Like much of the world, when George Jacob sized up the shutdown of travel in March 2020 due to fast-rising COVID-19 cases, he hoped for the best.
“We thought it would be a matter of a few weeks, but then we saw we were in for a long haul,” says Jacob, president and CEO of BayEcotarium, a watershed conservation group with seven branches based in San Francisco. The branch most active in the tourism community is the Aquarium of the Bay (California’s only Smithsonian Affiliated aquarium), located at Pier 39.
When the depth and length of the pandemic became apparent, Jacob and Paul Nakamoto, the organization’s vice president (and past chair of the NTA board of directors) understood that their aquarium would welcome very few tourists—and no school groups—for the foreseeable future.
“With the chokehold on revenue, we faced a bit of a panic,” Jacob says. “Unlike a larger institution, we didn’t have an endowment to help us meet costs, so we rolled out massive furloughs. It was one of the toughest days in the 24 years of the aquarium.”
Jacob says job cuts couldn’t go too deep, though. “Our animals need specialized care and a constant supply of specific food. We retained our core team and assured that animal care was a top priority.”
Jacob and his team also worked on raising cash and further lowering expenses. They arranged rent deferments and restructured debt, and Jacob conducted a fundraising blitz that produced a million dollars in less than a month. And after securing funds through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the remaining staff got creative.
“We designed some masks that we sold online, and that was part of our campaign to support the aquarium,” Jacob says. “We had masks with fabulous designs of sea lions, river otters, jellyfish, and more.”
Even with donations, PPP funds, and money from mask sales, the aquarium needed more revenue to outlast the seemingly interminable shutdown, so the organization summoned its most valuable resource: George Jacob. A globally renowned museologist, Jacob has served as the founding director of four museums and has completed more than 100 diverse museum project assignments. To help his own organization, Jacob made his expertise available to the rest of the world.
“We were invited to be the functional designers for the National Aquarium of Norway, the Bergen Aquarium,” Jacob says. “In record time we generated a plan that is creative and comprehensive. It’s a spectacular project.”
On the heels of that project, Jacob was retained to design a national oceanarium for Jamaica. “We worked with international teams on these highly complex projects, which augmented our income, kept the staff intact, and kept our creative juices flowing,” he says. Jacob further used his creativity and wrote a book that helps museums, aquariums, and science centers rethink their business models in the wake of the pandemic. The book, titled Museum Futures: Corona Conundrum, is available here.
Throughout 2020 and into 2021, the aquarium teetered between total closure and 25% capacity, eventually expanding to 50% in April. The losses in revenue might have sunk the relatively small nonprofit, but the staff’s conventional and unconventional efforts injected $3.77 million into the organization.
“And that’s what saved us,” Jacob says.
The aquarium has another ace up its wetsuit sleeve. Utilizing the experience of Nakamoto, a former tour operator, the BayEcotarium launched Eco Expeditions, a series of five-day, science-based journeys that will take cohorts of 16 people to conduct field research, diving, data gathering, and underwater photography in warm waters. The first sold-out trip will be to Hawaii, departing July 17, and it will be filmed by Discovery Channel. Future destinations include Mexico, Costa Rica, and islands in the Caribbean.
“Once you have the model set, you can scale up or down and adapt to local needs,” Nakamoto says. “All expeditions are booked through a tour operator, and we intend to move to become a tour operator.”
With its universal bad timing, the pandemic hit when the Aquarium of the Bay was transitioning into the unique BayEcotarium, literally a living museum, with immersive exhibits on climate, conservation, pollution, solutions, the consequences of inaction, and a call to action. The organization is holding its second Blue Marble Benefit, featuring local and international luminaries, including the former prime minister of Greece, George Papandreou. At the first gala, held in 2018, Dr. Jill Biden, now the First Lady of the United States, was the keynote speaker.
This year’s Blue Marble Benefit—and the soft launch of BayEcotarium’s capital campaign—will be on June 8, World Oceans Day.
Jacob, Nakamoto, and everyone connected to the organization are eager to move forward with their important mission. “We fulfill a critical role in San Francisco,” Jacob says. “Our work gives you a lens to the incredible biodiversity and habitat in the San Francisco Bay.”
For more information, go to bayecotarium.org.