‘They All Masked for You’
Audubon Zoo reopens with limited capacity, reduced staff
Audubon Nature Institute is opening the gates of Audubon Zoo today for the first time since the coronavirus stay-at-home order went into effect in March. Audubon created a phased approach to reopening its facilities, and the zoo is step one of its reopening plan.
“We look forward to reconnecting the community with the animals in our care,” said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman in a statement. “While our doors were closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, Audubon’s dedicated staff continued to provide outstanding care for our animals and parks. Our guests have been dearly missed by the Audubon family and we look forward to welcoming you back.”
Audubon relies on guest admission and concession sales for its operations and the mandatory closure of its facilities has had a drastic impact. Forman said Audubon has lost an estimated 44 percent of this year’s self-generated operating revenue and was transparent that they are in an unstable position to care for their animals and facilities.
According to officials, Audubon Nature Institute welcomes approximately 750,000 visitors over the summer and is estimating nearly an 80 percent decrease this year due to limited capacity, cancelled field trips and decreased tourism visitation. Audubon’s estimated loss of revenue directly generated by visitors to its facilities during March to June is approximately $21 million.
Of those 750,000 guests, tourists comprise approximately 60-70 percent of the visitors to its downtown facilities – the aquarium and the insectarium – and tourists account for 30-40 percent of zoo visitation.
Audubon’s employee count and annual budget made it ineligible for any of the COVID-19 relief programs available to nonprofit zoos and aquariums. Its overhead costs of maintaining care for the animals during closure remained the same while it lost all guest revenue. As a result, Audubon had to lay off and furlough many employees.
Prior to the coronavirus closure, Audubon Nature Institute had 834 full-time, part-time and on-call employees. During the shutdown, 555 employees were laid off or furloughed.
“We hope to bring back staff once we are financially able,” said Rebecca Dietz, Audubon Nature Institute executive vice president of public affairs and general counsel. “Unfortunately, opening will not cover all of Audubon’s operating costs; local attendance will not sustain us in the long run. We are continuing to work with our Louisiana delegation to explore other ways we can receive funding and that’s certainly another way our community can support us right now—by advocating for including zoos and aquariums in any future legislation.”
Audubon created a new welcome video with the charming pun, “We all mask for you” to educate guests about new protocols, but it had to pause a majority of its traditional advertising. Officials said the current strategy is to leverage earned media opportunities and social media promotions, as well as partnerships. It is working closely with New Orleans and Company, the regional destination marketing agency, and the Louisiana Lt. Governor’s office, which works to promote statewide tourism.
“This crisis came at our busiest time of year, and the impact has been significant,” said Forman in a statement. “Securing the resources to continue to care for our animals and reopen our doors as New Orleans families return to normalcy is a priority for Audubon. This first phase of reopening is not the end of our journey, however, and we still have a long road ahead to recovery.”
The zoo will be open Wednesdays through Sundays. Visitation is limited to 25 percent of its capacity and guests need to purchase timed tickets online in advance. Audubon members also need to make reservations online in advance. The aquarium and insectarium will remain closed in this phase.
The public can also support Audubon by making donations to the Audubon Recovery Fund.