A Numbers Dive: Scientology’s Brag About Visitors to Information Center Falls Flat

We dissect a press release from Scientology trumpeting the foot traffic at the Scientology Information Center at its Clearwater headquarters, putting the breathless stats against the backdrop of the tourist stats for Pinellas County.

Yesterday, Scientology published a press release trumpeting the visitor traffic they’ve received to the Scientology Information Center, a place that is supposed to help present the wonders of Scientology to the teeming public hungry to learn about the “world’s fastest growing religion.”  I’ve copied the press release below, and will dissect it to see how epic the numbers really are.

This is one of my “Global Capitalism HQ” dives into the numbers, which often yield some revealing perspective. If you’re curious about how to do quantitative research for decision-making, you might find the thought process, particularly about how to find sources quickly on the internet and to assess them for credibility, to be worth tracking.  

It’s important to note that this sort of analysis doesn’t take long. Digging up the numbers and graphing them took about 20 minutes; this whole post took about 90 minutes to write and edit.  The point is that good analysis drives good decisions, and it doesn’t really take that much longer than shoddy analysis that drives bad decisions. 

Scientology Information Center, ClearwaterSource: Yelp.com

The Press Release

New Year’s Eve Marks 27,000th Visitor to the Scientology Information Center in Downtown Clearwater

On December 31st, a family of four from New York City vacationing in Clearwater stopped by the Scientology Information Center – thus breaking the 27,000 visitor mark to the Center.

Clearwater, FL, January 06, 2018 –(PR.com)— “We saw the sign, ‘Church of Scientology Information Center – All are welcome’ and decided to come in and look around,” said Chuck, the father of the family. “We heard about the Church of Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, and since we know nothing about Scientology, we wanted to look around.” During the visit their questions about Scientology’s beliefs were answered and they received a photo brochure of the Church of Scientology of New York as a keepsake.

“It’s amazing the diversity of people that come through these doors every day who are curious about Scientology,” added Amber. “One visitor, a life-long Clearwater resident, Michael Fitzsimmons, visited the Information Center for the fist time in 2016. Now he frequently comes by to say hello, learn more and have a cup of coffee.”

“It’s always nice to have someone to talk to and answer questions about Scientology,” said Mr. Fitzsimmons.

Since its opening in July 2015, the Scientology Information Center has hosted visitors from across the U.S., and visitors from 25 countries, from as far away as Argentina and Vietnam. Over 100 community events have taken place in the Center. They highlight special days including Earth Day, International Day of Happiness, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

“The Center houses a gallery of information panels, 4 audiovisual displays containing some 400 videos. These displays allow anyone to learn what are Dianetics, Scientology and its founder, Mr. L. Ron Hubbard for themselves,” said Amber Skjelset, Manager of the Scientology Information Center.

Cutting Up the Numbers

27,000 visitors doesn’t sound half bad.  But let’s look first at the time period so we get an average rate over a consistent period of time.  Hearken back to junior high: when you compare numbers, they have to be in the same units, and rates have to be the same units over consistent intervals of time.  An older press release fixes the opening date as July 11, 2015.  So between July 11, 2015 and December 31, 2017, you have 904 calendar days.  Divide 27,000 by 904 and you have average daily traffic of 29.9 people.  Let’s also get a yearly number because it might be useful for later use.  Multiply by that daily number by 365 and you get 10,902 people per year.

So let’s see what kind of tourist attraction this represents.  According to the Pinellas County Visitor’s Bureau’s (CVB) 2016 stats (2017 numbers aren’t yet available), the area saw 6.35 million visitors in 2016; the 2017 numbers are probably slightly above that total.  Scientology’s market share of visitors is thus 0.17% of all visitors to Clearwater.

Scientology Information Center Versus the Aquarium

Let’s compare that to other Pinellas County attractions. The aquarium is likely the biggest draw in the area — the Pinellas CVB numbers show that tourists named that as a place they visited or intended to visit more often than any other single attraction, at 15.3% of visitors.  According to its 2015 annual report (the most recent data available), the Aquarium hosted 765,000 visitors, up from the 600,000 in the 2014 annual report.  That’s pretty solid growth, and applying the same growth rate to 2015 numbers, we get 975,000 visitors in 2016, which comes pretty close to 15.3% of the 6.35 million visitors in the Pinellas CVB numbers.  So I think that’s a pretty high quality estimate — when you get two numbers that come out fairly close when derived by two different methodologies, you’re probably doing OK.

Scientology’s 10,902 visitors is thus 1.1% as many as went to the Clearwater Aquarium.  In other words, the aquarium is 90x as popular as Scientology.

But we need to adjust the numbers a little bit for Scientology.  The press release goes on to point out that a gentleman named Michael Fitzsimmons came in for the first time in 2016, and now comes in frequently for a cup of coffee.  If he’s been doing that for a year and a half, it sounds like he’s just hitting them up for a free cup of coffee, being counted as a “stat” each time, which certainly works out conveniently for an organization whose employees are always scrambling to boost weekly “stats.”

Scientology certainly is not above counting repeat visitors as new foot traffic. Maybe the guy mentioned in the press release fits in that category.  I searched some name/address databases and found an older gentleman named Michael Fitzsimmons who lives in an apartment building just a couple doors down Cleveland Street from the Scientology Information Center. So he’s probably stopping in for a free cup of coffee and pretending to be interested in the material. Given the lack of interest shown in him by the staff, as mentioned in a Yelp review of the place, he probably feels safe that he won’t be subject to predations of flocks of donation-hungry FSM’s.

Incidentally, while Michael Fitzsimmons may be a Scientologist, I didn’t find him in any of the usual Scientology Service Completions databases.  So let’s assume he’s not a Scientologist, just to be safe.  This is the principle of “conservatism” in action.  That has nothing to do with political views. It’s the idea that when you have to make an assumption in working with data, you always pick a value at the end of the range of values that’s least favorable to your argument. In other words, do the opposite of stacking the deck to make sure your hoped-for viewpoint wins because that makes you more credible. In this case, my hoped-for outcome would be to expose Michael Fitzsimmons as a Scientologist, proving that they count existing members in their stats. So when I can’t prove he is a Scientologist, I will assume he’s not rather than assuming he might be covering his tracks effectively.

We also have to correct for the number of Scientologists who are likely to be a significant portion of the traffic to the center. Some of those might even be Sea Org members or even the people that work there, since people desperate for stats might stretch the numbers that way.  It’s only two blocks north on Ft. Harrison Avenue from Flag, a three minute walk. So of those 30 people per day that darken the doorway, we can easily presume that a non-trivial number are Scientologists.  Then, of course, of the handful of non-Scientologists and people who are not looking for a bathroom or a free cup of coffee, you might see 4-5 people per day walking in the door who aren’t Scientologists and who might actually want to know something about Scientology.  Some of those might just be Millennials who are checking the place out ironically.  Others might be lost and need directions.

Net result: perhaps a couple hundred of those 10,902 people per year actually came to learn about Scientology. And few of those get any actual information from the not-so-helpful staff — we’ve seen numerous reports of reporters and bloggers visiting Scientology orgs who get minimal help from the staff because they are so afraid of getting in trouble for “disseminating” wrong.  They direct people to videos and don’t even attempt to answer questions or follow up afterwards.  So the conversion rate is pretty minimal.  If it’s not zero, it’s close.

Relative Popularity of Clearwater Tourist Attractions


Scientology Versus Starbucks & McDonald’s in Clearwater

There’s a Starbucks located diagonally across the intersection of Cleveland St. and Ft. Harrison Ave.  How does the Scientology Information Center stack up against the Starbucks for foot traffic?

According to one survey done by a restaurant data company, the average Starbucks sees about 600 visitors per day. This is an estimate of 2016 traffic done back in 2013 from a restaurant consulting firm, but it’s the first number from a credible source that popped up in a Google search.   The argument here doesn’t depend on precision, because we’re just trying to provide a further illustration of Scientology numbers versus the everyday world; we’ve already gotten a pretty precise set of numbers in the Aquarium analysis above.  Thus, I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to chase down a more precise answer.

So the 5 viable prospects per day coming to find out about the “World’s Fastest Growing Religion(tm)” is less than 1% as popular as the local overpriced coffee joint.

I couldn’t get recent data on McDonald’s stores (there are 9 in the Clearwater city limits) but some data from back in 2012 suggests that the average McDonald’s in the US writes about 575,000 checks a year, which works out to about 1,600 individual meals per day. The fast food business has grown a bit since 2012, so the number is probably a bit higher.  So Scientology gets 5 prospects in its main stomping grounds per day versus 1,600 at the local McDonald’s, and almost 15,000 at all the McDonald’s outlets in the city.

About That Shiny, Happy Tourist Family…

OK, that numbers exercise gives us a pretty clear sense that Scientology is a rousing failure on its home turf, where the shadow it casts over the city should get it a bit more foot traffic.

Let’s finish with a look at the other part of the press release: the example of the family from New York who came in on New Year’s Eve.  Let’s grant the cult the possibility that this actually happened, and that it wasn’t a completely fabricated story.  We want to see if there’s anything interesting that we can glean from the two examples mentioned.

One of the basic rules of press release writing is that you want to feature an example that is the most positive outcome from whatever product or service you’re offering.  In other words, you always want to put your best foot forward.  If you’re selling hair plugs, you want to feature the guy who suddenly got a promotion at work and now has to fend off nymphomaniac supermodels with a stick.  You don’t want to feature a guy who says, “yeah, with my new hair plugs, I feel better when I look in the mirror but I’m still a loser with women.”

So what was the outcome of this family’s visit to the Scientology Information Center?   They got their questions answered and they got a brochure for the New York org “as a keepsake.”  It doesn’t say anything about how they signed up for services.  There’s no hint at how the recruiter found their “ruin” using the free personality test, or what they thought about their sample auditing session, since the recruiter apparently didn’t even ask them to do that.   

And they apparently haven’t thought to invite Mr. Fitzsimmons, who stops by for coffee all the time, to start taking one of those cheapo intro classes.  In other words, there’s no evidence that these visitors actually bought the product.  And one of those visitors is a guy who is mentioned because he visits frequently, obviously inflating their numbers.  That’s the best outcome they could write up?  

Of course, some of the language is pretty funny. The idea of a Scientology brochure as a “keepsake,” which is only one step below “heirloom” on the scale of importance of possessions we proudly hang on to, is pretty funny.  The quotes are pretty strangely worded as well.

Also, the proofreading on this document is awful.  There’s a quote from “Amber” about how wonderful it is to see all the people coming in from all over.  She’s not identified when her name is first used.  Only in the second quote is she named as the head of the Information Center.  This is Writing 101, and they got it wrong.  Not the first time, not the last, but just another in a long string of data points showing the effects of sleep deprivation on the downtrodden Sea Org.

I’m not officially reviving this blog with a commitment to publish regularly, but if I do post anything, I’ll notify interested parties via Twitter and via comments on Tony Ortega’s site.  

Author: John P.

John P. is a Wall Street money manager and IT technologist fascinated by irrationality in all its forms, and Scientology most of all. He's a lifelong Steely Dan fan.