Tea Party ship off to slow start

THE BOSTON TEA Party Ships and Museum, which re-opened in 2012 with the help of a first-of-its-kind $18 million loan from the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, is off to a much slower-than-expected start.

The financial statements of the museum’s parent company indicate the Boston attraction has lost more than $9 million in its first two years of operation, primarily because its expenses are running way ahead of revenues. The museum reported revenues of $5.6 million and expenses of $13.2 million over its first two years of operation. The company had forecast net operating income of $1.5 million to $1.8 million a year.

A spokeswoman for the Convention Center Authority says the museum is up-to-date on its loan payments and its reporting requirements. “There is no indication that this will change at any time in the future,” says Katie Hauser, the spokeswoman.

Shawn Ford, executive director and vice president of the museum, chalks the losses up to growing pains. He says he expects another loss during the current fiscal year but says the facility should become profitable the following year.

“It’s going to take another year to get it to where we need it to be,” he says. “It takes three to five years to be totally solid.”

Ford says the museum is in good standing on all of its financial commitments. He says the museum’s parent company, a privately-held Florida company called Historic Tours of America, stands behind the museum. Historic Tours operates Old Town Trolley Tours in Boston and similar operations in five other cities.

The Tea Party Ships and Museum, which sits on the Congress Street Bridge over the Fort Point Channel, commemorates the 1773 protest engineered by the Sons of Liberty protesting British taxation of tea and other items. The museum features historic artifacts as well as live actors, interactive exhibits, a film documentary, and authentically restored ships to tour.

Historic Tours has been the operator of the Tea Party Museum since 1993. In August 2001, a lightning strike caused a fire at the facility that necessitated its complete demolition. Historic Tours spent $4 million trying to rebuild on the site, but it needed more funds to finish the job.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority gave the company a grant of $3 million, money the agency had received from the developer of the Atlantic Wharf office and apartment project near the Congress Street Bridge.

The Convention Center Authority loaned Historic Tours $18 million to complete the project at a rate of 4.5 percent over a 23-year period. The loan terms called for Historic Tours to make payments totaling $28.9 million over the life of the loan, pay 5 percent of ticket proceeds annually into the convention center fund, and provide about $150,000 in annual marketing and facility-usage benefits. The ticket proceeds requirement was later dropped when officials discovered state law barred such assessments on museums. Convention Center Authority officials said in 2010 that the loan terms were based on the assumption that the museum would attract 300,000 visitors annually, with adults paying $18 and children $9. Annual revenues were forecast at about $6.8 million.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Revenues haven’t measured up. They were nearly $2.3 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013, and nearly $3.4 million the following year. According to the museum’s website, tickets are now priced at $25 for adults and $15 for children; purchases via the website are slightly less, $22.50 for adults and $13.50 for children.

Ford says he thinks ticket sales have been lower than expected because visitors, looking at the facility from the outside, are not sure what to expect. “They don’t understand it until they get inside,” he says. “It’s more of an experience than it is a museum.

Ford says he is optimistic about the future because the Tea Party Museum is routinely listed on Trip Advisor, a website that relies on tourist feedback, as one of the top attractions in Boston. At press time, the museum was ranked 10th out of 196 attractions in the city.