Ditching the elephant performances wasn’t enough to save the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
So what will it take to turn around SeaWorld, another animal-based entertainment empire that also has made a sea change regarding its signature animals?
Manatee County-based Feld Entertainment Inc. announced this week that Ringling Bros. will soon close its circus, citing factors including a dramatic drop in ticket sales after the elephants stopped appearing, the company said Saturday. Owner Feld Entertainment also said it struggled with high operating costs, changing public tastes and battles with animal-welfare groups.
Ringling and SeaWorld often draw comparisons with each other. Both are known for entertainment featuring massive, intelligent mammals. And as public attitudes have changed, both companies have increasingly come under fire for using those animals as entertainers.
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If you’re not able to adjust your business, whether you’re in zoos or a circus or SeaWorld or Kmart … you’re not going to survive.
Joe Couceiro, a former SeaWorld chief marketing officer who now runs Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo
SeaWorld did not make executives available for an interview. The company said in an emailed statement that it is “focused on developing new experiences where guests have fun, but are also inspired to learn about wild animals and wild places, and take action to protect them.”
One lesson of Ringling, industry watchers say, is that making big changes under pressure from animal welfare groups can alienate some customers.
“By trying to appease them, it really is a losing strategy,” said Scott Smith, an assistant hospitality professor at the University of South Carolina. “They’re losing their base, the people who really go there for the animals.”
Like the circus, SeaWorld still faces a number of challenges including competition and questions about how to handle its other animal exhibits.
Still, International Theme Park Services president Dennis Speigel said, “I do think it is different. I don’t think it’s the same kind of player.”
Attractions experts said the 145-year-old circus had other challenges, including that it had become dated in a world of high-tech entertainment.
SeaWorld has a wider variety of attractions it can use to lure business.
“The circus was all about animals all along,” said Duncan Dickson, an associate professor at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “Now, can SeaWorld morph from an animal-based park into a thrill ride-based park? It’s to be seen. I think they need to be very cautious as they move along.”
SeaWorld has been building rides such as Mako, the tallest, fastest roller coaster in Orlando. The company is also focusing more on promoting conservation and rescue in its theme parks. The company said that this year it is investing in a diverse lineup of attractions, including rides inspired by animal rescues, virtual reality experiences, and new shows and events “that bring families together for meaningful vacations.”
The circus was all about animals all along. Now, can SeaWorld morph from an animal-based park into a thrill ride-based park? It’s to be seen. I think they need to be very cautious as they move along.
Duncan Dickson, an associate professor at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management
SeaWorld had struggled with declining attendance after the 2013 anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish.” But SeaWorld’s visitor numbers continued declining even after it announced it would no longer breed the orcas that had become so controversial.
More recently, the company has blamed external factors including fewer Brazilian visitors and a downturn in Orlando tourism during much of last year.
Polls have shown that people are increasingly uncomfortable with keeping killer whales in captivity. Half of all Americans say they are against the practice, according to a 2014 poll from the Animal Welfare Institute. That was an 11 percent increase compared with two years earlier.
Businesses have to keep up with changing public tastes and attitudes to stay relevant, said Joe Couceiro, a former SeaWorld chief marketing officer who now runs Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.
50 percentAccording to a 2014 poll from the Animal Welfare Institute, half of Americans are uncomfortable with keeping killer whales in captivity.
“If you’re not able to adjust your business, whether you’re in zoos or a circus or SeaWorld or Kmart … you’re not going to survive,” Couceiro said. “I think that all of us need to use this as just yet another reminder of why it’s so important to continue to progress and evolve our businesses.”
No one expects SeaWorld to shut down anytime soon. But Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said she thinks the company will feel pressure to end other performance such as its Blue Horizons dolphin show.
“It’s a circus show complete with elaborate costumes, acrobatics, live music and all of that,” Rose said. “And it has animals. I think that was the problem with Ringling, of course.”