Being good at your mission is more important than ever for aquariums’ financial sustainability, according to new research shared in the Future Aquarium Trends webinar and panel discussion hosted this week by Species360. The tighter connection between mission and revenue is one of several important consumer research findings presented by Impacts Experience, a team that helps executives at cultural institutions like aquariums, museums, and zoos to develop business and audience engagement strategies based on actionable data.
Between 2019 and the first quarter of 2021, the perception of aquariums as conservation organizations has risen significantly, indexing at nearly 70, after years of little or no gain. That difference, said IMPACTS Chief Strategy Officer and long-time aquarium industry leader Jim Hekkers, is extraordinary.
“This is a unique moment in time. The sharp rise of these measures is astounding. It says that, going forward, mission work is even more critical to the future of the aquarium,” said Hekkers.
Focusing on more than two dozen U.S.-based aquariums that draw 350,000 or more visitors annually, IMPACTS Experience research found that the most financially stable aquariums are those that are admired, trusted, and perceived to be focused on conservation.
The trends were already here, but like everything else around the world, processes that were happening were accelerated. So yes we are on the right track, and we have to keep up the pace of change and do even better than we have until now.João Falcato, CEO, Oceanário de Lisboa
What we saw in 2020 versus 2021, as far as aquariums being seen differently by our audiences, represents a significant shift. As we continue to re-open, we need to make sure we are walking the talk in terms of conservation.Jackson Andrews, COO, Tennessee Aquarium
It is very clear that aquariums have been on the forefront of the conservation movement. The data validates the leadership role that we have played and the work that is ahead of us. We fund a mission and a purpose, and people see it when we do animal rescue rehabilitation, when we have coral breakthroughs, and more. With the evolution of becoming a more conservation-based aquarium, our gate has been stronger than ever. So we are thriving. We have not cut back any of our conservation programs at all, and that goes back to the data of how people are now perceiving The Florida Aquarium.Roger Germann, CEO of The Florida Aquarium
“The most successful aquariums have all three,” said Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer, IMPACTS Experience. “The first two are latent measurements, they are feelings. But conservation is an important clarifier because it is more explicit. There is a ‘there’ there.”
When asked what matters in terms of meaningful achievements, those surveyed volunteered the following: marine animal rescue and rehabilitation topped the charts with a record high index, followed by animal welfare and animal rights, conservation education for school-age children, and climate science/climate change education.
Finding the right partnerships with practitioners around the world or with each other through collective impact conservation programs like the AZA SAFE model are key because it allows us to align our goals toward very specific targeted actions, and then bring our audiences along with us on that journey.Bart Shepherd, Director of the Steinhart Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences
Of these, expectations that aquariums play a key role in climate science education has increased most dramatically in the past decade. That is encouraging, says Bart Shepherd, Director of the Steinhart Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences. “Whether it is declines in African penguin populations or coral reefs around the world suffering from ocean warming, climate change is the fundamental issue to address. It bodes well that our audiences are looking for us to talk about that and act on that.”
Panelists agree that doing so requires collaboration across local, regional, and global entities. “Each of us on our own has very unique skill sets within our teams, in animal care and welfare, rescue and rehabilitation, and our veterinary teams. So finding the right partnerships with coral reef restoration practitioners in other parts of the world or with each other through collective impact conservation programs like the AZA SAFE model. Partnerships are key because it allows us to align our goals toward very specific targeted actions, and then channel our audiences and bring them along with us on that journey,” said Bart.
Aquariums have an essential role to play in conservation, and an important aspect of that is the data that aquarists curate and share about the species in their care. Their knowledge, reflected in daily records, is essential to shaping and prioritizing species conservation programs. In many cases, their unique experiences with animals and collections represents the single best source knowledge on their counterparts in the wild.Sandy Trautwein, PhD, Director of Aquatics Conservation, Species360
Increased time at the keyboard has opened up opportunities to engage audiences online, and aquariums – and zoos – emerged during the pandemic as shining examples of how to use the medium. Live feeds and recorded talks with curators, husbandry teams, and aquarists are just some of the ways we took people behind the scenes.
“People already preferred to stay home. One of our growing competitors has been the couch. But we need to be realistic that we have changed expectations – and for the better, aquariums did a really good job of showing that we are available and engaging online,” said Colleen.
In all, nearly a quarter of the people in the U.S. visited an aquarium’s web site in 2020, and 20 percent followed an aquarium on social media. The biggest impact, she added, is the boost in credibility that comes when someone shares your content with friends and family.
“What people say about you is 12.8 times more important in driving your reputation than what you say about yourself. There is incredible value in getting people talking about you by following you on social media and re-sharing your story. That earned endorsement matters, especially as we welcome people back and build upon perceptions that we have seen elevate during the pandemic,” said Colleen.
“So much of this past year has been about what we can’t do,” said Jim. “What we are presenting here is about shifting the lens to what we can do, especially over the next 3-5 years.”
We invite you to watch the recorded Future Aquarium Trends Webinar here.
See the ensuing panel discussion with aquarium leaders and moderated by Robin Keith, President and CEO of EcoLeaders.
Grab a notepad and a cup of tea; together, there are nearly three hours of insight to the critical role that aquariums play in inspiring communities, leading conservation, and educating us all.