Today, we’re sitting down with Lasse Gustavsson, president and CEO of Ocean Wise. Ocean Wise is a not-for-profit ocean conservation organization that operates the Vancouver Aquarium as well as Ocean Wise Research, Ocean Wise Education and citizen action and field projects including Ikaarvik, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, BC Cetacean Sightings Network, Marine Mammal Rescue and Ocean Wise Seafood.

The not-for-profit Vancouver Aquarium is Canada’s oldest and largest aquarium, opened in 1956.

July 17, 2020

The Questions

How did 2010 start for you?

2020 started off with a great deal of optimism. I had just joined Ocean Wise in February 2019 coming from more than 20 years at international conservation organizations in Europe, including World Wildlife Fund, Oceana and Greenpeace. My first year at Ocean Wise was very exciting and productive as we set about launching a global ocean conservation group building on over 60 years of success as a world class Aquarium.

All that changed in February 2020. As news of COVID-19 swept the world, tourists (who normally make up 65% of Vancouver Aquarium’s visitation) stopped coming. Visitation by locals and members dwindled. Catering and events contracts were cancelled. School groups stopped coming. And on March 17th we had to do our part to help stop the spread of the virus by closing the Vancouver Aquarium to the public for the first time in our 64-year history. We estimate Ocean Wise will lose double digit millions in 2020. Not only does this put at risk the future of the Vancouver Aquarium – a beloved Canadian environmental organization and community attraction – it also impacts Ocean Wise’s research, education, animal rescue and direct-action conservation programs.

Tell us about the Vancouver Aquarium’s unique experience dealing with COVID-19?

Unlike other businesses, it is very hard for an aquarium to reduce costs when it is closed to the public. We can’t just turn off the lights and walk away. We have 70,000 animals that needed expert care from veterinary staff, trainers and biologists. We need our skilled engineers and water quality technicians to continue managing the temperature, salinity, lighting and oxygen of our habitats 24-hours a day. Even after dramatic cost cutting, our expenses during closure still exceeded $1 million dollars a month which made our financial challenge particularly acute.

What steps have you taken so far to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on your business?

We were forced to take very swift and extraordinary measures to reduce costs so that our essential animal care and facilities management could continue. We had to lay off 348 staff (60% of the workforce), we were forced to close our Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, we halted important maintenance projects, and reviewed the feasibility of some research, conservation and education programs. In addition, many of our remaining staff went to reduced work weeks and Ocean Wise senior leaders took voluntary pay cuts.

We also went public with our #SaveVAncouverAquarium fundraising campaign. The community support we received from the campaign was incredible and we did a second fundraising campaign to reopen the Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.

The government wage subsidy was very welcome and because of it, as well as the community support and partnerships, we were able to re-open the Aquarium to the public on June 26th.  Regretfully, we have not been able to bring all our staff back to work as we are operating at limited visitor capacity in line with COVID-19 guidelines.

Have you found ways to innovate or pivot your business to meet new demands?

We are very grateful to the Vancouver Whitecaps for an extremely creative partnership where we produced co-branded face masks for sale to the public. Over 135,000 masks were sold with proceeds supporting Vancouver Aquarium. In addition, in response to the school closures we quickly launched Online Ocean, an online learning resource for children and youth. And now that the Aquarium has re-opened we have introduced a picnic basket program to address our visitor desire for physical distance while enjoying the Vancouver Aquarium’s food service.

Describe your re-opening.

We were very excited to be able to re-open our doors to the public on June 26, after being closed for more than three months.

Safety of visitors, staff and animals was and continues to be our top priority. In accordance with Government guidelines, we quickly introduced a new, time-ticketing platform. Our Visitor Experience and Design team followed WorkSafeBC guidelines to create a new, one-way flow experience that allows visitors to see our exhibits, safely and in a crowd-free setting. We also made masks mandatory for all visitors aged 4 and up.

It was wonderful to be able to reopen, but one of our challenges now is that the public thinks our financial need is over. Unfortunately this is not the case. Given that we can only operate at 20-30% capacity, we need to sell every available ticket and still we are at risk of bankruptcy.

What were some of your concerns when it came to restarting your business?

Health has always been our primary concern and that includes the health of our animals. Our animal care teams are highly trained and vital to the wellbeing of our animals. So we introduced a number of measures to ensure these teams stayed safe and healthy. These measures included creating two completely separate and independent animal care teams to ensure that if there was a COVID incident on one team, our other team would be able to care for our animals. We also tested some of our animals for COVID-19. Thankfully we have had no cases associated with any animal, staff member or visitor to the Vancouver Aquarium.

What will be the new normal for your business?

I don’t believe there is a ‘new normal’. The landscape continues to change and we are adjusting on a daily basis. It will take years for tourism to recover and I don’t think we will see our pre-COVID visitor numbers – approximately 1 million people a year –  return for a very long time. We are anticipating just 20-30% of those numbers in 2020.