When Georgia Aquarium opened, in 2005, it was the biggest aquarium in the world. During its first year more than 3.5 million visitors came to see its exhibits, which feature some 120,000 animals spread across 60 habitats in more than 8 million gallons of water. “We didn’t have to do any marketing at all,” says Carey Rountree, the senior vice president of sales and marketing. “It was a case where you’re closing the doors and they’re coming in through the windows.” Demand was so great that tickets were available by reservation only, and waiting times stretched six months or more.
But that changed within a few years. Attendance dropped precipitously, leveling off in 2008 at about 2 million visitors annually. Revenue fell accordingly. People still loved the aquarium, which even with the drop-off remained one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the state. But all experience-based businesses—aquariums, museums, theme parks, and the like—face this challenge: After an initial rush of traffic, they generally see a decline in attendance as the experience loses its novelty. Even when new exhibits, shows, and other activities are incorporated, the pipeline of first-time visitors slows, and repeat visits become less frequent. Georgia Aquarium conducted a study of other aquariums around the country, which confirmed that this was an industrywide problem. So Rountree knew that the solution wouldn’t be a matter of simply adding more attractions.