On August 30th, 2021, AttractionPros hosted an interactive podcast with a live audience at the 2021 Florida Attractions Association Annual Conference. While the topics discussed revolved around the lessons learned during the pandemic, the overall tone of the session was incredibly positive, focusing on the silver linings of these incredibly difficult past 18 months. Questions to the audience asked for stories of those silver linings, examples of changes made during the pandemic that are likely to stick around, and also ways in which people grew personally during these challenging times.
Jared Reid of Wild Florida Airboats said that COVID was “the best thing that has ever happened” to the business. When the lockdowns came, Wild Florida was just launching its new safari drive-through attraction. Because of the nature of their attraction, it was able to stay open while other attractions had to remain closed. By focusing more on the local market and less on tourists, attendance soared from 200 visitors per day to over 4000.
Mary Stella of Dolphin Research Center discussed their pivot to connecting with supporters daily over social media platforms. This led to increased engagement and donations from the people they interacted with digitally. They also increased their distance learning curriculum.
Kara Laufer of Naples Botanical Garden emphasized the goal of “being a force for good.” They worked to grow their online presence while finding ways to give back to their community. One way they gave back was by offering free admission to healthcare and frontline workers and their families. They’ve also partnered with food banks to help distribute donations to those in need. During all this, their memberships grew.
Rob Lamke of the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) emphasized that change is not inherently bad. He discussed how sometimes there is a tendency to keep doing things the same way that they have always been done. The pandemic forced MOSI to implement some of the types of things they’d already discussed but never committed to, such as a huge focus on digital content. This led to increased engagement with their partner schools, record attendance to the museum and their summer camps, and a greater focus on engaging with adults.
John Chidester with Fun Spot America looked ahead, keeping everyone on during the challenging times but asking them to try new roles, like landscaping, to help prepare for the eventual reopening. While others were having to lay folks off, Fun Spot was hiring. When the time came to reopen, Fun Spot focused on locals who hadn’t gotten a chance to enjoy all of the parks’ latest additions. Additionally, while others were cancelling their new ride and coaster orders, Fun Spot was able to move up in the line and get new attractions in a more timely, affordable manner, helping them be ready for the recent surges in travel.
Sara Turner with IMAG History & Science Center said that the downtime gave them a chance to reevaluate their mission. They switched up their programming to become more virtual. They also worked with a local news station to create weekly science segments, giving back to their community while also spreading the word about what they do. They also gave back to their community with food drives.
Christina Schwartzman of Sawgrass Recreation Park said that the pandemic gave them a chance to slow down and decide how they wanted their business to look in the future. Instead of continuing to focus on getting as many guests as possible through the doors each day, they decided to switch their focus to VIP, low-volume experiences. This meant there were fewer people coming to their attraction, but they were making more money. Their new focus enhanced the guest experience by allowing visitors to have a quiet, nature-focused visit. Additionally, the supply chain challenges allowed Sawgrass to partner with more small vendors who provided handmade items for their gift shop. Christina also expressed the joy of getting to spend more time with her frontline workers.
Julie Baross of Gatorland also discussed the benefits of switching to digital content to grow their engagement with kids and their families. They also created a character, named Social Distancing Skunk Ape, to remind people to stay six feet apart. Their efforts to reach out and provide free digital entertainment in 2020 have led to record-breaking attendance in 2021.
Dean Mixon of Mixon Fruit Farms discussed the need to reinvent themselves during the pandemic. The downtime gave Dean time to finish filing a patent. Additionally, there was a greater emphasis on weddings on their beautiful farmland. Dean also expressed his gratitude for local visitors coming out to support the farm, and he also talked about how thankful he was for the employees that stayed with them through the most challenging times.
Janet Mixon, also of Mixon Fruit Farms, discussed another aspect of their pivot. A Canadian company reached out to them and asked for assistance making Broghies. This was a new line of business for them, and the popping nature of the machine that makes the Broghies has been a hit with young visitors.
Lisa Sbuttoni with Fort Myers River District Alliance talked about the campaign she created called “Look Up, Fort Myers.” Lisa hired aerobatic pilots to put on an amazing show that could be seen all over Fort Myers for the 4th of July. Along with this, Lisa worked with local news channels to feature 26 local businesses and encourage people to buy from local small businesses. Because of the community coming together during this challenging time, none of the businesses in the downtown district went out of business during the pandemic.
Scott Rose with ZooTampa at Lowry Park discussed how they had to implement changes to their yearly, large-scale Halloween and Christmas events. In the past, these events have been free for zoo members, so 75% of attendees were members. Because controlling attendance would be important for this event and to combat no-shows, a $5 non-refundable reservation fee was required for all attendees, even members. This fee was given back to people that came in the form of Zoo Bucks that could be used on food and merchandise during the event. This caused more people to choose to dine during the event instead of before arriving. Despite having to limit attendance, the huge in-park spending increase actually made the events more profitable while also giving those that attended a better guest experience.
Barry Bass with A Means to a Vend noticed the trend of drive-by parties and gatherings happening during the pandemic. He launched a new product, later named PromoPop, in response. He put popcorn in customizable containers that could be given out as party favors during these drive-by celebrations.
Aimie Johnson with Florida Aquarium talked about how she amped up her collaboration skills during the pandemic. When working with other aquariums who were also creating plans to safely reopen, Aimie freely shared her learnings with others while also asking questions about how the other aquariums were managing guest flow, holding events safely, and keeping employee morale up. She also discussed the value of asking experienced pros to share their thoughts while also gathering the thoughts of newer employees.
Kelly Sheer with Moonlight Promos shared how tragedy helped her make a difficult but positive change in her life. Her doctor of 20 years sadly passed away due to COVID-19. This tragedy caused her to reflect and think about what she wanted her life to look like moving forward. This introspective caused her to end relationships that weren’t providing joy to her life and making a big move to a new part of the country to start anew.
Robin Rosario with Pure Florida talked about how she’d always tried to shoulder everything herself, both at home and at work. However, when she was hospitalized due to COVID-19, she realized that her family and her coworkers were capable of taking care of things when she needed to rest. She realized how blessed she was to be surrounded by folks that supported her, and she was humbled to learn that she no longer had to feel responsible for handling everything on her own.
While Matt and Josh were asked to host the session together, Josh was unable to attend due to an unexpected breakthrough COVID-19 infection. If you are on the fence about getting vaccinated against COVID-19, please note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses that “high vaccination coverage will reduce spread of the virus and help prevent new variants from emerging.”
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