Rob Hicks (below left) is Director of Displays Development at SEA LIFE, Merlin Entertainments. SEA LIFE is Merlin's chain of aquarium attractions and the biggest aquarium brand in the world. Since joining the group over 2 decades ago, Rob has seen the iconic aquarium brand grow to the exent that Merlin now owns and operates over 40 SEA LIFE Centres across the world and is opening new branded aquariums at the rate of two a year.
Charles Read spoke with Rob about SEA LIFE's continued success, future developments and the conservation and campaigning which is at the heart of the business.
You’ve been with Merlin/ SEA LIFE for over twenty years. How has your role changed over time?
I was lucky enough to start working for the group as an aquarist during my university holidays, and I enjoyed it so much that I stayed – which seems to be quite a common story with people working for Merlin – it is a company that gets in your blood! Since then of course the change in my role has been enormous! Not least because then there were just 10 SEA LIFE attractions and now there are more than 40 globally – indeed we are by far the biggest aquarium brand worldwide.
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However, the fundamentals of SEA LIFE have never changed – creating magical displays with outstanding husbandry and amazing animals in order to allow the visitors a snapshot of the world beneath the waves. So while the scale and the cross border challenges may be greater, fundamentally that remains the primary objective of my very talented central Displays and Development marine team – working closely with local aquarists at the individual attractions.
Since starting in Merlin I have moved from being a team member to now being fortunate enough to lead the teams which deliver this experience. My role is to work with the team not only to ensure we deliver the highest quality displays, but also to draw on and integrate the experience and ideas from colleagues across the globe to the benefit of the SEA LIFE brand as a whole. More than that, we are now a key part of a wider organisation which is unique in the world and at the heart of Merlin’s continued growth and success – Merlin Magic Making – which brings together all the creative, project management and site search teams in the company.
How would you describe your current role and what are its biggest challenges?
My job, and indeed the whole SEA LIFE Displays Development Department, is unique. There is no one else in the world doing what we are doing, in the way we are doing it, and on the scale we are doing it. More than that, over the coming months we are looking to build even further on the conservation and campaigning which is at the heart of the SEA LIFE business, and I am very involved in looking at new and exciting projects which we can promote and support.
In short I am the excited Marine Biologist who has been given the opportunity to create inspiration in well over 15 million SEA LIFE visitors every year about the marine environment, and who will hopefully see a significant percentage of these people help us to make positive steps to protect this underwater treasure trove of animals and habitats. As you might expect I feel very privileged to be in this position and see this as a unique opportunity.
Please tell us about the conservation partnerships SEA LIFE has and of notable successes.
Conservation, there is a word that is misunderstood and can therefore become a barrier to many of our visitors. We have therefore very recently relooked at our communication and in future will always talk about our conservation activities under three clear headings – BREED, RESCUE and PROTECT – so visitors are clearer about the nature and positioning of our conservational activities.
The fact is SEA LIFE, more than any other aquarium brand, has built its whole reputation not just on creating exciting and informative marine attractions, but most importantly doing this responsibly and ethically, and giving something back to the marine environment. That means working very closely with a number of expert third party organisations for advice, and developing specific projects which complement our business, like for example the exciting turtle hospital project with Earth Sea and Sky on the Greek island of Zakynthos, as part of their wider project to preserve turtle nesting habitats. Or there are our activities with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) to stop whaling – through for example a petition in all our attractions; hosting a youth conference and many other initiatives. We are also working with them on finding a permanent safe shoreline sanctuary for dolphins which may have been both a long term part of attractions we acquire; or from other facilities
How is Claude the Tasmanian King Crab?
He is very well and a very popular character! Wow what an amazing creature. I am continually reminded at how creative nature can be and for a crab to evolve to this size is astonishing.
What notable captive breeding initiatives is SEA LIFE currently involved in?
Captive breeding is key to learning more about the animals and their requirements not only with us but also in the wild. There is no better way to create interest in our visitors than showing and talking about the intricate breeding behaviours in many of the animals. Take the sea horse for example: it is now accepted widely that this animal is under significant pressure in the wild due to habitat destruction and overfishing for medicine and the trinket trade. These animals are highly adapted to their life style and have a mythical like appearance. Their breeding behaviour is also unique with the male effectively ‘becoming’ pregnant, eventually giving birth to free swimming young identical in all but size to the parents, some species even select partners for life.
SEA LIFE now has one of the most comprehensive seahorse breeding programmes in the world with our primary facility based in our headquarters in Weymouth in the UK, where we have had success with several ‘firsts’, breeding some very rare species like the Indonesian Zebra Snouted Seahorse and the Hedgehog Seahorse
Other captive breeding programmes our teams across the globe are involved in have resulted in over 3500 animals across 45 species being bred in the last 12 months alone. These include;
- Weedy Sea dragons in Australia
- Sharks and rays across the group including Black Tip reef sharks, blue spot rays and the team are leading a breeding program involving the endangered Undulate ray
SEA LIFE / Merlin put its weight behind calls for the Icelandic Government to halt commercial whaling. Have you seen any encouraging signs in this direction and did the campaign have any effect?
I am glad to say that our weight was added to that of WDCS and following the last International Whaling Congress things are changing…….
What inspires me with these sorts of relationships and activities is that we can make a difference. Our global portfolio and 15m + visitors have a very powerful voice potentially, and SEA LIFE has an established global reputation both for the quality of our care and for our pro-active support for marine projects – so when we get behind something we are listened too.
As the world’s number 1 aquarium brand, do you feel part of the role of SEA LIFE is to speak out about sometimes controversial issues?
I think that it is imperative that aquarium companies such as SEA LIFE are prepared to speak out on controversial issues. This is a critical part of the SEA LIFE positioning and as we have grown and now have even greater presence across the globe we also equally have even greater responsibility to protect and make a difference wherever we can. I do think however it is vitally important to not only choose your battles carefully but also not just to criticise but also to show what positive actions related to these controversial issues can effect real change of benefit to all.
There are often very loud and rigid voices on one side of a debate saying why things should be stopped. The fact is however there are no simple solutions to any of these huge issues and without real understanding of the entire argument and the consequences of change for all involved, then it is not possible to come up with an acceptable solution.
It is usually all about compromise and perhaps about change in stages – if views are too rigid on either side the chance of change is very low. Merlin and SEA LIFE are successful not only because we are very pro-active – but also because we understand compromise and debate. We know where compromise is possible in our business and where it is not acceptable…… in short the way to get change or improvement, is often to play the long game……
What can you tell us about new exhibits or developments?
SEA LIFE will continue to open and develop new SEA LIFE centres around the globe, certainly at a rate of up-to 2 a year, but also via acquisition and rebranding of existing aquariums. However the growth of the business is not based on building new SEA LIFE centres or acquisition alone. Continuous investment into the existing SEA LIFE centres, and indeed all our attractions across the portfolio, is a key part of Merlin’s growth strategy.
Each of our SEA LIFE sites receives reinvestment money to deliver a new inspirational and educational feature every year. This can take the form of a permanent feature or one of our mobile features which are relocated amongst the SEA LIFE sites on an annual basis. This allows us to increase our husbandry, operational and marketing knowledge very effectively across the group. Currently our mobile features include features on Crustacea (Crabs) Cephalopods (Octopus and Nautilus) and Jellyfish, whilst larger features include Ice Adventure featuring the Gentoo penguins.
What plans do you have for further expansion?
Merlin is a very dynamic company with a clear growth strategy even in these tough economic times. SEA LIFE is one of Merlin’s primary growth brands both through the development of new sites, primarily in the USA and Asia Pacific; and through the targeted acquisition and development of quality aquariums in key locations.
What are the advantages and disadvantages for a commercial aquarium compared to a publicly funded/charitable trust aquarium?
I think that there is a lot talked about this subject, however for profit and not for profit must have the same aims of creating a sustainable operation / business. Ultimately this will allow either to deliver its mission over the long term.
I can obviously only comment in detail in respect of SEA LIFE, and as a commercial company with more than 40 sites we have a huge wealth of different and varied experience and expertise which we can bring to every one of our individual attractions. This experience – marine, operational, creative and marketing is far greater than any publicly funded or charitable aquarium could hope to draw on. We also have the advantages of scale which allows us to develop very sophisticated and extensive breeding and care initiatives to the advantage of both our business and our visitors.
Most importantly however Merlin’s experience has shown time and time again that as a commercial company we have the processes and cost disciplines which allow us to build and operate a very high quality aquarium, with very high standards of husbandry at a lower cost than anyone else – giving us the potential to continually invest and add to the experience year on year
What can non-commercial aquariums learn from SEA LIFE’s success?
Commercial success comes from giving people what they want and where they want it – exceeding their expectations. This starts right at the beginning with choosing the right location, and my property colleagues in Merlin Magic Making employ a very sophisticated site search process. The team are looking at more than 100 potential sites around the globe at any one time and will assess the commercial potential of both the City and specific locations within it against local demographics, other competitors, local leisure habits and trends etc before making a recommendation to the Board to open a new attraction.
Once a site is chosen the experience is developed very clearly with the visitor in mind – from the ease and flow of the journey round the attraction, to the creatures we include, the information and interactivity we provide, and the training of the staff. Then, every week, in every location, we review customer feedback on enjoyment, value for money and many other issues and make sure that we are always meeting their expectations… More than that, we produce all this at a cost which makes the site commercially viable without compromising quality – How? By concentrating only on the things that really matter. In short it’s not about the amount you spend, it is about how you spend it!
What are the challenges in bringing an aquarium in line with the SEA LIFE brand both in terms of culture and operations?
The speed of Merlin’s expansion, even in these tough economic times is of course a measure of the fact that we have got it right with our brands, particularly SEA LIFE which is our most popular and ‘chainable’ attraction. Of course it does bring some challenges, particularly when we move into new markets, but this is outweighed by many more opportunities, not least bringing new colleagues and expertise into the business all of whom play an important role in helping to continue to develop the SEA LIFE experience. In fact where there are cultural differences we are always looking to maximise the opportunity this gives us to learn and improve the group as a whole.
Merlin has high standards of operation with regards to staff development, animal husbandry and visitor experience, so when we are looking to acquire or open a new attraction we are also of course looking to bring people into the Merlin family who share those values, regardless of location or culture. That is because while centrally at Merlin we bring a clearer focus on both animal husbandry and staff training, and some added ‘magic’ to the mix, in the end it is the local team who have to deliver outstanding visitor experiences.
How do you change the SEA LIFE customer offering at different sites around the world?
Actually we work hard to ensure the brand essence remains consistent wherever it is located. That said we research our markets carefully to understand any cultural differences and ensure that we reflect these as any new developments are being planned.
That means looking to adapt the experience to reflect the local marine life and geography and of course to take into account cultural differences and needs both for our visitors and in relation to how we train and interact with our local employees. But as I said the essence of the SEA LIFE brand always remains the same – creating memorable experiences that inspire the public around the globe to understand, appreciate, enjoy, and where relevant support, the wonders of the world beneath the sea.
SEA LIFE attractions have been added as second gates or attractions in Merlin operated parks and midway attractions. How do you make the most of this opportunity?
SEA LIFE is a natural extension of our family theme parks appealing to a similar audience and offering an exciting and different element to the Park offer.
We have major second gate SEA LIFE attractions at Gardaland in Italy and at LEGOLAND California. Visitors can buy separate tickets for the Park and SEA LIFE, or joint tickets valid over several days. This is an important part of our resort strategy adding accommodation and second gate ‘midway’ attractions to our theme parks making them even more attractive as short break destinations and encouraging visitors to stay for 2/3 days rather than one.
In other parks like Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures, LEGOLAND Denmark and LEGOLAND Windsor for example – for practical and commercial reasons – we have instead developed SEA LIFE features as an integral part of the overall Park offer. These may include several of the most popular SEA LIFE elements – a touch pool at Alton Towers for example; or are sometimes linked to a unique ride like the Atlantis submarine in Windsor for example which takes visitors on a magical ‘LEGO’ journey through a giant ocean tank. These developments give SEA LIFE as a brand more opportunity to fulfil its conservation agenda under the banner of Breed Rescue Protect.
Are there some fish and aquatic mammals that shouldn't ever be kept in aquaria? What about the Beluga Whales you have in Shanghai or Finless Porpoises in Busan?
We take this issue very seriously and believe that there are instances where some animals should not be kept in captivity. Some creatures simply do not thrive in captivity and therefore should be considered very carefully for inclusion in aquariums at all… Other animals, such as Cetaceans (whales and dolphins), may appear to thrive but we still do not believe should be in captivity. Our belief is that these creatures have very complex requirements that cannot be met in the captive environment of a concrete pool, and are not suitable as display animals for entertainment purposes.
That said, we understand that this is not the view in all cultures, and given Merlin’s fast growth, we have at times acquired businesses which historically have included shows or displays which involve these creatures. This has never been a reason not to take on a good business which reflects many of our values – on the contrary Merlin can through our actions hopefully improve such situations. Our objective therefore, as always, is to work with the local teams and relevant experts to develop plans which we believe are in the best interest of the animals involved.
This may mean no quick or easy solution – there is much evidence to show that one cannot simply return such animals to the wild although where relevant that is always our long term hope. So in the short term, we will for example completely cease or review ‘shows’ involving such creatures to ensure that in future any presentations are simply designed to highlight the creatures’ more natural behaviour and instincts, and are educational.
Simultaneously we review the environment and care of the creatures in every location, and where we do not believe this is adequate or appropriate we act decisively. We then continue to look for longer term solutions – the movement of creatures to more suitable locations for example, or most importantly we are working with the WDCS to try to find a suitable coastal location in which we can create a safe sanctuary for such creatures – but unfortunately this is not proving to be an easy task.
Also situations are not always what they seem. In Busan for example the finless porpoises are there for their own protection, as part of a government Rescue Rehabilitation Release program. They have been rescued from accidental capture in fishing nets and taken to the aquarium via government agency. These animals are under immense pressure in the vicinity, with many being killed each day. So the role SEA LIFE plays in Busan’s Rescue Rehabilitation and Release scheme is a vital part of a finding solutions to the wider problem being experienced there.
We are never complacent however and are always mindful of our responsibilities to the welfare of the animals in our care, and constantly monitor our policies.
What do you think are the key issues/challenges facing public aquaria today?
It is clear that many aquariums carry out fantastic and vital research and educational work, but how this is communicated to the visiting public is key. Given most members of the public fundamentally come to aquariums to be entertained. So, while there is a very important place for formal education/academic research in a visit to an aquarium, the more this can be presented as part of the overall environment so the public experience ‘inspired learning’ that actually engages them and creates empathy, the more likely it is to result in a direct change in behaviour to ensure protection of the animals and their habitats in the wild. In short good creative marketing and presentation is important to any aquarium public or commercial – from the first point of contact with the aquarium, eg website, leaflet, blogs to the moment they leave.