The most mysterious attraction on earth is 100 years old this year. A century is a long time to keep the thrills and chills going and generations of audiences entertained and coming back. It’s a matter of providing amazing customer experiences that generate loyalty for the brand. The name Ripley has become synonymous with the unbelievable. GenPop talked with Suzanne Smagala-Potts from Ripley Entertainment to find out how they keep fans believing.
GenPop: How do you determine what is bizarre, fascinating, or odd and yet broadly attractive when you are catering to so many different markets and demographics?
Suzanne Smagala-Potts: I think that there are some things that are just universally odd. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what or where you’re visiting from. I think the one item from our collection that fits within that spectrum is our animal oddities, which started with Robert Ripley. He had an affinity for what he called the pranks of nature. I’ll go to our Believe It or Not! Odditoriums and [these are] always the galleries that everybody kind of stops in to take a little extra time. Kids love it and parents love it. Teachers love it. You get to teach about biological diversity and there’s a scientific reasoning behind it as well that makes it “believe it or not.” That connection is quite incredible.
GenPop: Do different things appeal to different demographics?
Smagala-Potts: In almost all of our Believe It or Not! Odditoriums we have an interactive room geared toward younger children. It has different illusions and puzzles, and it’s very hands on. The kids love those rooms – they stay in there for such a long time. Going into older demographics, some of our historic artifacts are just incredible. Those are collections that parents and teachers really like. The one that draws attention across all demographics is our Pop Culture area. We collect loads of different pop culture memorabilia. We just purchased the iconic Marilyn Monroe dress [in which she memorably sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy]. One of the other items that we just got at auction is Mark Hamill’s [who portrayed Luke Skywalker] actual lightsaber prop that he used in the first two Star Wars movies. Every single manager for Ripley’s called our V.P. of Exhibits and asked him, “When is the lightsaber coming to my market?”
GenPop: Are there things that have become less odd over the years because of the way our culture or technology has developed?
Smagala-Potts: The Internet is the biggest game changer. You go on social media and you can see every crazy thing under the sun now whereas when Robert Ripley was globe-trotting around the world he was going to places that [some people] had never seen before. We don’t have that anymore. It requires us to work harder to bring you something unique and different.
GenPop: Unlike many museums and galleries, you embrace publishing digital images of many of your attractions. You even let people freely take photos in your Odditoriums. Why is that – aren’t you giving away the store for free?
Smagala-Potts: There have been studies done that show the more photos you put out the more it entices people to actually come and visit to see the real thing. Word of mouth and your friends are the biggest sources of recommendations. If you see that your friend was having a great time at Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, or our aquariums, or any of our attractions, it will make a lasting imprint in the person that saw that, and it might make them want to come and visit. It’s authentic, it’s genuine and it’s true.
GenPop: Who are your superfans and what keeps them coming back?
Smagala-Potts: Our superfans know they can go to all of our different markets and all different locations and have a different experience each time. In terms of our content, they know they can always come to us for something fresh and something new because we have traveling exhibits. Funnily enough, even though we’re called “Believe It or Not” everything in our collection is fact-checked and authenticated to ensure sure it falls into “you might not want to believe it, but it’s true.”
One part of Mr. Ripley’s style [in the syndicated newspaper comics he drew] which made him very popular was he challenged people’s assumptions. Robert Ripley is often credited with making our national anthem because he posted a cartoon. “Believe It or Not the United States does not have a national anthem.” Everybody wrote him, “What are you talking about? Are you crazy? Are you not patriotic? It’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The next week he put out a statement and said while everyone thinks it’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it’s never been ratified by the government. A short while later Congress ratified [the song as] our national anthem. So, Mr. Ripley was right and he knew just how to get a reaction out of people while still being truthful.
GenPop: This year is your 100th anniversary. What does success look like for the next 100.
Smagala-Potts: We are in always a state of growth and development and always looking for the freshest opportunities. When we started Aquariums 20 years ago, everybody thought we were crazy. “They don’t know anything about aquariums,” they said. And we didn’t. That’s the secret key when you want to expand and you want to move a little bit outside of your comfort zone: You have to be able to find the people that are the experts in that field and trust in them to help grow your business. For our future, we will keep the “Believe It or Not” ethos of Mr. Ripley, while constantly seeking that new and distinctly oddly attractive experience our customers love!
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