federal officials even kicked off a debate of whether to invest taxpayer money rebuilding a city that's mostly below sea level and needs a beefed-up network of levees and canals to protect against floods.

Odyssey's short-term strategy in New Orleans was knocked for a loop. The company counted on curious locals to carry the attraction for the first few months. But the storm scotched a campaign of local TV spots and print ads. Now it's clear that even residents will be out of town and have more pressing matters on their mind for some time. Odyssey's volatile stock, which dropped from a high of $5.64 in July to a low of $3.47 two days after Katrina hit, closed at $4.05 on Friday.

But it has become clear that fully rebuilding New Orleans' huge tourist industry is going to take years.

"I'm not even thinking about reopening until the city's infrastructure is brought back. That's going to be months," said Bill Sims, owner of the Ripley's Believe or It or Not Museum, who previously owned Silver Springs in Ocala. "New Orleans will be rebuilt. I'm confident of that. But this is the worst disaster in my lifetime."

Other theme park industry experts are dubious.

"These attractions can open in six months, but it's questionable whether there will be any tourists there by then," said Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando theme park consultant. "It's going to be years before the New Orleans tourist industry comes back.

Once engineers get inside a lot of those buildings, they'll discover damage that wasn't visible. A lot of buildings will have to be torn down or completely rebuilt."

Some owners of the city's 40,000 hotel rooms - a few thousand fewer than the Tampa Bay area has - already are calling for reconstruction.

"The long-term outlook for New Orleans is very positive," J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman and chief executive of hotel giant Marriott International, told trade publication Travel Weekly last week. "When this country gets mobilized and decides it is going to do something, it gets done. We are very confident that the city will be rebuilt in a timely fashion and come back better than ever before."

The travel industry recently learned that bargain rates can make reluctant tourists forget disasters. It took five months to get people traveling again after Sept. 11 in New York City, according to surveys by the Yankelovich Travel Monitor. It took four weeks after the start of the Iraq War.

But big-spending business meetings and conventions, which constitute about 40 percent of New Orleans' about 8-million annual overnight guests, will be a much tougher sell.

"Once New Orleans gets its hotel inventory back up, the leisure market will come back pretty quickly," said Peter Yesawich, president of Yesawich, Pepperdine and Brown, an Orlando ad agency that manages the monitor. "The bad news is that meeting planners who book group (meetings and conventions and package tours) business years ahead of time, will steer clear of New Orleans between August and October for years. That will be very hard to overcome."


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