Zoo and Aquarium Best Practices for Reopening
From using a “burner cell phone” to deploying a roving cleaning squad, zoos and aquariums are putting ingenuity to work upon reopening.
“It’s been fun and rewarding because we got to do things differently,” says Greg Charbeneau, vice president and general manager of the OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale, Arizona. The aquarium closed on March 21, with planning for reopening beginning 48 hours later, according to Charbeneau. Meanwhile, the care and comfort of the facility’s animals never stopped.
“We are responsible for these animals under our care whether we’re open or not. We have to maintain that operation 24/7 and that was our core focus,” Charbeneau says.
As attractions worldwide plan their reopening once local government officials lift stay-at-home orders and allow non-essential businesses to reopen, the joy that attractions create are returning as well.
“It’s the greatest feeling to see humans back in our parks, to see our team members back, to get salaries paid, to get suppliers paid, and get the economy back up and running,” says Travis Burke, executive director of North America for The Dolphin Company. “It’s been a long, hard battle.”
“We’re all in this together,” says Amber Christopher, senior vice president of the guest experience at the Denver Zoo. “If you find a solution, please share it.”
Christopher, Charbeneau, and Burke recently took part in a discussion where they provided several examples of how to evolve when reopening.
Guiding Guests—and Employees
Before reopening, many operators responded by adding signage to remind guests to maintain social distancing. Charbeneau discovered additional reminders are now needed.
“We found once [guests] get outside the reminders, the muscle memory isn’t there. Guests forget. They go back to their old habits,” Charbeneau says. Therefore, the OdySea Aquarium quickly made two fixes. First, they printed additional signage and made more stickers to adhere to for their floor space. Second, they asked team members to be more cognizant of enforcing physical distancing standards with guests—and themselves.
“We’re trying to let our team members know it’s a partnership,” Charbeneau says. The mantra of “let us help you” is the key to letting employees know they are empowered to keep their own distance, so they can feel comfortable at work, according to Charbeneau. While the aquarium’s touch pools are still closed, the OdySea Aquarium is planning ahead to the pools’ reopening. They constructed several lifeguard-sized chairs so that team members can be stationed high above visitors, and not “sharing the air” with guests.
Meantime, areas at the aquarium where guests could congregate are closed, like animal encounters and the 3D theater and rotating theaters.
“You begin to forget what is going on outside in the real world, and that is why we have these attractions. People let their guard down,” Burke says. At the facilities operated by The Dolphin Company, a top manager—whether it be an operations manager or human resources director—now serves as the compliance officer during operating hours.
“Their job during the day is to walkabout and make sure our guests are safe, make sure our associates are safe, and just help remind everyone to remain six feet apart,” Burke says. “It’s our job to create a safe framework.” That includes The Dolphin Company’s requirement that all employees wear masks.
Many operators have initiated quick fixes using technology to increase guest service.
The Denver Zoo used the time during quarantine to rollout mobile food ordering. Using their smart phones and tablets, guests will be able to order their meals remotely, according to Christopher. The addition of plexiglass will provide a barrier between guests and zoo employees.
Burke says The Dolphin Company’s family of parks is trying to remain cashless, using online payments only for tickets and reservations. In Arizona, the OdySea Aquarium purchased a basic, low-cost cell phone (what Charbeneau calls “a burner cell phone”) to help arriving guests who may be experiencing difficulty when pre-ordering tickets on their mobile devices. The phone number of the low-cost phone is only posted on signage in the ticketing area. If a guest needs assistance, they simply text a description of themselves and their clothing to the “burner phone,” which is held by a guest relations employee inside. That employee can assist via text, or come outside to offer assistance, since OdySea’s ticket windows are currently shuttered. Using the low-cost cell phone solution worked so well, the aquarium purchased a second device.
“We adopted that in the café as well. We can text the guest when their food is ready,” Charbeneau says of how the aquarium pivoted from table delivery to pick up at the counter.
Clean Ferociously But Make It Fun
Enhanced cleaning measures have become the norm for attractions upon reopening.
At any one time, guests at the OdySea Aquarium will see one of five team members openly cleaning high-touch areas. The aquarium is now divided into five zones. Once an employee reaches the end of their zone, they return to the beginning and start cleaning all over again. To further promote good hygiene, the OdySea Aquarium also dispatched an army of hand sanitizing units.
“We actually call them the ‘Penguin Pooping Machines,’ because we put little stickers of penguins on them, so that it looks like they are pooping when you go to put your hands underneath it. We try to make that fun,” Charbeneau says. Each unit was positioned similar to how an exit sign would be displayed, per local fire codes. No matter where a guest turns in the exhibit space, they will find a hand sanitizing dispenser. Charbeneau calls their positioning “a breadcrumbs approach.”
Partnering with Your Community
During the spring closures, many zoos and aquariums used the time to complete projects. In Colorado, the Denver Zoo used the time they were shuttered to refresh areas with murals painted by 10 local artists. The cooperation led to beautifying the zoo and a source of income for the artists.
“We had a really amazing foundation in town that has supported that work,” says Christopher. “Everybody had some income, which was really nice.”
In Florida, Marineland Dolphin Adventure, south of St. Augustine, has begun placing photos of their dolphins positioned with a written message to show support for members of the community.
“The graduation ceremony has been eliminated this year, so we’ve done graduation celebrations with our dolphins and penguins,” Burke says. “It’s very important to keep our guests engaged and continue sharing and all the good things we do with the animals.”
Set Realistic Expectations
With several states and countries setting reopening provisions that limit attendance upon opening to maintain proper social distancing, Burke says it’s important to set realistic attendance expectations. He says early indications are positive at The Dolphin Company’s locations in Florida. Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, Florida, is already receiving 70% of their normal visitation levels, while Marineland Dolphin Adventure is operating at 50%, and Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys has reopened slowly, only seeing 15-20 guests a day.
“We’re building,” Burke says. “As we go through June, we’ll be back to what is our normal [attendance].
Charbeneau in Scottsdale saw similar results upon reopening, providing hope. The first week the OdySea Aquarium was open, attendance levels were 50% off, compared to the same week in 2019. The second week the aquarium was open, attendance rose to 75% of visitation levels from the year prior.
“Time will tell, but we’re confident,” Charbeneau says.