British Columbia

Phones ringing off the hook as kids indoor recreational spaces open up in B.C.

Lower Mainland play spaces are hopeful that an increase in ticket sales, public fundraising campaigns and investments will be enough to recoup pandemic loss.

Kidtropolis in Richmond says families are quickly booking dates

Science World in Vancouver has launched a fundraising campaign to recoup pandemic loss. (Yvette Brend/CBC News Vancouver)

As provincial restrictions continue to loosen and kids are getting vaccinated, indoor facilities for play and education are getting ready to welcome back eager families. 

On June 14, the province announced it would be moving to Stage 2 of its reopening plan which allows indoor gatherings for up to fifty people.

That's when Kidtropolis, an imagination-based play centre in Richmond, started to hear phones ringing off the hook as families called to book parties or celebrate milestone events, said CEO and President Ginny Lam. 

"We definitely feel a buzz in the air," she said. 

Indoor facilities targeting childhood learning are not considered essential businesses like schools or daycare centres and rely nearly entirely on ticket sales. Kidtropolis operators spent much of the last year unsure if it would outlast the pandemic. 

It closed on March 16, 2020, and reopened four months later with precautions. The 18,000-square-foot facility houses pretend grocery stores, salons, tons of costumes and pretend food. All of which are high-touch activities with a heightened risk of carrying germs. 

"At some point our business was at 20 per cent of what our actual revenues were from previous years. So we took a huge hit," said Lam. "We were on a skeletal staff. The ownership team came in and really, it was [time to] roll up your sleeves."

Unlike Kidtropolis which has kept itself afloat with the help of grants, larger operations are asking for help. 

Science World is open to guests and anyone over the age of six must wear a mask. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Fund The Future

This week, Science World announced a $10-million fundraising campaign, Fund The Future. In 2020, Science World lost $13 million as a result of the pandemic.

They are looking to raise $5 million for upgraded infrastructure, new exhibits and updated technology. They are specifically planning to create a nature wall, a dinosaur excavation exhibit and implement immersive technology similar to the Imagine Van Gogh exhibit currently in Vancouver.

The rest of the funding will go to reducing barriers for groups that are less exposed to STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — through targeted and remote programing for women, LGBTQ and Indigenous communities, disabled people, new immigrants and people from lower income backgrounds. 

"We need to make sure that every group has access to this type of learning so that we encourage them at an early age to get excited about science and engineering and math until they go on to be confident learners," said Science World president and CEO Tracy Redies.

Redies hopes these upgrades will be completed within a year. As for the provincial reopening plan, Redies says they are excited to welcome the public back. 

A South African penguin pauses to watch the fish in a exhibit during an exercise walk through the aquarium after it closed to the public in September 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Magnitude of work

The Vancouver Aquarium has been closed to the public since September, after a brief reopening last summer, and is not ready to bring back visitors immediately.

"I can say it's not days and weeks away, it's probably someplace closer to the later part of the summer," said Erich Rose, senior vice-president of zoological advancement at Herschend Enterprises. "That's just because of the sheer magnitude of work that needs to be done," said Rose 

Rose said two thirds of the staff were laid off before Herschend bought the aquarium from the Ocean Wise Conservation Association in April.

The Vancouver Aquarium was sold to the U.S.-based theme park owner Herschend Enterprises in April. Staff expects a reopening in late summer. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We didn't even have a head of human resources…, There was not anybody here for sales and marketing, So, we had to start with that. We're now down to the beginning to recruit for the management team," said Rose. 

While they have some online educational resources, the current focus is on hiring a new team before any community outreach can occur.

"The morale is incredibly high because now we have something to work towards. We have something to look forward to versus it being closed and ambiguous," said Rose.

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