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Post Pandemic Challenges and Opportunities

By Mary Ellen Collins
min read

Getting Back on Track

It would be great if reopening were as simple as unlocking the doors and saying, “Welcome back!” However, the leaders of Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities agree that returning to some semblance of normalcy has required numerous operational adjustments that are still underway.

For facilities of all types and sizes, the pandemic has been an ongoing learning experience that has prompted an across-the-board assessment of how they function. “We were already in the middle of strategic planning, including a review of how we were organized, and COVID-19 accelerated that,” said Gordon Stalans, vice president, CFO and CIO, at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn. It’s not business as usual. It’s a work in progress and will be for the foreseeable future.”

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Staffing Strategies

Many facilities experienced staff reductions, which in some cases led to a rethinking of the workplace.

“Before COVID-19 we had close to 200 full-time and part-time employees,” said Andrea Hill, marketing and communications director, Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla. “We furloughed about 40, mostly part-time people. During this reorganization opportunity, we also assessed what we really needed; eliminated or reconfigured several leadership positions; and hired for the new positions we created. We are now back up to our pre-COVID staffing levels.”

Phoenix Zoo Chief Financial Officer, Bonnie Mendoza, reported that they had already started looking at streamlining and had eliminated some jobs nine months prior to COVID.

“The pandemic presented an opportunity to think about overall efficiencies—to do some realigning. Last summer, we anticipated an Arizona minimum wage increase, and without any Board approved increases to gate or membership pricing, we had to start flattening payroll. We felt that there might have been some operational redundancies; and that we needed to be ultra-deliberate in adding positions going forward. This summer, we are again implementing a substantial frontline wage increase to stay ahead of minimum wage, so after five years of prices held steady, we’re increasing our gate and membership fees to keep pace with inflation.”

Family at Audubon Aquarium
Photo credit: ©Audubon Aquarium

Some facilities that are trying to return to their pre-COVID staff level, like the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Ga., are facing an unanticipated challenge. Through the course of the pandemic, the Aquarium went from 600-650 staff down to 550.

“When we reopened some staff chose to come back while others preferred to not work. We were surprised that people were asking to be furloughed or choosing not to return. Some were reaping the benefits of stimulus and did not feel the need to work,” said Anthony Rivera, senior vice president of operations and hospitality at the Aquarium. “This behavior required us to shift our plans. We had to entice individuals to work by creating benefits like a flexible schedule and adjust our hiring age requirement; we’ll continue to monitor the benefits of this new structure.” He added that the management team has been retrained to focus on staff development and utilizing talent from the within.          

The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, La., is competing with restaurants to rehire front line workers as they try to re-staff. They laid off approximately 70 percent of 950 staff at the Audubon Zoo, the Aquarium of the Americas, and the other eight entities that comprise the Institute.

“As one survival technique, we asked that all staff, regardless of discipline, work one to two days in operations between the time we reopened last summer until early 2021,” said Kyle Burks, chief operating officer at Audubon. “For example, we had finance people in concessions, and I was scanning tickets and working as a mask monitor. It demonstrated the power of culture, as we had to rely on every member of the team.” They have also raised pay rates and held job fairs. 

Family at the lion habitat
Photo credit: ©Audubon Zoo

Facilitating Access

Many facilities have adopted timed ticketing and online reservation systems to manage capacity and adhere to social distancing restrictions. Having implemented these systems, Cynthia Vernon, chief operating officer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., said, “The benefit we’re seeing is that attendance is spread out more evenly through the day. We think that will help with our crowding issue inside, but our challenge is that we have limited space for people to line up outside. We’re now discussing whether to keep some version of timed ticketing.”

Oakland Zoo in Oakland, Calif., also did not have timed ticketing and online reservations prior to the pandemic, but plans to continue with it now that it has been implemented.

“This move has involved the creation of a virtual guest services team and an examination of the role that technology will play in all aspects of the Zoo’s offerings,” said Nik Dehejia, chief executive officer at the Zoo. “We moved beyond silos and became much more interconnected. The tech back end became so much more important, and we’re in the process of creating an IT road map. We’re evaluating what the future of the Zoo experience looks like and how technology will support that.”

Georgia Aquarium aquarist with a coral
Photo credit: ©Georgia Aquarium

With the Tennessee Aquarium open at limited capacity, Stalans reported that they are judiciously deciding when it is safe to offer access to all interactive experiences.

“We haven’t reopened several of our interactive exhibit features or our butterfly garden yet, but do plan to open interactive elements over several months. It’s a process where we will open one thing and then observe to see if any adjustments need to be made or see what lessons can be learned for the next opening.  The primary thing we think about is that the population of children 12 and under aren’t eligible for the vaccine and families are such an important part of our business.”  

Supply Chain Challenges

Supply chain problems like shipping delays and the unavailability of certain items has had an impact on the providing of goods and services.  Facilities have coped by closing some eating establishments, shortening their hours, and/or reducing their menu offerings. And although most people report no problems with accessing what their animals need; Vernon said some medications are more expensive and it’s taking longer than usual to get the necessary permits for importing feeder animals.

“California Fish and Wildlife has instituted a new online process for getting permits to import live animals; it’s taking us a while to migrate information into the online forms and use the new system. Fish and Wildlife is also slower in approving the permits and that seems to be COVID related—fewer staff on their end. Once we migrate to the new process completely, it will be more efficient.”

Georgia Aquarium pufferfish
Photo credit: ©Georgia Aquarium

Regarding issues at retail establishments, Kyla Jacobs, the operations manager at Utica Zoo in Utica, N.Y., said, “We had a very rough time keeping our gift shop stocked, so we had to create relationships with new vendors. But that ended up being a good thing, because they had more STEAM and STEM creative items, which our visitors loved.”

And Rivera took advantage of the fact that his vendor was making bulk purchases for multiple clients’ retail stores, so he increased the number of items he purchased and rented stockroom space to store them.

Fundraising and Facilities

When facilities were closed, renovation and construction projects hit a variety of roadblocks, but fundraising never stopped.

Burks explained, “State funds were already encumbered for our $3.5 million Tropical Bird House renovation at the Zoo and that will open this year. The $24 million for the consolidation of an Insectarium into the Aquarium was part of the state’s budget that is a legislated bill. Unfortunately, due to changes in how funds were allocated, our funds were removed from this year’s bill. We’ll be working hard to have the funds in next year’s budget, and we have alternative approaches such as bond sales that can help us keep the project moving with alternative funding.”

Sign at Audubon Zoo "Do Your Part - Stay One Lion's Length Away From Other Zoo Visitors'
Photo credit: ©Audubon Zoo

Mendoza reports that her team deferred $1.5 million in capital improvement projects that were going to be paid for with unrestricted operational funds. “We held back to ensure that operating cash didn’t dip to a dangerously low level. We did use those funds for operations last summer when we were closed, but our operating cash built back up once we re-opened, which allows us to move ahead with those improvements, including restroom remodel, roof replacement, and equipment purchases. We’re carrying those projects into FY 2021-22, and many of them are underway.”

Turning to their communities for help with operating funds was a successful strategy for some facilities. The Monterey Bay Aquarium staff initiated a special fundraising effort to recoup some of their $55 million revenue loss in 2020 and raised $25 million. And Jacobs said, “We had just finished a campaign so we put into place an emergency operations fund very quickly after our closure. We had a very generous donor who agreed to match up to $20,000/month; and we brought in $275,000 between March and October.”

The process of surviving the pandemic isn’t over yet, as many unanswered questions remain.

“We’ve practically been to hell and back, but we’ve had the opportunity to rethink our mission and how we deliver on it,” said Dehejia. “We have to question our assumptions about how we operate. Are people going to come back in the same way?  Is the experience going to look the same? I think we’re all asking that.”

Guest taking a photo at Audubon Zoo
Photo credit: ©Audubon Zoo

Hill speaks for many of her colleagues when she looks back at 2020. “We got very good at being flexible and learning to have patience. We’re closer as a team, more thoughtful, and more innovative, and I’m very proud of what we achieved. And it was amazing to have the AZA network and to access those relationships so we weren’t in it alone.”

Those connections will be invaluable as zoos and aquariums head into a still uncertain future. The continued sharing of strategies and advice holds the promise of stronger institutions across the board, regardless of what the new normal turns out to be.

Hero photo credit: ©Georgia Aquarium

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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