Cover Story - The Guardian - November 2018

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2019 IAAPA Chairman David Rosenberg reflects on the Pacific Ocean from the rocky outcroppings behind the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

From water park lifeguard to the first IAAPA chairman from the zoo and aquarium community, David Rosenberg is prepared to lead the global attractions industry

Story by Scott Fais
Photography by Tyson Rininger

“CANNERY ROW IN MONTEREY IN CALIFORNIA IS A POEM, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” wrote Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck in the opening sentence of “Cannery Row.”

The Great Depression-era novel set in Monterey, California, revolves around a marine biologist named Doc—described by Steinbeck as strong, passionate, well-liked, and known to share profound observations—who set out to raise awareness about the ocean’s creatures and change public perception.

Nearly 75 years after “Cannery Row” was first published, like Steinbeck’s Doc, David Rosenberg, ICAE, brings a modern-era “quality of light, a tone, a habit” not only to writing the next chapter in Monterey’s history from same street featured in the novel, but by shaping IAAPA’s future as the organization begins its second century. Rosenberg, vice president at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and 2019 IAAPA Chairman of the Board, is a proud guardian of his aquarium’s mission and the global attractions industry as a whole.

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Between shows, Rosenberg interacts with live performers, who present a historical look at Monterey, California.

A Quality of Light for Enlightenment 

Being a guardian takes courage—and a lot of exercise.

On a cool summer morning, with northern California’s cloudy marine layer providing a reprieve from the sun, David Rosenberg sets out on a hike. It’s an urban sightseeing tour of sorts, briefly pausing at the weathered home and laboratory of famed scientist Ed Ricketts, who served as inspiration for Steinbeck’s character of Doc in “Cannery Row.” 

“He was the biological theorist on whom some of our exhibits are based,” Rosenberg says of Ricketts while looking at the remnants of his outdoor lab, located just across the street from his office. “Today, we are doing the science and making sure our science is relevant, accurate, and ready to be communicated out to the public, which the aquarium helps us do.”

Commitment to its mission has prompted the aquarium to launch construction of a new educational facility several blocks east on Cannery Row. Rosenberg is excited to visit the site of the Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, even if it means continuing a brisk walk while dressed in business casual attire. The triathlete (who has completed six marathons) is just as comfortable in a wetsuit as he is a sport coat, when serving as a champion of the nearly 80,000 schoolchildren who will visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium—free of charge—each year.

“We have an opportunity to dive a little bit deeper with the students and educate them on the importance of the ocean,” Rosenberg says while overlooking the construction site, just yards from the Pacific Ocean. With floor-to-ceiling windows, the structure will also cater to teachers in the summer, hosting workshops and offering opportunities for continuing education.

Like a university campus, the -Monterey Bay Aquarium is sprawling with 14 buildings—dissected and bisected across two California towns: Monterey to the east and neighboring Pacific Grove to the west. In fact, the main aquarium building sits in both cities, requiring Rosenberg to serve as a diplomatic ambassador when protecting the aquarium’s local interests while it advances policies that protect natural resources around the world. From rallying nearly 200 chefs across five continents, who pledged to keep Pacific bluefin tuna off their menus until its population rebuilds, to continuing efforts to fight global climate change through reducing carbon dioxide emissions, efforts by Rosenberg and the aquarium to protect the global ocean extend well beyond Monterey.

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Banishing the Bottle

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Boycotts Plastic and Starts a Revolution

Like one drop of water creating a ripple effect, the bold idea to eliminate single-use plastic from the Monterey Bay Aquarium radiates far beyond Cannery Row and shows the great lengths the aquarium will go to initiate positive change.

“We started out thinking, ‘Hey! Let’s just get rid of plastic water bottles, and they will drink something else,’” recalls aquarium vice president David Rosenberg.

Yet, Rosenberg admits his initial thinking was flawed. From the window of his second-floor office across the street from the aquarium’s main entrance, he watched as visitors got their hands stamped for readmission, left the complex, and walked to the nearest convenience store. Moments later, the same visitors would reappear, returning to the aquarium with a plastic bottle of water in hand.

“We discovered if people want something bad enough, they’ll get it—and return with a bigger bottle than I was selling—and we didn’t get the revenue from it!” Rosenberg exclaims.

The need for water served as a catalyst that, in turn, became a movement: provide water in a 100 percent recyclable package that was not plastic, an important initiative and the aquarium’s next opportunity to change public perception—and create a market-driven movement.

Every minute, a dump truck-size amount of plastic is tossed into the world’s oceans—that’s 8.8 million tons of plastic every year, according to a study published in the academic journal Science. The wayward plastic can be mistaken for food by sea turtles and birds, while entangling fish, seals, and dolphins. It breaks down into micro-particles that absorb toxic materials from the water and find their way into ocean food webs.

“It was definitely a journey finding the beverage companies that would make the change with us,” says Lura Migdal, general manager of culinary services at the aquarium. “Several water providers didn’t want to make the change—and that is fine. Now, we just don’t carry them.”

Migdal recalls trying several solutions, from paper bottles to glass containers, each with little success. Tests showed breakable glass bottles proved too heavy for a mother to lug around in her purse, while the paper bottles (that some guests mistook for milk) had a foil coating on the inside, or a plastic cap on top.

She finally found Open Water (formerly named Green Sheep), a small company producing a 100 percent recyclable aluminum bottle, with a metal screw cap. According to Open Water, aluminum is recycled more often than plastic bottles, glass bottles, and paper cartons. In addition, the aquarium was attracted to aluminum for its ability to be infinitely recycled, without losing quality or volume. Unlike an aluminum soda can, the Open Water bottles are even durable enough to used again and again—with some cans at Migdal’s home in use by her family for more than 18 months.

“It’s amazing that a product can last that long. And that’s what we want—something that can be shared and is reusable,” Migdal says.

Rosenberg says the “silver lining” to the aluminum can relationship is evident in how Open Water started as a small business and grew because of the partnership. Providing influence beyond California’s borders, today the 21 other U.S. aquariums in the Aquarium Conservation Partnership are dropping plastic water bottles in favor of more sustainable options. Open Water has increased its production volume while reducing costs—and found new clients thanks to its aquarium contract.

“They grew their company, we grew our message, and quite frankly, our revenue grew as well,” Rosenberg says, adding that when consumers hear the story centered around sustainable business practices, they are typically OK with spending more.

Taking the “no-plastic pledge” also meant the Monterey Bay Aquarium had to stop offering plastic straws, and even oyster crackers that accompany soup in the dining room, since Migdal says the cracker vendor refused to stop using plastic wrappers.

“For a lot of companies who want to be associated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it’s either step up or step out,” Migdal concludes.

drinkopenwater.com

Content with progress at the new education facility, Rosenberg is again on the move, bound for Pacific Grove where a cluster of buildings house the aquarium’s research, planning, information technology, and marketing departments. The distance between the new educational building and the administration complex is a 15-minute trek, along which waste receptacles are not labeled “trash,” but rather sport signage reading “landfill.” The language is a subtle reminder to the community: focus on the environment.

A Nostalgia for Attractions

Born in Westchester, New York, Rosenberg and his family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, when he was 6 years old. The youngest of three boys, Rosenberg found himself crammed in the middle of the back seat of his father’s Cadillac Seville, straddling the driveshaft hump and balancing his brother’s guitar on his lap while crossing the desert each summer for a family vacation in Southern California. Stops on the annual trip included the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

“I associate vacations with the attractions and this great family time together. That’s where for me, it whetted my appetite for the attractions industry,” he recalls.

Visiting San Diego Zoo’s legendary Chester the Bear and riding “it’s a small world” at Disneyland with his mother, who would make the family ride the attraction twice (“That was her thing,” Rosenberg recalls with a laugh), became an annual pilgrimage that solidified Rosenberg’s enthusiasm for the attractions industry.

“When you have that type of memory, it really makes you want to be part of that magic. You want to be part of connecting these visitors to these animals,” he says.

While studying at the University of Arizona, Rosenberg found a stride that matched his fast-paced lifestyle—and one that fit his nature as a protector. He arranged his class schedule around being a part-time firefighter on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while weekends were reserved for fraternity activities. Still interested in attractions and helping others, he traded riding aboard a firetruck for a lifeguard’s chair in the summer of 1991. Putting his emergency medical training skills to work, Rosenberg started as a lifeguard at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. 

“It was one of the best jobs,” Rosenberg recalls fondly.

Taking part in Disney’s College Program helped Rosenberg secure a professional internship in Walt Disney World’s Casting Center, which handles employment and recruiting. Later, Rosenberg joined Walt Disney World full time, taking part in the Disney Management Development Program, where he assisted in the opening of a new centrally located laundry plant, learned to supervise attractions at Magic Kingdom, and helped open Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. 

The experience he gained at the resort level led to an offer to join Hyatt, prompting Rosenberg to leave Orlando for San Francisco, California, where he developed a reputation for driving change and protecting the brand.

“I spent a lot of time as the ‘fix-it guy,’” he jokes.

Within 11 years, Rosenberg moved seven times—hopping from hotel property to property to safeguard Hyatt’s best interests. From opening new hotels, to retooling dining operations, driving new revenue streams, increasing guest satisfaction, and, in some cases, closing properties, Rosenberg combined the guest service and operations background he honed at Walt Disney World with experience at Hyatt in finance, food and beverage, and executive management. One of his final moves with Hyatt brought him to Monterey Bay, where he fell in love with the coastal landscape.

“Quite frankly, I was done moving around,” he says with a serious overtone. “I fell in love with Monterey, and this became home.”

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Using the foundation of a former sardine cannery, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened its doors in 1984. Today, the facility is known worldwide for research and conservation.

A Stink … for Creating Change

For the past 11 years, Rosenberg has stood for advancement at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as the person in charge of the overall guest experience. Upon arrival, he found a facility poised to evolve, but in need of insight gained from someone with experience in the attractions industry. 

“One of the big benefits I see for IAAPA members such as zoos, aquariums, and museums—we fall into all three categories here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium—is that we can all learn from each other, and we have a great deal to share,” Rosenberg says.

Very quickly, Rosenberg put best practices found at theme parks and resorts into play at the aquarium: he ordered the turnstiles ripped out, the box office-like glass ticket booths removed, and requested that any wayfinding kiosks blocking the spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean disappear. Rosenberg saw each as a barrier that did not promote a positive or welcoming interaction with aquarium staff. 

“For me, it was an exciting concept to see if I could figure out how to implement human touchpoints in the attraction and enjoy all the benefits that come with it,” he says.

Today, the benefits are visible, starting with a warm and fluid arrival experience: greeters stand on the sidewalk to answer questions where imposing gates once stood; a friendly security bag check replaces the former turnstiles.

“We’re hopeful guests are going to get intercepted with a positive interaction long before they get to the ticketing area,” Rosenberg explains.

When the aquarium’s more than 2 million annual guests enter the ticketing concourse today, they’ll find no counter. Instead, much like an upscale hotel, visitors will discover podiums with staff members who actively leave their ticketing station and invite guests to stroll beside them to the point of sale. Once back at their podium, staff members can sell visitors everything from single-day tickets, to behind the scenes tours, to annual passes.

“It’s not passive,” Rosenberg says of the process. “It’s dynamic. Staff will walk you over and take charge of the experience. It’s also more efficient since the staff and visitor engage in conversation earlier.”

Once inside the welcome hall, visitors first encounter the enormous industrial boilers and machinery used to can sardines in the long-gone era Steinbeck documented in his novels. The now-quiet equipment left over from the Hovden Cannery serves as a reminder of the fishing business along Cannery Row that imploded in the 1950s, following years of overfishing. Nearby, engaging (and well-educated) staff members hold clear tubes full of pulsing jellyfish, in the path of arriving visitors. While it looks like a teachable moment, Rosenberg says it’s much more.

“We’re really trying right off the bat to get guests comfortable with our staff and our 1,000 front-line volunteers,” he says. “We find if guests have these interactions here, then they will probably talk with other staff throughout their visit and see a couple of our great programs—that makes for a better experience.”

Staff members and volunteers have also replaced the once-ubiquitous directional kiosks. Rosenberg had them removed as a way to promote open conversation with staff, who now pass out maps and proactively answer questions. As a bonus, there’s now an uninterrupted view of the Pacific Ocean, pulling guests further into the aquarium. It’s a practice he believes all operators can learn from.

“Like a theme park, we are a free-choice environment. We don’t put you on a path where you enter at point A and leave at point B,” Rosenberg explains. “Instead, we help you navigate through the facility using personal contact.”

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Before the Monterey Bay Aquarium opens each day, Rosenberg leads his “Morning Stand-Up” where he outlines a daily agenda for senior leadership.

A Tone for People

Walking through the aquarium with Rosenberg is similar to observing a shark hunt its prey. Self-described as “competitive by nature,” he continuously scans the horizon for litter, for exhibits that may need attention, and the exact positioning of his team members and volunteers.

While a lost child waits to be reunited with his family, a security officer accompanies the child—not standing next to him but, sitting cross-legged on the tile floor, mirroring the lost child’s own posture. By engaging in a conversation at the same level, the pair become equals, thus adding a sense of calm to the situation. 

“I like that,” Rosenberg says with a grin. He does not stop to assist; rather, he keeps moving, trusting his team has things under control. The same style of leadership is evident when Rosenberg discovers a crew of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) has arrived on the second floor in response to a guest who has become ill. Instead of rushing over to the kneeling EMTs to inquire about the situation, Rosenberg makes eye contact with a staff member who nonverbally nods that the situation is under control. 

He refers to the aquarium’s approach to safety and security as the “park ranger model.”

“I’ve challenged my team to do security well and go to that next level: provide a positive and interpretive guest interaction much like a park ranger would, which in our opinion, provides better security because they engage with the audience,” Rosenberg says. 

For the Monterey Bay Aquarium, that begins with officers who not only can take charge in an emergency, but are also able to answer questions about everything from what sea otters eat to how hammerhead sharks have babies. 

Rosenberg is a leader who empowers his team to make good decisions, and act upon them, without needing approval from above.

His office feels somewhat like the common room found at a university dorm or a dot-com company just north in Silicon Valley, filled with millennials. There’s a lounge area complete with beanbag chairs and a flat-screen television with video games, along with cubicles adorned with personal mementos stacked high above partitions and suspended from the rafters above. Gone are traditional office chairs, replaced at some desks with yoga balls. In the corner, Rosenberg’s office door stays open, and he can be found standing behind his height-adjustable desk (that when elevated, looks more like a kitchen countertop seemingly built for conversation), ready to receive questions and engage in discussion. 

“We’ve created a really organic atmosphere that permeates out to what the visitor ultimately sees,” he says. 

Before the aquarium doors open, Rosenberg or the manager on duty leads what he calls the “Morning Stand-Up” with key players. The seven-day-a-week, stand-up meeting (with a view of the ocean on the same spot where the kiosks used to be positioned) is an opportunity for Rosenberg and his top managers to discuss what’s new, and to offer suggestions.

“Every day is different. The Stand-Up sparks how we’re going to operate that day,” he says.

As the afternoon grows long, his office empties out. Rosenberg places team members back across the street at the aquarium to conduct engaging talks and to thank exiting guests for visiting. It’s here where one final interaction is encouraged that’s genius in its simplicity. Upon departure, guests are asked what sea creature became their favorite during their visit. Associates will then stamp the hands of guests with a picture of their favorite animal. The act costs the aquarium almost nothing and leaves departing visitors with a final positive impression as they shuffle out onto Cannery Row. 

“We find people come here looking for the animals, but they often leave talking about the people,” Rosenberg says proudly. “I totally geek out on that kind of thing.”

“We find people want to be engaged with the aquarium. We find people gravitate toward us as an attraction. They want to support our mission,” Rosenberg says.

Kelp-forest-inspire

The Kelp Forest provides a diver’s-eye view of sardines, leopard sharks, and wolf-eels as they weave through swaying fronds of growing kelp.

A Grating Noise of Progress

The institution envisioned by four Stanford University marine biologists in 1978 and initially funded with a $55 million gift from benefactors David and Lucile Packard (David was a co-founder of Hewlett-Packard), has continually evolved to meet the needs of visitors and has challenged conventional thinking about what an aquarium can be. Today, daughter Julie Packard continues her parents’ legacy, serving as executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium since it opened in 1984.

Main exhibits include the “Kelp Forest,” where at three stories tall, the aquarium features living kelp that can grow six inches a day, and where a diver interacts with visitors through an underwater microphone while feeding fish. The impressive “Open Sea”—holding more than 1 million gallons and large enough to park 44 school buses inside—is home to hammerhead sharks, yellowfin tuna, schooling sardines, and ocean sunfish that can grow as large as a Volkswagen Beetle.

With research now underway on the aquarium’s next signature exhibit, Rosenberg believes future attractions should always serve guests—many in new ways.

“You need to be looking around you. You need to understand your audience, and also understand how audiences are changing,” he says.

Staying relevant means the Monterey Bay Aquarium will actively share research studies completed by its team, while adding new exhibitions and amenities for guests, like a posh lounge for nursing mothers. 

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Rosenberg is protective of family time with son Grant, daughter Gabby, and wife Andrea.

A Poem for Family

Rosenberg seldom pauses in conversation, unless it’s to return a text message from his family. Late on a summer morning, his son Grant reminds Rosenberg not to be late to lunch.

“My dad knows everyone from working at attractions—and through IAAPA and all that,” says 11-year-old Grant Rosenberg confidently with a sly smile, while looking at his father out the corner of his eye for approval.

“We talk about that a lot at home,” the senior Rosenberg chimes in, adding there is value in connections made through IAAPA. “There is a great opportunity in an association like this that we can all come together and have productive dialogue and maintain a family atmosphere.”

It’s lunchtime, and David Rosenberg’s well-mannered son sits beside him at the Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club, looking a little damp. Grant is still clad in a wetsuit, fresh from his morning at sailing camp. Both Grant and David enjoy staying active—from mountain biking on the hills surrounding Monterey—to joining 14-year-old daughter Gabby, a high school honor student and cheerleader, and wife Andrea, a hospital administrator, for an ocean swim or long hike on the weekends. 

The Rosenbergs made the pilgrimage back to Disneyland with David’s mother to experience “it’s a small world” together as a family following her cancer diagnosis.

“That was her favorite ride,” he recalls. “My mother would clap and sing to the soundtrack.”

Rosenberg says it was deeply important to give his children the same memory with their grandmother that he continues to cherish.  

“You remember what it did to you as a child, and you realize that being in this industry is part of a bigger good,” he says.

A Habit to Stay Connected Through IAAPA

As the first IAAPA chairman from the zoo, aquarium, and museum constituencies, Rosenberg is optimistic for the future – and confident he can contribute.

“This really reflects where IAAPA is heading in the next 100 years and what we have grown into,” he says.

Working for the betterment of all is part of Rosenberg’s DNA. While he has attended global IAAPA Expos for many years, he first started volunteering with IAAPA upon joining the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2007. Donating his time and insight as a speaker at educational seminars led to joining the IAAPA Zoo and Aquarium Committee before eventually becoming the chair of the committee. Later, he joined the IAAPA Global Membership Committee and then served as its chair. Rosenberg has also volunteered as an instructor at the IAAPA Institute for Attractions Managers, served as a member of the IAAPA Board of Directors, worked on the association’s new five-year Strategic Plan, and currently sits on the IAAPA Executive and Finance Committee. With a strong history of service and experience, Rosenberg stands ready to be a guardian for all attractions.

Much like Ed “Doc” Ricketts, the main character John Steinbeck wrote about, Rosenberg holds the belief that attractions need to continue looking for ways to be good community stewards.

“Part of an attraction’s relevance is how we can demonstrate sustainability toward the future and the environment that surrounds our attractions and businesses, since they all work together,” he says confidently.

www.montereybayaquarium.org

Follow David Rosenberg, ICAE, on Twitter: @drosenberg_AQ and connect with him on Linkedin.

2019: Funworld’s Year of Sustainability

sustainable (adjective)

sus·tain·able | \ sə-’stā-nə-bəl

definition:

a: using a resource so that it’s not depleted or permanently damaged

b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods

One word: several meanings—each with the goal of protection.

Coinciding with David Rosenberg’s year as IAAPA Chairman in 2019, Funworld will present monthly stories highlighting sustainable processes and programs in use at attractions around the world. From regional amusement parks adding solar arrays to generate electricity (and provide covered guest parking at a premium price), to ending the distribution of plastic drinking straws, to serving ocean-friendly seafood in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, the attractions industry is quickly becoming a global leader in sustainable business practices. 

“On a global level, when you say ‘sustainability’ to me, it’s organizations proving they are true to their mission—and also true to their visitor,” David Rosenberg says with passion. “That means showing visitors that good practices are at work. And quite frankly, that has become our guests’ expectation.”

One example sits prominently in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s gift shop: handbags crafted from used fishing nets in Cambodia. A sign proudly touts how the bags come from recycled materials, use no child labor, and provide jobs for women.

The momentum is a continuation of the sustainability focus of 2018 IAAPA Chairman Andreas Andersen.

“It’s just not environmental—it’s being a good global citizen,” Andersen says. “I know it’s abstract, but it’s seeing cultural changes and shifts in values, and thinking everything through.”

Look for Funworld’s Year of Sustainability stories to begin in the January 2019 issue.