Vancouver Aquarium acquired by US theme park operator

Apr 15 2021, 9:17 am

The Vancouver Aquarium is under new ownership due to its shaky financial situation over the past year.

Ocean Wise Conservation Association announced this morning it has reached an agreement to transfer the ownership of the attraction to Herschend Enterprises, which is a major American theme park operator.

Herschend Enterprises, based in Atlanta, Georgia, will have 100% ownership of the Stanley Park attraction, effectively saving the facility from permanent closure. It owns two other aquariums — Newport Aquarium in Kentucky, and Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey — and major amusement and theme parks such as Dollywood.

The sale to Herschend was the option of last resort, as the aquarium was forecast to run out of cash reserves for its operations over the coming weeks. Cost mitigation measures, the prolonged temporary closure, emergency government subsidies, and donations from the public and business community were not enough to offset the steep shortfall in admission revenue.

Clint Wright, the Chief Operator Officer and longtime veteran of the aquarium, will continue to lead the attraction under its new ownership.

“This is a very positive outcome that secures both the future of the Vancouver Aquarium and the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre,” said Wright in a statement.

“I have been fortunate to spend almost my entire career at the Vancouver Aquarium and I look forward to continuing to lead the organization as we emerge from the challenges of the pandemic and write the Aquarium’s next chapter. I have known the Herschend team for many years, they share our values, and I am extremely optimistic about the new and exciting opportunities that will be open to us with Herschend’s financial and creative support.”

The Vancouver Park Board has agreed to transfer the aquarium’s site license agreement to Herschend. The agreement was renewed in 2019, and allows the aquarium to remain in Stanley Park through 2054.

newport aquarium kentucky

Newport Aquarium in Newport, Kentucky is owned by Herschend Enterprises. (Shutterstock)

The not-for-profit organization that previously owned and operated the aquarium will continue to be an independent conservation charity, led by Lasse Gustavsson.

Ocean Wise’s work such as research and rehabilitation will still be supported by the aquarium, with Herschend agreeing to donate 1% of its annual gross revenues to the charity.

Under new ownership, the aquarium is now looking to prepare for its reopening to the public. The new private owner also intends to rehire many of the aquarium’s former employees who were temporarily or permanently laid off.

Other entities in the Herschend portfolio include Wild Adventures zoo and theme park in Georgia, four water parks, and various tourist and accommodations businesses. Its attractions see 14 million annual guests each year, and employ over 10,000 people.

Ocean Wise says it selected Herschend after reaching out to over 70 relevant entities, including other aquarium and zoo operators, not-for-profit organizations, and high net-worth individuals.

“This is a thrilling and humbling day for our company as we begin our relationship with such a renowned institution. As a long-time aquarium operator we have always admired the Vancouver Aquarium as the gold standard in the industry for its combination of animal care, educational focus and exceptional family experience,” said Andrew Wexler, Chief Executive Officer of Herschend Enterprises.

“We intend to build on this track record, enhancing the Vancouver Aquarium as an attraction for local and international visitors, and continuing to support the dozens of initiatives that make the aquarium such a vital part of the local, national and international community. It is also important to us that the Vancouver Aquarium is exactly that – Vancouver’s aquarium, offering a unique, local and authentic experience that is not available anywhere else.”

adventure aquarium new jersey

Shark tunnel at Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey. (Adventure Aquarium)

Unlike many other attractions, the Vancouver Aquarium’s operating costs remained high even when its doors were closed. With non-existent visitation revenue for much of last year, and the lack of any ongoing annual government subsidies, the self-funded, not-for-profit organization has been at great risk of bankruptcy.

It has operating costs of about $1 million per month to sustain animal care, habitat maintenance, and basic operations.

The aquarium has been temporarily closed since Labour Day weekend last year, following a brief summertime reopening beginning in late June 2020. Visitation was down by 80% due to COVID-19’s health safety 25% capacity restrictions on the attraction, which meant that the aquarium did not break even, even on its sold-out days. Tourists typically account for 65% of its visitation.

As a cost mitigation measure in late March 2020, it also laid off over 300 personnel — about 60% of its workforce. Most of these layoffs were made permanent towards the end of last summer, when it shed 209 employees, mainly operational staff in retail, food and beverage, visitor experience, exhibits, human resources, and marketing.

The aquarium marks its 65th anniversary this year.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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