Where do Patriots Point visitors come from?

On Monday, Mary Gu visited the USS Yorktown along with other colleagues from China Southern Airlines during a day off from their business trip to Boeing to take possession of a 787 Dreamliner. Wade Spees/Staff September 16, 2013

Ron Ketcham and his twin brother, Don Ketcham, marveled at the displays in the Medal of Honor Museum on the World War II-era aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point.

Both 69 and Army veterans, the Minneapolis brothers are one year younger than the ship. They remarked on its condition and wondered of the volunteer hours put in to keep the museum ship afloat.

“It’s a wonderful tourist attraction,” said Ron Ketcham, who with his brother and their wives were visiting the Charleston area for the first time. “I would recommend this to anyone who wanted to visit the area.”

David Campling, 68, of Dayton, Ohio, was vacationing with his wife and another couple at Edisto Beach. While their wives shopped in downtown Charleston, they spent a recent afternoon at Patriots Point.

Campling, who had seen the Yorktown before about a decade ago, came back to show his friend.

“I think they have made a lot of changes for the better,” the Army veteran said. “I don’t remember all of these planes being here.”

Mary Gu of Guangzhou, China, stood outside the hulking former warship and soaked in the history after touring Fort Sumter.

“I learned some things I never knew before about the Navy,” she said while a group of her co-workers from China Southern Airlines scoured the ship’s flight deck. The group of about 15 was in town for about three weeks before flying Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner back to China.

“I think, in the future, many people will come here from China for a visit,” she said. “Everyone wants to be where the Civil War began.”

The tourists make up just a fraction of the more than 250,000 visitors who come to Patriots Point each year, some just to see the Yorktown but mostly as part of a side visit while working or on vacation in the Greater Charleston area.

A recent visitor study by the University of South Carolina on Patriots Point shows the majority of visitors come as a secondary attraction while on vacation or visiting family.

It found that of the 192,370 out-of-town residents who visited Patriots Point last year, about 31,000 came to the Charleston area specifically to visit the military-based tourist attraction. The rest were in town for another reason.

For instance, the Ketchams, who flew in and stayed in a downtown Charleston hotel, had visited Fort Sumter like Gu, who was in town for work and staying in North Charleston. Campling drove in from Ohio and toured the Naval and Maritime Museum as part of a week-long vacation on the coast.

Also, the study showed that 66 percent of Patriots Point visitors came during their vacation while 11.5 percent toured the waterfront attraction while visiting family in the area. They stayed an average of three nights. Nearly 80 percent stayed in a hotel or inn.

About 30 percent of visitors reported staying outside the downtown Charleston area, in places such as Myrtle Beach, giving credence to the day-trip tourist.

The study also found that a staggering 80 percent of Patriots Point’s visitors arrive by car. A healthy 10.3 percent come by air.

Most visitors come from nearby Southeastern states such as North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, but a healthy percentage come from the Midwest, especially Ohio, said Patriots Point Executive Director Mac Burdette.

The total direct spending of all out-of-town visitors at Patriots Point amounted to $4.1 million, according to the study. An additional $23.1 million was spent by them in the Charleston area.

After factoring in camping and catering sales and facility rental at Patriots Point, the total direct spending in the Charleston area of all out-of-town visitors to the Naval and Maritime Museum last year was an estimated $30.6 million, slightly above the previous year’s estimate of $29.1 million. By the time the spending rippled through the local area, it amounted to a $46.1 million economic impact, according to the study.

The study is useful because it will help the tourist attraction target its limited marketing dollars to specific markets, Burdette said. It spends about $700,000 a year on marketing.

“It helps us to be more scientific, systematic and methodical,” he said. “We are not throwing a dart at the dartboard to hit the right spot. We will be more precise. For an attraction like us, we have a diverse market, we have to figure out the best place to spend our money to get the biggest bang for the buck.”

The USC study found that out-of-town visitors tend to be between ages 45 and 54, with at least one relative or themselves having served in the military. Their household income is between $60,000 and $74,000 a year, according to the study.

More than one-third of visitors made their decision to go to Patriots Point based on recommendations from friends or relatives, the study found. About 27 percent decided to go to the Yorktown after seeing it from a distance. Another 26 percent found it on the Internet. About 24 percent saw it in the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau tourist guide.

About 65 percent of visitors made the decision to visit Patriots Point before leaving home, according to the study. It also found that nearly 84 percent would have come to Charleston if Patriots Point did not exist.

About half of visitors surveyed said they would not return within the next two years. Many of those who said “no” suggested free or better parking. More than half said they would recommend the attraction to a friend or colleague.

The study concluded that a substantial percentage of visitors to Patriots Point may still prefer to be reached by traditional methods of destination marketing rather than the Internet or social media.

The study also broke out details about local residents.

Like visitors, more than half had a relative in the military, but unlike visitors, residents reported household income of under $50,000 and they tended to include more males and more people older than 65. About half had never been to Patriots Point while the rest said they had been to the attraction about three times during the past five years.

About 88 percent said they planned to visit the Yorktown within two years, with many interested in the Medal of Honor Museum and the new Flight Academy to be unveiled next year.

The study did not break out local residents’ total spending and economic impact because researchers said the money would have been spent elsewhere in the Charleston economy if Patriots Point didn’t exist.

Burdette called the survey a sampling of visitors and hopes to do more detailed research of tourists at Patriots Point to fine tune further marketing efforts.

“That will tell us where we ought to be putting our marketing money,” he said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.