SeaWorld Tries, and Fails, to Improve Their Image
Just another day at the office?
SeaWorld is desperate. Last week, the park reported dismal 3rd quarter earnings. Orlando’s WESH 2 put things into perspective:
While SeaWorlds’ dismal earnings reports may be the result of a combination of factors, a look at the performance of SeaWorld Shares since “Blackfish” was released is revealing.
When “BlackFish” was released in July 2013, the share price was around $38, but a decline begin and in August 2014, after a discouraging second quarter earnings report, the stock dropped to $27. As of Wednesday, it was down to $16, which is a 43 percent decline.
Financial analysts agree. SeaWorld Flops It’s Most Important Quarter of the Year… the headline says it all.
The first performance indicator which is suffering is park traffic. Attendance in the summer quarter fell from 8.9 million last year to 8.4 million this year, a 5.6% drop. The third quarter of the year is SeaWorld’s most profitable season, but it’s impossible to make money if guests aren’t spinning the turnstiles.
The next place to look is revenue. The 5.6% drop in park attendance carried over to an 8% decline in total sales. That’s a pretty bad sign. Not only are fewer people showing up to SeaWorld, they’re also spending less money.
SeaWorld is trying desperately the improve their image. However they continue to miss the boat.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Atchison told analysts last week that SeaWorld has hired new people with expertise in public affairs, along with outside advisers “to help us navigate some of this.” SeaWorld plans to spend an additional $10 million on marketing next year. SeaWorld points out it is also embarking on a “major multimillion-dollar partnership focused on protecting the ocean” but is not yet providing details. Earlier this year the park committed $10 million for killer-whale research at the same time it announced plans to nearly double habitat for its orcas (although specific plans have not been revealed).
Public affairs experts are not every going to be able to change the fact that SeaWorld has NO PLANS to stop breeding their killer whales in captivity, retire their collection or phase out their shows. In fact, according to Businessweek today…
For Atchison, there’s no tension between his responsibility to shareholders and the welfare of SeaWorld’s animals. “Our killer whales, our killer whale program, and all of our animals are emblematic of the whole brand. I have to protect our brand. I have to grow our brand. How we care for those animals may make me feel good morally, but that is also my fiduciary responsibility.”
Atchison says SeaWorld will continue with its killer whale shows and its captive killer whale breeding program, though it’s promised larger habitats and better safeguards for trainers. The Blue World Project, a 1.5-acre, 50-foot-deep killer whale habitat to be built in San Diego, will cost about $300 million. Atchison insists that whales at SeaWorld enjoy “great lives, full lives. I think they have enriching and socially well-adjusted lives, but you do not know what animals are thinking or feeling. You cannot know. What’s interesting to me is that so much of those who criticize us are basing that on their own opinions.”
But the story gets even more disturbing. Writer Karl Taro Greenfeld shares his story of grabbing a cup of coffee with Fred Jacobs, vice president of communications, at a town hall meeting in September. As Greenfeld adds milk to his coffee, Jacobs shares “I once had killer whale milk. I’ll starve to death before I have that again. It tastes like fish. It’s got like 15 times more fat than cow milk.” SeaWorld’s domestic breeding program, in addition to frequent testing of pH levels to see when female whales are ovulating, also stores plenty of killer whale milk in case a mother rejects her calf. Apparently, the staff used to taste the milk, and nobody gave much thought to that.
SeaWorld execs drinking killer whale milk and veterinarians collecting semen is not the way to win over the public. If they truly want to revive their image they need to take a close look at why people are not visiting the park.
Yes, SeaWorld does great work in their rescue and rehabilitation program. Turtle Trek is the most educational and informative exhibit in their Orlando park. Sadly, it is also the smallest exhibit and it is tucked in the far back corner away from traffic. Turtle Trek houses manatees and sea turtles who are either in rehabilitation and awaiting release or deemed unfit for release. These animals are not performing shows and are not bred in captivity. To truly reinvent themselves, these local animals’ stories should be brought to the forefront. Manatees and sea turtles suffer greatly due to boat strikes, fishing line, crab traps, cold stress, etc. Engaging the public on these issues would be meaningful, tangible education.
In the meantime, SeaWorld needs to wake up the fact that the PUBLIC, not just animal activists, are over watching killer whales doing tricks for food. It is a tired, old way of thinking that does not give a true perspective of who killer whales are or any real challenges they face. If the park was providing accurate education about killer whales, it would be obvious that animals who travel in family pods, hundreds of miles per day, with incredible intelligence do not cope well with captivity. Instead, lets concentrate on the face that the Southern Resident population is dwindling due to lack of chinook salmon, boat traffic, and simply still trying to recover from the captures of decades ago.
There is a simple, quick fix to the problem. Stop breeding, stop shows, and retire your collection. The decision to do the right thing would not take $10 million in marketing or PR to improve their image, money which would be better spent on building sea pens to retire their whales. Only then will everyone be comfortable visiting the park again…and SeaWorld will be the hero.