Already falling well short of attendance and revenue projections, the NASCAR Hall of Fame was dealt a blow in January when the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority sliced the hall’s budget by $4.7 million.
Part of the cuts included an $826,292 reduction in the hall’s advertising budget.
For the struggling $195 million uptown attraction, which celebrates its one-year anniversary May 11, the smaller marketing budget is likely to make it harder to get the word out about the venue at a time when it is already not living up to expectations.
But some say the hall has already neglected some marketing opportunities.
Kathleen Ritz, CEO of Charlotte-based Ritz Marketing, said the hall’s promoters should be doing more to target families.
“I have a 5-year-old son, and he loves everything to do with cars,” she said. “But it never crossed my mind to take him to the hall of fame.
“I’ve never seen a single advertisement for the hall of fame, so I’m confused what it is they’re doing. It wasn’t until I really took a closer look at the hall did I discover it had a lot of fun, family activities.”
Promoting the hall has been made challenging by a shrinking marketing budget.
The hall’s original sales and marketing budget — which covers travel expenses for NASCAR drivers to make special appearances and the buying of ads, among other things — was $4.3 million for fiscal 2010, which began July 1 and ends June 30. In January, it was cut to $3.2 million, of which $1.8 million was earmarked for advertising, and that was reduced to $1.4 million.
Charlotte-based Wray Ward, one of the city’s largest advertising and marketing firms, uses the $1.4 million to buy radio, TV, magazine and online ads and billboard space. The firm also creates magazine, TV and online ads and direct mail advertisements for the hall.
Wray Ward’s fee is about $250,000, which comes out of the $1.4 million, said Kimberly Meesters, external relations manager for the hall.
“Of course we’d love to have more money in our marketing budget,” Meesters said. “But everybody is dealing with budget cuts right now. It’s the reality we live in.
“A lot of people want the hall to be an adult, but we’re really an infant. We’re not going to be an overnight success. We’re just trying to remain focused on building our brand.”
The hall hired Wray Ward in April 2009. Greg Campana, the agency’s executive vice president, declined to comment for this story.
The hall is going after two audiences, Meesters said.
The first is the avid NASCAR fan, whom the hall tries to reach by working with NASCAR, which uses surveys and focus groups to identify the buffs.
“We really need to penetrate that market,” Meesters said.
To reach hardcore fans, the hall leverages partnerships with national organizations that cater to racing lovers, she said. For example, the hall is working with Charlotte-based Speed Channel, which provides live coverage of the hall of fame’s induction ceremonies and broadcasts hall of fame commercials. The hall also has ads in the magazine NASCAR Illustrated and on NASCAR.com.
“That’s how we target the avid fan, by focusing on really industry-specific avenues,” Meesters said.
She said the hall also targets racing fans through cross promotions at regional racetracks, such as the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway in South Carolina and Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. Promotions can be as simple as handing out fliers or offering special ticket packages, which come with a discounted pass to the hall of fame. Hall of fame inductees also make appearances at local races to meet fans to try to drum up interest.
Starting in June, the hall will host free car shows on the first Saturday of every month at the hall of fame’s plaza.
“It’s a way to target car enthusiasts,” Meesters said. “And once they come out here for the car show, hopefully they’ll buy tickets to tour the hall of fame.”
The second audience the hall is trying to attract is families, even those who aren’t NASCAR fans, she said. One of the hall’s top priorities is to better communicate that the hall is more than just a museum and hall of fame, but also a fun, family-friendly venue with interactive exhibits, she said.
“We’re basically going after the same target audience as Carowinds or Discovery Place,” she said. “The reality is when you hear NASCAR Hall of Fame, you know instantly there’s something here for NASCAR fans. It’s easy to catch their attention.
“The nonfan is harder. You have to really educate them that there’s something here for everyone. And that can be hard to do in a 30-second commercial.”
One strategy the hall used to try to attract families was a spring break promotion April 16-30, during which the hall held scavenger hunts, racing simulator competitions and pit crew challenges, she said. In targeting families, the hall focuses more on advertising locally, such as on billboards and in radio ads, especially during the spring and summer when children are out of school, she said.
The hall’s promoters aren’t criticized only for not promoting the venue more to families.
Ritz said the hall has missed other opportunities, including not doing more to entice people to visit the hall multiple times.
“It seems like everybody who’s gone has had a good experience at the hall, but it’s a place people are only going to once,” she said. “They need to concentrate on events and promotions that are going to get people to come back multiple times.”
One way the hall could do that is by taking advantage of the many NASCAR drivers in the area and using their star power to attract more visitors, she said.
“I know for a fact that several drivers would do it for free,” she said. “It’s in their best interest to promote the sport and the hall of fame. It would help create more of emotional resonance with people in the market.”
Like Ritz, Sheri Bridges, associate professor of marketing at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, said the hall would benefit from more special events.
“All brands want to get their customers — in this case race fans — to be evangelical and help spread the word,” she said. “The best thing the hall could do, especially since they have a limited budget, is to rely on word-of-mouth and buzz.”
The way to do that, she said, is through attention-getting publicity events.
“Some people would call it a gimmick, but I don’t see it that way,” she said. “It gets consumers engaged and involved in the brand. This is more effective and less expensive than a giant marketing campaign. Consumer-to-consumer conversations can start as a little brushfire and then build into a giant conflagration.”
Ritz said the hall has also repeated a mistake that NASCAR made in not doing more to go after the 18-to-34 male demographic.
Starting in the early 2000s, many older NASCAR fans dropped out as longtime favorites, such as Richard Petty and Ricky Rudd, retired. Since then, race attendance and TV audiences have shriveled, as the next generation of fans has many other entertainment options.
Ritz said the hall should launch cross promotions with established entertainment options that are popular with young men, such as mixed martial arts fighting competitions, popularized by TV shows like Spike TV’s “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Paying attention to locals
Jonathan Fisher, senior account director at Ritz Marketing, said the hall is still relatively new and the venue could take a few years to gain traction and find an audience.
Still, Fisher said the hall has let some opportunities pass it by.
“The hall could do a better job of grounding itself within the Charlotte community,” he said. “The race fans will come to hall no matter what. But the local base doesn’t really have a reason to go to the hall right now.”
To help drum up more interest among casual or non-NASCAR fans, Fisher said the hall should partner with local events like Alive After Five, free uptown parties with live music and food and drink vendors.
“That kind of cross promotion helps generate buzz,” he said.
It would be a good idea for the hall to follow the lead of venues like the Atlanta and Myrtle Beach, S.C., aquariums, which host special events in which groups such as the Boy Scouts spend the night inside the facilities and next to the shark tank.
“They’ve got the hall up and running,” he said. “Now the challenge is what do they do locally to generate interest. And with budget cuts, that’s going to be even tougher. In such a case, they need to go to the basics: grassroots, word-of-mouth advertising.”
Sam Boykin can be reached at [email protected].