How Ripley’s turned pandemic challenges into new experiences

Virtual cooking classes, animal feedings and field trips helped the aquarium stay afloat.

By Will Novosedlik

When COVID pulled the plug on Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada back in March 2020, it only took a week for GM Peter Doyle and his team to get it back up and running again. Virtually, that is.

Before the pandemic, the aquarium was always full. It thrived on a combination of walk-ins and a full roster of pre-booked tours and events. In fact, it was so busy that it didn’t have any time to execute on plans for an online virtual experience prior to lockdowns. So how was Ripley’s able to pivot so fast?

“Given the nature of this facility, we had no choice but to remain operational,” says Doyle. “We know a lot of teachers because they come here every year [for school tours], so we started contacting them to suggest that we could maybe do the same educational programs online if they were able to accommodate it at their end. We were able to use the existing program content and presenters… It worked really well and has been going strong ever since.”

Over the last two years, Ripley’s Education Team has hosted 1,400 virtual field trips and virtual tours, inviting more than 80,000 people from around the world — including Belgium, Bermuda, France, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan — inside the aquarium from the comfort of their own homes or classrooms. The aquarium also presented tours in Mandarin, allowing for groups from China to visit virtually as well. While considered a success, the venue has only been running at about 30% of its pre-pandemic volume.

Aside from virtual school visits, the organization was able to continue Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada’s events online, including STEM lessons and animal feedings, where visitors could watch divers feeding the animals just as they would in person.

It also held virtual mixology classes in partnership with Reid’s Distillery. Attendees to the sessions, called “Fin and Tonics,” are sent a mixology package with the ingredients for different gin cocktails and are then able to watch as an instructor shows them how to mix them, with the aquarium in the background.

There are also virtual cooking classes. “Cooking for Conservation” features sustainably caught fish and a panel discussion with Aquarium partner Ocean Wise Seafood. (We’re told the aquarium dwellers are not at all disturbed by the fact that their aquatic cousins are on the menu.)

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The aquarium has typically relied on a mix of radio, print, OOH and social to market its events, but Doyle says the latter has been the most effective channel for Ripley’s. “For example,” he explains, “we’ve always had a Valentine’s Dinner, and we used to have Jazz Fridays every two weeks. We would post those upcoming events on Facebook and Instagram, and they would sell out before we had a chance to get the message into print or OOH.”

Like other businesses affected by capacity limits and the whack-a-mole-style of opening, closing and re-opening over the last two years, its transition to full capacity will be gradual. Ripley’s will begin at 50% and increase over time, depending on the ever-changing pandemic landscape.

But Doyle says the virtual program has been going so well that Ripley’s intends to continue it in parallel with regular in-person attendance once the venue is fully open again after March 1. “We’ve long had a mandate to find ways to bring the aquarium experience to those who are unable to be here in person,” adds Doyle. “Now we’re fulfilling it.”