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Business Observer Thursday, May 21, 2020 6 months ago

Wild frontiers: Zoo, aquarium leaders discuss reopening strategy

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The COVID-19 crisis plunged two major tourist attractions into uncharted waters. Now they’re figuring out how to safely welcome back visitors.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

For the leaders of two of Tampa’s biggest tourist attractions — The Florida Aquarium and ZooTampa at Lowry Park — the COVID-19 shutdown didn’t include a lot of downtime. They still had animals to care for around the clock, as well as important conservation and scientific work that couldn’t stop. 

“We're not a business where you can just close the door, leave the key in the mailbox and walk away,” says Joe Couceiro, CEO of ZooTampa at Lowry Park. “We’ve got 1,100 animals to take care of.”

Couceiro, in statements echoed by Florida Aquarium CEO Roger Germann, says there was no precedent for the upheaval and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “We don’t have a playbook” for a crisis like COVID-19, he says. “We were writing the playbook as we went along.” 

Courtesy. ZooTampa CEO Joe Couceiro.

It took Couceiro and his team about a week to develop a strategy for shutting down the zoo to visitors while continuing to maintain a proper schedule for facility maintenance and animal care. Then he immediately transitioned to looking ahead to the day that the zoo would reopen. 

That day — June 1 — is about to come, while the aquarium opted to reopen earlier, on May 15. 

The decision for a nonessential attraction like the aquarium to reopen sooner than later was not made lightly, Germann says. 

“We want to reopen for all the right reasons,” he says. "And the right reason to reopen now is to focus on and support the emotional and mental healing of our community. With states and communities reopening, that has to be as much considered as much as the business side of things.”

But does it make good sense, business or otherwise, to welcome back members of the public during a time of so much uncertainty? And how will the community respond? Will pent-up demand cause people to return to the zoo and aquarium in droves, or will they stay away? What changes must the institutions — which are similar in some ways but also quite different — make to win the confidence and trust of consumers? 

Those are the types of questions Couceiro and Germann wrestled with as the shutdown dragged. The entire process also tested their leadership of the organizations — both nonprofits — like it never had been before. 

TOUGH CALLS

The COVID-19 upheaval was particularly hard on ZooTampa at Lowry Park, which was forced to furlough 247 of its 320 employees. 

“We're in the process of calling those folks back right as we speak,” Couceiro says, adding that the zoo paid 100% of furloughed employees’ health care premiums while they were not working. “All their benefits were kept in place — life, health, dental, vision.”  

Yet even when the zoo returns to full employment, it won’t operate the same, and some jobs are likely to change because of the new reality in which all businesses now find themselves. For the zoo, which developed a 17-page reopening plan, that means some new roles and responsibilities, such as ensuring guests are not congregating in groups of 10 or more within the facility and asking guests who are not visiting together to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing space. 

The institution also plans to hire EMTs to staff its entry, which will be outfitted with thermal imaging technology that can help determine whether a guest has a fever. If visitors register a body temperature above 100.4 degrees, they will be asked to speak with an EMT and have their temperature rechecked. 

Couceiro acknowledges such measures could be interpreted as an invasion of privacy by some guests. But, he counters, success in the post-shutdown business environment demands risk mitigation.  

‘We're the first aquarium in the country to reopen. But there are still a lot of unknowns, especially when it comes to the virus.’ Roger Germann, CEO of The Florida Aquarium

“We’re not trying to intrude on anybody,” he says. “We're making sure that we're watching out not just for their safety but for all guest and employee safety as well. Someone can have a fever and may not even be aware of it. We want to make them aware of it. If you're over 100.4, you probably shouldn't be at the zoo right now.”

Temperature checks won’t be conducted at The Florida Aquarium, at least not yet. But Germann says the facility is mulling whether to require guests to wear face masks. Until then, the aquarium will admit only 12% of its daily guest occupancy — well below the 25% threshold recommended by the state’s reopening guidelines.

“We're the first large attraction in the state of Florida to reopen,” Germann says. “We're the first aquarium in the country to reopen. But there are still a lot of unknowns, especially when it comes to the virus.” 

THEORY AND PRACTICE

Germann says the aquarium lost about $5.5 million in revenue during the shutdown, and if the decision to reopen was all about dollars and sense, he would go ahead and admit 25% of the attraction’s capacity. But reopening, he says, is more complicated than gains and losses on the ledger and should be done right — or not at all. 

“It’s good for the community for us to reopen, but reopen strategically and conservatively and cautiously,” Germann says. “We're going to be learning a lot over time, and we’ll be sharing that with the business community, with the other cultural attractions. They are watching us across the country and locally, as well, to see how this works.” 

Henceforth, he says, Florida Aquarium ticket sales will be touchless: Prices won’t change, but patrons will buy tickets online for a specific date and time when they want to visit. 

“We want to eliminate as many touch points as we can,” Germann says. “Online ticketing allows for that, but secondly and more importantly, it allows us to set aside a certain time for when guests can come in, so we can manage attendance.” 

Courtesy. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Florida Aquarium CEO Roger Germann wearing face masks, along with the aquarium's giant manta ray statue.

The aquarium has also reconfigured the route that takes guests through the attraction’s various areas and exhibits by making it a one-way path to promote social distancing. Some experiences, such as the outdoor play area and animal touch exhibits, will remain closed for the time being. 

“We don't want any, you know, salmon swimming upstream,” Germann deadpans. “Everyone has to go one way. And we will also have physical distancing markers in place.”

ZooTampa at Lowry Park has similar theories to put into practice but, being a larger, primarily outdoor attraction, it has more room for people to spread out in an open-air environment. Still, Couceiro is taking no chances: All zoo employees will be required to wear masks, and guests will be encouraged to — though doing so will not be mandatory. 

“We will have face masks available for anyone who doesn’t have one,” Couceiro says. “We have plenty of fresh air, sunlight and so forth, so there’s no need for you to be wearing a face mask through your entire zoo experience, but if by any chance somebody feels uncomfortable or is going into an area that they just feel more comfortable with the mask, then at least we'll have that available.”

The decisions Couceiro and Germann have made will be watched closely by other cultural institutions in the process of deciding how and when to reopen. With that in mind, ZooTampa, for example, plans to totally retrain all employees it brings back from furlough, with the goal of instilling the utmost trust and confidence in visitors. 

“I want to ensure that we cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s,” Couceiro says. “We have to make sure that we're absolutely, positively ready to not just promise that we are providing a safe and engaging experience but that we can totally deliver on that on day one.” 

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