The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the world’s most highly regarded aquariums, leading the way in terms of its conservation initiatives, innovative design and ground breaking exhibtions. Sited on a former sardine cannery on the Pacific Ocean shoreline in Monterey, California, it was founded in 1984 and now has around 1.8 million annual attendance.
David Rosenberg (left) is Director – Guest Experience at the aquarium. In the run-up to next month’s International Aquarium Congress (IAC) in Cape Town, Charles read spoke with David about sea otters, kelp and managing the guest experience.
Related: Two Oceans Aquarium's Dr. Pat Garratt on the International Aquarium Congress (IAC) 2012 / Interview with Ted A. Beattie, CEO, Shedd Aquarium / Aquariums are good for you! Interview with Dr Dave Gibson, MD, National Marine Aquarium
How did you get into the industry?
I began my career with Walt Disney World where I held various intern and management positions. After Disney, I worked for Hyatt Hotels Corporation as an executive with hotels ranging from Park Hyatt boutique properties to large-scale 1, 300+ room business hotels. About five years ago, I joined to the Monterey Bay Aquarium team. This was shortly after most front-of-the-house departments were combined to form the Guest Experience Division. I was lucky enough to be recruited to be the director of this new group. It was a great marriage – I was given the opportunity to apply my attractions management skills, for-profit hospitality knowledge and other skills toward producing the outstanding visitor experience that we’re known for.
Please tell us about your current role and responsibilities.
As Director of Guest Experience, I oversee the majority of the guest-facing operations and ensure that all of our visitors receive an exceptional, entertaining and educational experience from the time they arrive until after they depart. Some of these areas include public on- and off-microphone programs, theatrical programs, Aquarium Adventures (fee-based programs that include behind-the-scenes tours, surface SCUBA diving and camp-ins), admissions, 800+ volunteer docent program, interpretive training and development, security and emergency preparedness, membership operations, food and beverage, gift and bookstores, and guest experience innovation.
Currently, I chair the Zoo and Aquarium Committee for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). I am also a member of the IAAPA Membership Committee. In Monterey, I sit on the Executive Committee for the Monterey County Hospitality Association – representing the hospitality industry throughout the central coast of California. And I’m part of the academic advisory committee for the school of business at California State University, Monterey Bay.
You have a business background. How has this been of benefit to you at the aquarium?
Typically a non-profit organization operates quite differently than a for-profit. My business background has allowed me to combine the best of both worlds to form an operation that is efficient, energetic and creative. In the business world we always recognized that staff are our biggest asset. At the aquarium, we also concentrate on developing our employees and volunteers so they can perform to their highest potential.
Additionally, hotels are highly competitive. They challenge their managers to stay ahead of the competition while maintaining a high profit margin. While the Monterey Bay Aquarium is non-profit, we know that we can’t become complacent. We need to be constantly innovating new ways of exceeding the visitors’ expectations. As is done in hotels, we stay on top of the latest trends in the attractions industry and try to understand how these concepts can benefit our operation. Last, we have grown our fee-based programs substantially in order to help build participation and revenue. This ultimately provides additional income that supports many of our other mission driven programs.
The aquarium has been described as being “ecologically part of the ocean.” How is this brought about and how does this situation affect the aquarium and its exhibits?
We are one of the few aquariums in the world that pumps in fresh ocean water to support our exhibits. Monterey Bay is a national marine sanctuary and the waters are ideal for supporting a wide variety of sea life. At a rate of nearly 2, 000 gallons per minute, we circulate the water to our exhibits, and the animals and plants thrive. At night, when visitors aren’t looking into our exhibits, we don’t filter the water and many “hitchhikers” find their way in to help populate our exhibits. This is partly why our exhibits look so much like the wild habitats out in the bay.
What unique local environments does the aquarium look to promote/conserve?
We’re able to interpret everything from algae to sea otters. Our mission is to ”Inspire Conservations of the Oceans” and we do this by connecting visitors to the animals and their habitats. We were the first major aquarium to focus on the marine life of a single region – in our case, the central coast of California.
We were the first to create a living kelp forest inside an aquarium. We also have programs to research, track and protect sea otters, great white sharks, tunas, and other animals.
Please tell us about any captive breeding/conservation initiatives.
Our sea otter team is a major player in the efforts to help in the recovery of California’s threatened sea otter population. We do field research, and have developed a surrogate program aimed at helping raise orphaned sea otter pups and ultimately return them to the wild. This program pairs a juvenile sea otter one of our non-releasable exhibit animals, who acts as a surrogate mother. These surrogates help pups learn the skills necessary to survive in the wild. In many cases, the sea otter is released and lives a full, successful life. We have had many successes and often see these otters have their own pups.
What are the demographics of your guests?
Our demographics change based upon the season. We are truly a destination attraction, and our closest major city is an hour away. With this in mind, many of our visitors are here on vacation or visit in order to get away for a day. We find that our visitors come for a variety of reasons including to have fun, learn something new, connect with the ocean, or just have some quality family time. Overall , about half of our visitors come with children, and have are adults travelling without children. In addition, for roughly half of our visitors, the aquarium is their primary reason for visiting Monterey.
“The Jellies Experience” has been a huge success. Why is it proving so popular?
We were the first U.S. aquarium to exhibit jellies (above), going back to 1985. Every time we’ve opened a jellies special exhibition or permanent gallery, it’s been wildly popular. With “The Jellies Experience”, we’re taking a different approach that blends live exhibits with new and engaging interactive elements. It’s immersive, and really resonates with visitors. Jellies are amazing to see and our 1960s “Summer of Love” approach makes this exhibit both fun and educational.
What changes have you brought about since joining 5 years ago?
We have made many changes over the past 5 years. The most obvious is how we combined all of our guest-facing departments into one large group. This melting pot allowed for all of our areas to learn from each others’ successes and build upon them. We even combined all of the office space and mixed up the desks so that staff from each department work alongside their peers. This has created a huge amount of collaboration and energy. It has allowed us to achieve new levels of excellence in just about everything we do – in fact, our audience research shows that we have raised the bar to record levels in most areas each year during the past 5 years.
Probably the biggest benefit of our Guest Experience group is that a visitor receives a consistent level of service no matter where they are in the aquarium. All of our staff, whether they work in admissions, present public programs, are a volunteer docent, or sell in our gift and bookstore receive the same basic levels of training and provide the same high level of service. By having a single training group for our operations, all staff have a consistent level of knowledge about the institution, the animals, and how to interpret them.
Security is a great example of this. Instead of just providing protection for our visitors, our security officers follow a park ranger model. They interact with the visitors by speaking with them at various locations throughout the aquarium. Most of them are Certified Interpretive Guides and can have an in-depth conversation about an exhibit. At the same time, they are very connected with the audience and are able to identify first hand when something is not right – this provides a high level of security and customer service.
Please tell us about a creative method you use to connect with visitors while they are at the aquarium.
We launched a mobile text message service that invites visitors to check out “UFOs” – Unscheduled Feeding Opportunities – throughout the day. These UFOs feature not space aliens but feedings of jellyfish, sharks and bat rays, enrichment sessions for the giant Pacific octopus, and even unusual wildlife sightings off our ocean-view decks. None of these activities are publicized – except via opt-in text message alerts. Any visitor can sign up for the alerts by texting “FEEDING” to a special number when they arrive; the messages end when the aquarium closes for the day. Because no two days are alike at the aquarium, text alerts let us point guests to unique events and experiences happening during their visit. This service has provd to be an experience that exceeds our visitors’ expectations.
The UFO service is just one communication tool that has benefited our visitors. We also produce customized visitor guides each day, because no two days are alike at the aquarium. This allows us to customize the day based upon the newest exciting events that are happening. For example, today’s guide featured the migratory whales that are passing the decks of the aquarium.
Which other aquariums do you admire and why?
Every aquarium that I have visited offers unique experiences and has different components that I admire. In addition to the majority of the major aquariums in the United States, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many institutions in Asia including Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Aquamarine Fukushima (in Fukushima, Japan) is one of our sister aquariums. I had the pleasure of visiting it almost exactly one year before the tsunami devastated Fukushima , and much of Japan. The grounds were beautiful, the fish were vibrant, the experience was truly authentic, and the staff were passionate about their institution. I made many friends during my visit. It was hit hard by the tsunami. Amazingly, only four months after the disaster, the staff re-opened the aquarium and it is back to its original beauty. I was inspired by this aquarium before the disaster, and the story of it re-building itself and the lives of the people and animals associated with it is remarkable.
To recognize the aquarium, The Fukushima Aquarium Catch Flags are flying at the Monterey Bay Aquarium this summer. The flags have traditionally been used by Japanese fisherman to celebrate fish harvests. Now the flags fly for hope and a new beginning for the Fukushima Aquamarine and allow us in Monterey to recognize our sister aquarium through an amazing visual display.
Images (from top)
1.The aquarium's three story Kelp Forest is the centerpiece of the Ocean's Edge galleries.© Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
2.David Rosenberg, Director – Guest Experience
3.Leafy sea dragons are a highlight of “The Secret Lives of Seahorses” at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.© Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
4.Visitors enjoy the newly-remodeled million-gallon Open Sea exhibit, featuring many returning visitor favorites. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
5.Spotted jelly from“The Jellies Experience.” © Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
6.Aquarium exterior. © Monterey Bay Aquarium/Rick Browne
7.A sea otter on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.© Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
7.Aquamarine Fukushima. Iwaki-shi, Fukushima (Photo by Satoru Mishima)