Like many businesses across the state, The Florida Aquarium was on a roll — before COVID-19 slammed the brakes on the economy, especially the tourism sector.
“We had two years of just record attendance and record revenues, and we were growing,” Roger Germann, president and CEO of the nonprofit conservation organization, said, during a Zoom breakfast meeting with the North Tampa Bay Chamber.
In mid-March, though, aquarium operations came to a halt.
Initially, Germann thought the shutdown would be for two weeks, but it soon became apparent it would be longer.
“You’ve got to make tough decisions in tough times, even if they’re uncomfortable decisions,” said Germann, who became the aquarium’s leader in 2017.
He decided to announce that the aquarium would be shuttered until May 10.
“I caught some flak, as a business leader, from a few folks, saying, ‘“We don’t know it will be that long, you’re not providing hope’,” Germann said.
But, he knew that he had the option of reopening within 48 hours, if conditions changed.
He also wanted to come up with a responsible reopening plan, and to give his 270-member staff a sense of stability in the interim.
“It was an investment in my staff. Hey, ‘You’re OK for eight weeks,’” Germann said. “I need to have you looking at the next 24 months, not the next 24 hours.”
“I have to invest in my people. I have to invest in making sure that we are strong enough to reopen, and the survivability of The Florida Aquarium is well beyond the next 24 hours — it’s the next 24 years,” he said.
By giving them a longer runway, the staff could maintain operations, take care of the animals, and figure out how to safely and successfully reopen, he said.
“We worked first with Tampa General Hospital and USF Health,” he said, noting those experts did site visits and helped the aquarium prepare to reopen safely.
The health professionals continue to monitor the situation, at least once a month, he added.
“We never want to let our guard down. Things change regularly, as you know, in science, especially in this particular case,” Germann said.
The shutdown also provided opportunity for introspection: “How do we look at our business model? What are things that we need to change?
“As a business leader, you make your decisions. It’s not always the bottom line that’s the focus. I knew that that money we were going to lose during that time — I call it Monopoly money, it is gone,” Germann said.
“We’ll probably lose close to $10 million in earned revenue by the time the fiscal year ends at the end of this month, but that certain portion is gone,” he said.
Just months before the pandemic, the aquarium launched a $14 million capital campaign.
“We said, ‘We’re making no little plans. We’re going to continue to upgrade the facility. We’re going to continue to make sure that it is a facility that you are proud of,” he said.
The capital campaign calls for investments, to enable the facility — which has been named by USA Today readers as the No. 2 aquarium in North America — to grow and expand.
“These are ideas (in the capital campaign) that are just on hold. They have not gone away by any means. They are just on hold,” Germann said.
Now celebrating its 25th year, the aquarium has been working on ways to strengthen connections within the community, Germann said.
It’s encouraging locals who haven’t been to the facility in downtown Tampa in awhile, to come check it out.
It wants to show off its animals, share the story of its conservation efforts and invite people to enjoy fun experiences there, he said.
While the pandemic has presented challenges, Germann is optimistic about the future and eager for the aquarium to continue pursuing its mission.
“We were the first aquarium in North America to reopen. We reopened on May 10,” he said.
“We were ready to go, and we were ready to contribute — really, truly — back to the mental and emotional health that we needed in this healing process.
“We all need to lift each other, and we’re all in this together,” Germann said.
Published September 09, 2020