New Aquarium Gallery Shells Out Winning Formula for Welcoming Guests During COVID-19
BAILEY-MATTHEWS National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida, unveiled its brand-new $6 million aquarium gallery in March featuring 11 aquariums of varying sizes and two 15-foot-long touch pools. Planning for the expansion began in 2016, and the aquarium closed for more than eight months for construction beginning in 2019. The museum’s staff members had no idea they’d need to close again just two weeks after reopening because of COVID-19. Dorrie Hipschman, the attraction’s executive director, tells Funworld how her facility turned a difficult situation into an upbeat success upon reopening in June.
Funworld: What do you believe makes the aquariums unique and compels people to visit?
Dorrie Hipschman: There are more mollusks species (animals that make shells, and includes squid, octopus, and cuttlefish as well) than all the marine mammal and fish species, and yet people know almost nothing about them. The new aquarium gallery allows visitors to meet and experience animals they’ve never seen or heard of and to appreciate the important role these creatures play in a healthy ocean environment. There is no other organization that is solely devoted to this one group of animals.
What was your plan for convincing guests to return to see the new aquarium gallery after the COVID-19 closure?
We’re celebrating our re-reopening! Because most of our visitors are not local, [Bailey-Matthews] is new to them, which makes our marketing easier. Our goal is to have visitors realize our aquarium exhibits and touch tanks are unlike any others in the world.
How is that strategy working, and what have you learned from the experience?
Daily attendance is growing as tourism returns. We’ve learned that our messaging about cleaning throughout the day, and special procedures and precautions, has resonated with visitors. We require all staff and visitors to wear masks, and we’ve had almost no complaints. In fact, we’ve sold a lot of shell-themed masks, so we’re making it part of the “new” fun.
What tips would you pass on to other attraction facilities that might be approaching reopening?
First, ensure that your staff feels safe and that you’re doing everything possible to keep them healthy. This is critical in having them delight in receiving visitors.
Second, promote and don’t apologize for requiring new rules and procedures, like no-cash transactions, one-way touring through the gallery, face masks, etc.
Third, be creative about how you can do old successful programs in new ways—move them outside and/or change how they are run. For example, our shell-crafting area used to involve visitors hunting through shells for the ones they wanted to work with. Now they pick up a small paper bag with all the necessary materials to create a specific shell animal and take it to separate, spaced tables.
Finally, be flexible. Everything is different, and we’ve found that some new ideas forced on us due to circumstances are actually better for visitors than what we’d done previously. Embrace change as you ride the ups and downs.