Museum exhibit driving tourists downtown

‘The Good, The Bad, and The Custom’ bringing in bike enthusiasts — and tourist dollars — from around the region

Exhibition curator Patrick Dowling, left, and Whatcom Museum of History & Art director Tom Livesay have been planning the current motorcycle exhibit for two years. The popular exhibit, say local business owners, is generating additional sales this summer.

J.J.Jensen
   This summer, the Harley-Davidsons, Indian motorcycles and Vespa scooters traveling through town may invoke various visions to different people — innovation, speed, outlaw biker gangs, Peter Fonda in a star-spangled helmet.
But when officials at the Whatcom Museum of History & Art see the bikes rumbling to their “Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad and the Custom” exhibit, they see opportunity.
   “We wanted to reach a regional audience, have a regional impact on the subject, create new working relationships between the museum and other businesses in the community and establish another audience in the community,” said exhibition curator Patrick Dowling.
   According to museum personnel, and many business and city leaders, the free exhibit — which opened May 8, after two years of preparation — is well on its way to meeting all those goals.
   The exhibition, which was spawned by the success of the Guggenheim Museum’s “Art of the Motorcycle,” features more than 40 classic bikes, follows motorcycle developments, interprets the motorcycle’s social and historical roles and chronicles the achievements of many regional motorcycling greats, like Trev Deeley and Fred Pazaski.
   The exhibit also comes at a time when the popularity of motorsports in the region and nation is soaring, and local interest has been piqued by the recent arrests of leaders in the Bandidos motorcycle gang.
   Early attendance figures at the museum have been staggering.
   Drawn mostly by the motorcycle exhibition and two other exhibits that opened this spring, “An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, 1930 — 2005” and “Gone to the Dogs: Photographs from the Permanent Collection,” 9,026 visitors toured the museum’s art and history buildings in May. It was the highest single-month attendance in five years, and nearly double last May’s attendance of 5,319.
Museum officials said they may come close to breaking their annual attendance record of 107,675, set in 2002.
   While they’re overjoyed by the success of the exhibits, museum officials, who get the majority of their funding from the city’s Lodging and Tax Funds, are almost as equally pleased about showing what role it can play in the local business community.
   “Museums are an economic generator and are a good return on your tax dollars,” said exhibit designer Scott Wallin.
   According to the Bellingham/Whatcom Convention & Visitors Bureau, travelers staying in commercial lodging establishments spend an average of $293.50 per day per party.
   “As of May 31, visitors to the motorcycles exhibition alone totaled 3,386, with more than 50 percent estimated from outside Whatcom County,” said Annette Bagley, the museum’s public-relations manager. “This means tourist visits to the Motorcycles exhibit also generated an estimated $405,473.50 for Bellingham businesses in the month of May.”
   The museum paid about $50,000 to set up the exhibit and has spent more than $30,000 on advertising.
   John Cooper, president of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the motorcycle exhibit, which runs through Dec. 8, will be “a great addition (for tourism) for the summer.”
   “I personally think it’s one of the best shows they’ve put on in years and it’s creating a buzz out there,” he said. “It definitely adds to what people can do in the summer months. In the summertime, by and large, the focus of people is on the outdoors, but this is a good cultural activity to add to that mix, and this show has a broad appeal.”
   Museum officials reported they haven’t noticed any negative impacts from the Bandido arrests.
   “I think we have to keep in perspective that with the Bandidos we were talking about one percent of motorcycle riders (who claim to not conform to society’s laws),” Bagley said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people ride motorcycles for enjoyment.”
   Since the exhibit opened some local businesses have already noticed additional sales thanks to museum-goers.
   Bob Henderson, whose Henderson Books is a museum neighbor, said he sold out his motorcycle books during the exhibit’s opening weekend.
   “The motorcycle show cleaned us out (of motorcycle books),” he said. “Every time there’s a new exhibit, we get spin-off business from it.”
   Olivier Vrambout, whose Mt. Bakery is also located near the museum, said he’s noticed more foot traffic coming into his eatery since the exhibit opened and has seen about a 5 percent increase in business sales.
   Meanwhile, Trey Campbell, director of sales at the Hampton Inn, said his lodging establishment saw an additional $1,300 during the motorcycle exhibit’s opening weekend, as many riders involved in a color-guard presentation decided to stay there.
   “I think our entire community is very dependent on tourism,” Campbell said.    “Anytime there’s an event going on, there’s some kind of economic impact.”
Museum Director Tom Livesay agreed.
   “This exhibit is getting people to come up and spend the night and take a look at Bellingham,” he said. “And then they go to restaurants, fill up their gas tanks and do all those types of things.”
   With several motorcycle clubs planning trips to the exhibit this summer, more business is likely.
   Greg Shaffer, coordinator for the Aug. 27 Washington State Harley Owners Group (HOG) Rally at the museum, said recent HOG rallies have drawn from 500 to 800 riders.
   “On average, HOG riders spend anywhere between $100 to $200 a day wherever they go, so you figure there’ll be a couple hundred dollars spent at the local Harley dealership and restaurants alone,” he said. “We’re going to be all over town.”
In addition to bringing in out-of-town dollars, Livesay said another benefit of the exhibit has been creating new partnerships with local businesses.
   Officials with Harley-Davidson of Bellingham, a first-time exhibit sponsor at the museum, said the opportunity has allowed them to hold events, like bike shows and poker runs, that educate people on motorcycle history while raising awareness for the museum exhibit.
   “The business community should try as much as possible to work together in mutually beneficial partnerships,” said Angie Haynes, a sales associate at Harley-Davidson of Bellingham. “We can offer much more to our customers when we put our resources together.”
   Livesay believes this summer’s motorcycle-exhibit efforts will lead to return visitors to the museum and Bellingham.
   “This is a whole new experience and that’s great,” he said. “We love getting different audiences in the door, and this exhibit has brought in people who may have never set foot in a museum before, which is terrific. One of the goals of our exhibit was to broaden our audience and we’ve done a great job of that.”

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