Covid-19 – Two Oceans Aquarium

Date: 04/06/2020
By: Renee Leeuwner, Two Oceans Aquarium, South Africa

We live in uncertain times, as governments, organisations, companies, and individuals are trying to get to grips with the current Covid-19 pandemic. When the virus was first reported in China in December of 2019, it translated but to a murmur for those of us in South Africa. By January, the murmur was growing louder and by February, “The Virus” was a hot topic of conversation. We all knew that, sooner or later, it would be detected in South Africa, but no one knew what the response and outcome would be. The months of February, March, and April are international tourist months in Cape Town, and having witnessed the spread of Covid-19 in China in February and their response in tackling the virus, it became clear that South Africans would have to act – the sooner the better. As it turns out, the South African government took very decisive steps, declaring a ’21-day lockdown’ before the country had even registered its first mortalities due to the virus. Flattening the curve has been the main concern, and through doing that, enabling our healthcare system to better cope with the possible influx of patients.

African penguins. Credit: Two Oceans Aquarium

A week before the lockdown was put into place on 26 March, the Two Oceans Aquarium announced that it would close its doors until after the school holidays, which were due to start that week. This would effectively cancel out one of the busiest times of the year for the Aquarium.

Michael Farquhar, CEO of the Aquarium, happened to be the duty manager on the weekend that the South African government made its first decisive announcement, paving the way and giving us all a glimpse into what is to come. “During my duty weekend on 14 and 15 March, by which time China had the virus under control, but western Europe, especially Italy which already had 24,000 confirmed cases, was seeing an exponential increase in the number of new cases, I felt strongly that although South Africa only had 61 confirmed cases, it was time to act. Clearly, our government felt the same and on the evening of Sunday 15 March, President Cyril Ramaphosa, made an unprecedented public announcement during which he declared a State of Disaster.

Given that the Two Oceans Aquarium is a public attraction within the V&A Waterfront, the most visited site on the African continent, which has a good mix of young and old, local and foreign visitors, I felt it imperative for the safety of our staff and visitors alike that we close our doors. This, with some personal relief, we did for the first time in 25 years on Wednesday 18 March. Many other attractions followed suit and within just one week, Cape Town had just about come to a standstill from an attractions perspective. In hindsight, we clearly made the right decision. On Monday 23 March, President Ramaphosa declared a national lockdown which was to begin at midnight on 26 March.”

Michael points out that, although the Aquarium is closed to the public, it needs to continue to function. The collection of animals needs to be taken care of on a daily basis with exhibits having to be cleaned, animals to be fed, life support systems maintained and water quality checked, to name but a few tasks that will always remain part of running the Aquarium successfully. In order for this to be achieved, the Curatorial and Technical teams split into teams, working on a three-day-on and three-day-off basis. “Our biggest concern is the health of these team members because a confirmed case within one of these teams would change things completely. To date, this has not happened and there are an additional four staff members on standby (myself included) should the situation change,” concludes Michael.

A staff member and Yoshi, the loggerhead turtle. Credit: Two Oceans Aquarium

“The Aquarium is in a fortunate position in that we are really able to capitalise on the investments we’ve made in our in-house creative teams. About 10 years ago the Aquarium pivoted to content marketing and using online storytelling as the primary channel to drive awareness, education and engagement with our brand – and about five years ago we brought all of those skills in-house, meaning we have incredible content creators on our team who are witty and creative, who live and breathe the brand, and who make quick content creation possible.”

The Aquarium has built up a highly engaged online audience – predominantly South Africans but also increasingly international people. Through its dedicated website blog and social media content, it is able to entertain and educate fans and followers during the time that it is closed to the public. Ingrid explains that through social media the Aquarium has organic reach and engagement, and is now focusing on maintaining a close connection with friends and supporters by posting regularly during lockdown.

“Our main work at the moment is to be proactive by developing interactive and fun content campaigns, while remaining flexible and tapping into online trends – such as meme-dominating penguins, staff-led video content, and sneak peeks into our behind-the-scenes environment – without appearing to just be “following the pack”, though we do take advantage of what people want to see now. Did we mention penguins? So many penguins! We’re also sensitive to the thin line between providing distraction and taking up inappropriate amounts of “airtime” during what is undeniably an extremely difficult and stressful period for all South Africans. Our earned media and PR are also working overtime to reach audiences that may not be especially active online, explains Ingrid.

As part of Ingrid’s marketing management portfolio, she also oversees the tourism portfolio. Looking forward to the uncertain future, the downturn in international tourism to South Africa will impact the Aquarium’s business significantly for an as-yet unknown period of time. The strategy going forward is therefore to focus on locals. “The Two Oceans Aquarium generally sees about 45% of its visits from outside of South Africa, so we are in for a rough ride come re-opening time. From previous experiences, however, we know that it’s our loyal local market that buoys us up when the in-bound international market struggles. We are already working on the creative aspect of our re-opening campaign and are shifting our media placements to account for this shift in the market. We are making sure that we are ready to launch as soon as it’s appropriate to do so. In that sense, we are being more creative and forward thinking than ever, which can only be a good thing for any creative and marketing team,” concludes Ingrid.

Shark. Credit: Two Oceans Aquarium

The Two Oceans Aquarium sees about 500,000 visitors in a year. Its revenue is primarily driven by these visits, with additional income coming from functions and memberships. During the time of the lockdown, Alichia Nortjé, Guest Experiences Manager of the Aquarium, reflects as follows: “The realities and impact of Covid-19 has changed the rules for all of us, our business like so many others has a ‘new normal’ and we have been forced out of our comfort zones. The Two Oceans Aquarium has not closed its doors in 25 years, and we are used to gearing our operation for the busy times. A worldwide pandemic and full closure of our operation was the furthest risk from my mind.

“I think it’s imperative that we to stay positive. Now is the time to push boundaries and to think of creative ways to navigate uncharted waters. Planning for re-opening is crucial and it’s back to the drawing board to come up with a brand new plan that will not only have to save on expenses, but also stimulate the local market. It will take time for the travel and tourism industry to recover. Financial strain is a reality, and people will have a new sense of awareness and value. From a guest experience point of view, we’ll have to be a better version of our former self so that we continue to build on brand loyalty and help drive our marketing efforts.”

The Two Oceans Aquarium was one of the first attractions to temporarily close its doors in South Africa, during the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of confirmed cases in South Africa is increasing slowly, a possible indication that the decisive measures taken by the government is having a positive effect. Until such time as operations at the Aquarium can resume, non-essential staff will be working from home, while others will be taking this time to upskill themselves through online courses.

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The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is the global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world.

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