Rain is great weather for fish as thousands visit NMA
THE National Marine Aquarium has had one of its best years and is set to comfortably break the attendance target it set 12 months ago.
The Coxside attraction wanted to pull in 290,000 punters in 2012 but is already 4,000 above that figure and, with its financial year ending at the end of next month, bosses are expecting to hit 306,000.
That would put it 20,000 ahead of last year's total and managing director Dr David Gibson said: "That's fantastic – it's a nine per cent year-on-year increase.
"Given the tourism climate that's a pretty major achievement. Most of our competitors have had a tough year."
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Dr Gibson said the NMA has now also surpassed the target set in a three-year-plan begun when he arrived in January 2010.
A new three-year-plan will aim to see numbers rise again to 350,000 visitors by 2016.
Dr Gibson said much of the 2012 success was down to increased repeat custom as a result of the NMA's popular Day Plus Pass, which gives customers free entry for 12 months once they have purchased a day ticket.
"It seems to be paying off," he said. "During the October half-term about 25 per cent of our visitors were using the pass – the rest of the year it's about 14 per cent on average."
It's a strong turnaround for a business, which saw visitor numbers dip from a best ever 450,000 in its inaugural year, 1998, to a record low 235,000 in 2006. It rose to 250,000 in 2007, and stood at 265,000 in 2010.
"On quiet days we would have got 100 people, but now it's 250 to 300," Dr Gibson said.
"We have had two full years of growth now, in terms of visitor numbers."
Dr Gibson said the NMA's 2012 income had also "held up" with turnover increasing and providing investment cash.
"We are £55,000 ahead of our projected net surplus," he said.
Corporate business has also doubled in the past two years, to a value of £215,000 for 2012.
The aquarium aims to focus on attracting more weddings in 2013, alongside its hosting of business briefings, conferences and training events.
"Our target income next year is £220,000 from corporate," Dr Gibson said. "We also want to bring in more external revenue."
He said the plan was to earn an extra £1million a year from projects by 2016 and said the NMA was already in talks about managing an aquarium in Egypt, alongside one currently managed in London's Heron Tower.
There are also plans to become involved in delivering "high-end eco holidays" in Africa, and other international projects are mooted too, including marine conservation schemes.
The attraction also increased staff in 2012, adding three senior team members including Randolph Gratton as marketing manager.
Dr Gibson said 2012's wet weather had helped generate footfall – but only up until July.
August's total stayed the same as a year earlier, as the Jubilee and Olympics stemmed the flow of visitors.
The figures also had to be viewed in the context of two years of "travel disruption" caused by last year's gas mains renewals, and this year's work at Gdynia Way, he said.