June 27, 2010
Author: Kate Baltzell
Photographer: Laura Aschenbeck
After a brisk stroll through the Cannery Row district in the seaside town of Monterey, we approached the unassuming entrance to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The lobby was crawling with visitors, ranging from young and old to local residents and tourists. Friendly staff welcomed us with opened doors (literally they were holding the doors open!). Jim Covel, Manager of Training and Interpretation focusing on the Guest Experience, was our extremely knowledgeable and forthcoming leader for the afternoon as we explored the Aquarium. He had a way of describing aspects of the Aquarium that made the insight into the guest experience totally relevant to the way we think of the guest experience in the public horticulture world.
The beginnings of the Aquarium started with a vision from David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, who brought a dream to reality with the help of many experts in the field of marine science. The Aquarium is located on the site of a former sardine cannery (how ironic!) and opened in October of 1984. Its popularity has increased with each passing year, with an annual attendance now reaching an astonishing 1.85 million visitors, with most arriving in June, July, and August. The day prior to our visit, the Aquarium had 8,000 visitors. The top three groups to visit the Aquarium are San Franciscans, then southern Californians, and thirdly, East Coasters-like us!
The overarching idea behind the layout and exhibits at the Aquarium is to spotlight what is local, while keeping the space open with as few walls as possible. Jim expressed that all of the habitats and animals we would see represent what is native to the waters of the Monterey Bay. He asked us to pretend we were scuba diving in the area because the Aquarium showcases a snapshot of the regional underwater world. We loved the walls of glass that allowed visitors to see the natural views of the Monterey Bay, and beyond.
The guest experience is of utmost importance at the Aquarium and the formation of the Guest Experience Group helped to build the synergy amongst all employees who come in contact with the guests. The guests experience what Jim called “touch points” when they walk in the door and start to explore. These sensory experiences range from floor level, mobile touch pools to jellies in jars (or acrylic see through tubes) that give the guests an up close encounter with sea life. We all participated in the fins-on components that awaited at each new exhibit.
Another revolutionary idea of the Aquarium is the use of “living labels” where knowledgeable staff serve as information providers throughout the facility, whenever possible. After our experience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we felt we had learned so much that we, too, could become certified “living labels.” The Monterey Bay Aquarium may not have formal gardens or elaborate plant collections, but we soaked up a plethora of ideas for a successful (and fun!) guest experience. Thanks so much to all the staff of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and especially Jim Covel, for such a stimulating underwater encounter!