Maritime on the Mississippi
The aquarium is located on the bank of the Mississippi River at the base of Canal Street on the fringe of the fabled French Quarter. Less than a half-mile walk away is Harrah’s Casino, the House of Blues, a shopping mall, convention center and numerous restaurants and hotels, not to mention there is just about always an outdoor festival taking place at nearby Spanish Plaza.
So, to say it’s located in a high-traffic area would be an understatement. The aquarium draws nearly 800,000 visitors annually.
Inside the two-story facility, the surroundings are just as splendid as outside. There are sizable exhibits dedicated to marine life from the Gulf of Mexico — sharks included — jellyfish, penguins, the Great Maya Reef, the Amazon Rainforest, parakeets, seahorses, frogs, sea otters and a hands-on touch pool with stingrays. (Yes, they enjoy being petted.)
In addition to species from around the world, Audubon Aquarium also dedicates a large area of the second floor to local marine life, with the Geaux Fish exhibit and Mississippi River Gallery. The building also houses a theater featuring the latest and greatest in high-definition projection equipment.
Oh, and there is plenty of shopping in the way of more than 4,000 square feet of retail space spread out among three gift shops. The primary gift shop — the 2,500-square-foot Ocean Treasures — is located near the entrance and exit area. There is a 1,200-square-foot retail area outside the theater and the 400-square-foot Treasure Cove store on the second floor.
Visitors will find a wide selection of apparel — particularly T-shirts — wearable accessories, plush, toys, snacks and souvenirs, as well as plenty of books, whether about sea life or New Orleans history, culture or cookbooks. Proceeds go to the general operating fund.
Debra McGuire is vice president of merchandise for Audubon Nature Institute. A 26-year veteran of the institute, McGuire’s job is to oversee retail operations well beyond just the aquarium. ANI also operates a large zoo several miles away and the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, which is a short walk from the aquarium.
How many products are offered at the aquarium stores?
McGuire: Too many to count, but we pride ourselves on having a wide array of products to make sure we hit on all of the different type visitors we have — aquarium lovers, New Orleans visitors, locals, school groups from regional areas and convention attendees.
Given that New Orleans is a hot tourist spot year-round, does the aquarium experience any peak seasons?
McGuire: Yes, March is when it really kicks up here — school groups, spring-breakers — and nice weather brings the locals out as well.
What are your top-selling categories?
Toys, souvenirs, souvenir apparel and jewelry.
About how much of your sales come from customized or name-dropped merchandise?
Souvenir and souvenir apparel make up about 30 percent of our sales.
You have a great selection of New Orleans-themed reading material. Where do you find it all?
We do have a local supplier and being that’s New Orleans, and the large publishers have books for us as well. We are approached often from authors and I my best to work with them on carrying their books, and sometimes book signings are set up.
What are some of the sales trends you’ve experienced in recent years.
We have seen a decrease in apparel for both kids and adults and an increase in souvenirs and toys.
How many staff members make up the gift shop team?
Director Diana Clark oversees operations. She has a manager at the zoo and a manager and assistant at the Aquarium, which includes the Insectarium. Plus six supervisors, two inventory control specialists, two warehouse supervisors and anywhere from 30 to 50 part-time employees, depending on the time of the year. That is for the aquarium, zoo and Insectarium.
Is there any sort of special training program for new employees?
We take a lot of pride in hiring the right people and offering training not only in formal setting but ongoing, constant coaching and recognizing our employees helps us reach our goal off 100 percent guest satisfaction!
How do you stay up on trends?
I feel we stay on trend with information from our vendors and visiting other operations when able.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We love what we do and it shows. People with Audubon don’t leave very often; we are a great big family and you always try to do your best because of the connection that we have all made. We know we are fortunate to work around animals and work for an organization whose mission is “Celebrating the Wonders of Nature.” Our department knows it plays a big part in the visitor experience — we call it “taking home memories.” We also know that every plush animal we sell or T-shirt helps support the mission of Audubon, and that makes coming to work very special!