Vancouver Aquarium to temporarily close after Labour Day due to financial crisis

Aug 31 2020, 10:05 am

As a mitigation measure to slow down its burn on cash reserves, the Vancouver Aquarium announced today it will temporarily pause public programming starting on September 8, after Labour Day, until further notice.

The attraction in Stanley Park reopened on June 26 after a three-month-long temporary pandemic closure that began in the middle of March. But the operating cost in excess of $1 million per month of reopening the aquarium’s doors to the public has not been offset by admission revenues.

Compared to a normal summer, ticket sales upon reopening have fallen by nearly 80% due to COVID-19. And with the current visitor restrictions that include capacity limits, the aquarium did not break even, even on its sold-out days, which means the allowable visitor numbers are too low for the attraction to sustain itself.

Tourists previously accounted for 65% of visitation, but this segment completely disappeared and is not expected to return until at least well into 2021.

“Unfortunately, when we opened two months ago with a COVID-safe experience, the numbers we were allowed to accept at the aquarium is just so low we can’t cover our own costs,” said Lasse Gustavsson, president and CEO of Ocean Wise, in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized, adding that “the most responsible thing we can do now is face the new reality, take the responsible decision, and find a way that covers cost.”

With health safety capacity restrictions and the economic fallout likely to continue through 2021, the aquarium says internal and external experts are rethinking the attraction’s business strategy to focus less on admission revenue.

“Since COVID is not going away anytime soon, we’ve decided to take a public pause in programming and take a step back and see how we can run the aquarium that is pandemic safe in a way that supports the conservation mission of the organization, and also is attractive to visitors and covers costs,” he said.

As part of the decision to temporarily close the aquarium’s doors, a total of 209 employees have been permanently laid off, mainly operational staff within retail, food and beverage, visitor experience, exhibits, human resources, and marketing. Staff are being provided with 12 to 20 weeks notice, and eligible staff have access to benefit continuation, career transitioning services, and other supports.

Approximately 350 employees — about 60% of the workforce — were temporarily laid off in March, and for many, this will be the second time they have been laid off during the pandemic.

Gustavsson notes that if the aquarium went on with a business as usual approach without closing the attraction to the public and performing permanent layoffs, the organization would likely go bankrupt before Christmas. These measures that reduce the size and cost of the organization buy more time, extending the runway.

But the aquarium will retain its essential team of 75 specialized staff, including biologists, animal care experts, and on-site veterinarians. Additionally, all other programs by Ocean Wise, the parent non-profit organization that owns and operates the aquarium, will continue without interruption, including Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Rescue, Ocean Wise Research, Arctic Programs, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, and Ocean Wise Education.

Donations from the community earlier this year provided the aquarium with a longer financial runway to last through the spring and summer, and avoid bankruptcy. Gustavsson says over 40,000 people have donated anything between $10 and $100,000 over the last few months.

“I’m new to Canada, I’ve been here for 18 months. I’m blown away by the support and love this institution has seen. The public has been amazing,” he said.

“Because of the public’s donations, we have a chance to save ourselves. The money will be well spent, and the animals will continue to see world-class care and not go anywhere… there is no money wasted here.”

The federal government also provided $2 million in emergency operating funding for animal care and habitat maintenance, while the provincial contribution contributed $1.8 million for animal care.

“We do plan to open the aquarium again, and it’s only possible because we’ve been receiving such generous support from the public and governments,” emphasized Gustavsson.

A separate campaign also successfully ensured the reopening of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre near the Port of Vancouver’s Centerm terminal. The animal hospital, which rescues an average of 100 injured seals each summer, reopened for the season after receiving more than $150,000 in public donations in under two days.

Under a joint venture with a Spanish company, as a revenue-generating business, the Vancouver Aquarium also operates L’Oceanographic in Valencia, Spain, which is Europe’s largest aquarium.

“The COVID situation in Spain is worse than Canada, but the City of Valencia has been very generous and they have been giving us so much support that we hope we’ll be able to continue throughout the season without closing,” said Gustavsson.

But given the immense, structural costs of operating an aquarium, he would not be surprised if a large number of aquariums go bankrupt this year because they do not have support from their communities, the resources, or cannot find a way to reinvent.

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