After the initial launch of Wonders of Wildlife in 2001 and its subsequent closure, Johnny Morris spent many years and a portion of his fortune reimagining it into a world-class conservation-themed destination.
He tripled the size of the building and bound it physically and symbolically to his flagship Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. He also placed his name on it – now the Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium – and cashed in political and cultural capital by inviting presidents and celebrities to its grand reopening gala.
With the big opening day come and gone, officials on the Bass Pro side are working to ensure the massive tourist attraction is successful.
The marketing power of the nation’s largest outdoor retailer is being wielded to make the new edition of WOW a household name, said Jack Wlezien, communications director for Bass Pro Group LLC.
“We’re communicating with our huge customer database, with millions of contacts,” he said.
There are promotions for WOW on Bass Pro’s websites and in millions of product catalogs, Wlezien said, as well as signage inside select stores within a day’s drive of Springfield.
“We’re cross-promoting at our sister properties, like Big Cedar Lodge, making sure that guests are planning their visit there,” he said.
Bass Pro leaders are making a play on Springfield and Branson soon becoming viewed as a single destination, Wlezien said. Morris has had an increasing presence in the Branson area, developing golf courses, a natural history museum and a cave tour all near his resort, Big Cedar Lodge.
Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. President Tracy Kimberlin echoed the idea that WOW – combined with Morris’ efforts at Big Cedar and Top of the Rock – solidifies the link between Springfield and the attraction-rich city of Branson.
“It’s a game changer,” he said. “I don’t think most people are going to see much difference between Springfield and Branson, and I think they are going to take in both.”
Bass Pro is working with Kimberlin’s organization, as well as the Branson CVB and the Missouri Division of Tourism, to get the word out to tourists.
“We pool our money,” Kimberlin said.
Bass Pro has participated in the CVB’s cooperative marketing program since 1994, he said. With a budget of about $800,000, the CVB buys television, radio and internet advertising – mostly within the seven-state region – promoting Springfield as a tourist destination.
Typically, the Springfield CVB is approved for $430,000 in matching funds from the state, Kimberlin said, but because of a statewide budget cut, it only received $196,500 this year. Bass Pro and the Springfield Cardinals contributed $165,000 toward that match. He wouldn’t disclose the ratio each organization contributed but said Bass Pro paid the lion’s share.
The advertisements feature Morris’ properties and drive people to SpringfieldMo.org, a site designed to promote attractions such as Bass Pro Shops and WOW, which he said are becoming synonymous.
“They are marketing WOW and Bass Pro as a complex,” Kimberlin said, “and we follow their lead in that regard.”
Kimberlin said the CVB is covering the state shortage with general funding in order to maintain marketing at the $800,000 level in fiscal 2018.
Until now, museum leaders have leaned on the marketing expertise of Bass Pro staff.
WOW currently doesn’t have a marketing director in place, but its website lists a director of marketing and development among 15 positions it’s hiring for. The marketing job has been posted for the last year on LinkedIn and other job sites.
Meanwhile, plans are being developed to target tourists outside of the Midwest.
While on a business trip to New York City, Springfield-based business coach Bruce Nasby observed a 19-story billboard advertising WOW on the side of a building in Times Square.
The animated digital sign on the upper half of the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel just off Broadway showed a 30-second video of sea life and images of taxidermy dioramas, in between promotions for other businesses, such as Express Employment Professionals.
Bass Pro’s Wlezien said WOW is being pitched as a world-class destination, competing with major aquariums around the country and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
“This is something that outdoor enthusiasts from across America are going to come make a special trip to Springfield to see,” he said.
Although not giving specifics, Wlezien said there have been ad placements in other high-profile places in major U.S. cities. Shelby Stephenson, public relations and social media manager for WOW, said digital ad campaigns are targeting consumers by demographic.
“We’re really looking to reach people who we think would be great visitors to Wonders of Wildlife. So that includes people who are outdoor enthusiasts, families with young children,” she said. “What’s great about digital [advertising] is that it does not have to be focused to a specific region. You can really target people from all over.”
Most of the work is being produced in-house, Wlezien said, continuing the large and undisclosed amount of in-kind donations Bass Pro employees have made to the project. Some outside agencies have been hired for contract work, such as video production and photography. Wlezien declined to disclose the firms.
St. Louis agency Kuhl Swaine LLC lists WOW, Bass Pro, Big Cedar and Morris-owned Tracker Boats as clients. While Kuhl Swaine designers have concepts of print and web designs for WOW in their portfolios, Associate Creative Director Dave Bour said they’ve not been implemented. He said Kuhl Swaine “did play an integral role in developing the language throughout the museum experience.”
Springfieldians have not been left out of the marketing efforts, Wlezien said.
Ticket prices are set at about $40 for adults and $24 for children. That is comparable to the Georgia Aquarium at $40 for adults and $34 for children.
But a family can purchase a one-year pass for $295.
“The opportunity to come pet stingrays on a Friday afternoon when school gets out for a few hours, and do that year-round, is a great value for families,” Wlezien said.
WOW also is planning partnerships with local schools, he said.
Springfield Public Schools currently uses a classroom attached to WOW known as the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility for 46 students who may apply to spend their entire fifth-grade school year learning a curriculum centered around environmental sciences and conservation.
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The move would come with a new property tax levied on residents of regional school districts.
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