Shared Community Around Ideals: A Conversation with Kevin Mills, CEO of the South Carolina Aquarium

In 2005, Kevin Mills came from the Saint Louis Zoo to the four-year-old South Carolina Aquarium as CEO. Since that time, the aquarium has grown and so have its programs. The South Carolina Aquarium has become noted as a leader in rescuing and rehabilitating sea turtles and in ocean conservation and education. Mills has also served on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Here is his story.

@ South Carolina Aquarium

Kevin Mills began his professional career working in marketing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He then worked in a marketing and sales capacity for a cruise company. “After a few years of being on the road, I saw an ad in the newspaper for Marketing Director at the Saint Louis Zoo,” Mills remembered. “I wanted to return to a profession that I found personally fulfilling and gave to the community. Everything happened from there.” Mills became the first marketing director in Saint Louis Zoo history as the zoo had never had a marketing department before.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The establishment of the marketing department allowed the Saint Louis Zoo to define its brand. “It was an opportunity to create a team, create a brand and drive awareness and attendance to support the mission,” Mills articulated. “Half of our employees said [the reason people visited] was animals while the other half said it was weather because people want to come on great weather days. Through research, we found out [what made people come here] was the opportunity for family members of various ages to enjoy a common experience and the pleasure of ones’ company. The family experience was ultimately what drove them to visit.” Mills’ team responded by creating an annual marketing campaign to establish the zoo as a “family centric attraction” through advertising and growth. “The zoo was going through rapid physical growth during that time,” he remarked.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Through marketing, Mills discovered he was passionate about zoos and aquariums. “I fell in love with the profession in a way I didn’t expect,” he stated. “I knew zoos and aquariums were fun places for families to share experiences but I had no idea of the depth of the education and conservation mission in which zoos and aquariums operate. That’s the marketing challenge of today and the future- to get the public to understand that deeper purpose.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 2005, Mills moved to the South Carolina Aquarium as President and CEO after being recruited. “It was a very difficult decision to leave the Saint Louis Zoo as it is phenomenal,” he recalled. “However, I had the opportunity to expand my leadership skills and move from VP of Marketing and External Affairs to CEO.” At the time, the aquarium was only five years old and had not yet achieved financial stability. “It was a wonderful facility with a passionate and talented team and amazing experiences to offer but it had struggled out of the gate financially to meet its attendance projections,” Mills explained. “The projections were overly optimistic and not in line with the reality of a market the size of Charleston.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

Mills began to carve the way for a more sustainable business model and stronger brand for the South Carolina Aquarium. “We had to build our board and attract board members who understood the value of the aquarium’s mission and saw the opportunity for it to become a vital community asset,” he explained. “We also had to build the brand more efficiently around the full breadth of our mission and show we were more than an attraction.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

“We recognized, as a mid-sized facility, we’re not the largest or smallest aquarium,” Mills continued. “As a mid-sized aquarium, we could take natural advantage of our size by emphasizing the interactive educational opportunities with our team through what our education director calls speed bumps. That’s things like team members standing with contact animals the public can touch and experience and using technology as an interactive layer in previously dead zones.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

The South Carolina Aquarium began to “emphasize and focus” on some of its core conservation programs, particularly rehabilitating sea turtles. “We found sea turtles are very charismatic ambassadors for ocean life and we were quietly rescuing and rehabilitating them in our basement,” Mills remarked. “We formalized that program and hired full-time staff to operate it.” The aquarium also began to show the public its work with sea turtles. “We began to conduct behind the scenes tours and staged public releases of rehabilitated sea turtles on our beaches,” he said. “The investment has now come to full fruition with the opening of the Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery Center, our fully operating sea turtle rescue center in the public eye.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

@ South Carolina Aquarium

To Mills, exemplary guest service is vital to having a great aquarium. “We invest in customer service training,” he elaborated. “We used to use external consultants but now we have a highly professional internal team leading that training. We have seen an elevation year over year in our visitor satisfaction scores. That is directly correlated with the amount of staff presence we commit.”

One of the biggest changes over Mills’ tenure has been the growth of its conservation work. The South Carolina Aquarium created a formal conservation department and hired its first director of conservation. “We’ve expanded the subject matter we engage in, especially when there is local relevance to our community and state,” Mills said. “We’re leading the community to understanding the impact of rising sea levels. We’re promoting the notion of resilience through adaptation to the risks of rising sea levels. We’ve done that by engaging the public in a series of conversations on this phenomenon, what fears and concerns they have and how to respond to those risks.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

To keep the South Carolina Aquarium as modern as possible, the team has refreshed several exhibits. “The most recent new experience before the sea turtle center was the addition to our outdoor terrace of a large contact tank we call The Shallows,” Mills commented. “Guests interact with stingrays through touch and feeding. [That exhibit] scores very highly in our guest satisfaction surveys. We’ve also just opened phase I of a children’s play area called Kid’s Coast. It’s geared for families with toddlers and gives them an opportunity to play while the parents rest. It also gives the opportunity for structured storytelling and programs.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

@ South Carolina Aquarium

The South Carolina Aquarium has made education a top priority. In particular, it has focused on school visits. “We’ve been providing free standard based science education for kids around the state,” Mills articulated. “The curriculum begins in their own classrooms and we provide training for their teachers so when they visit us and spend time with our educators, they are prepared for the teaching under our roof. We have post visit curriculums and evaluations back at their own zoos. We’ve expanded our ability to serve schools in need through our outreach program and distance learning.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

The South Carolina Aquarium is determined to be a leader in educating the local community about environmental issues. “We’re a place that can help demystify science and make it accessible and understandable across all ages,” Mills remarked. “That’s critically important in a time where science has come under attack. We staged a day-long symposium called Breaking Down Plastic and brought in experts around the world to educate adults about the perils of plastic in our environment,” Mills said.

@ South Carolina Aquarium

@ South Carolina Aquarium

“We have a very emotional product if you will,” Mills reflected, “We’re fortunate to live in a place where people care greatly about the natural environment. We try to build on that by connecting people with the successes both here at the aquarium and throughout our community that have helped conserve the natural environment and save species.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

As mentioned before, the South Carolina Aquarium is an authority in providing care for rescued sea turtles. “We have the opportunity to not only rehabilitate the turtles but also study them and understand what’s affecting them in the wild,” Mills explained. “These are creatures often only seen fleetingly on beaches and we get to see them up close. We’ve added an exercise tank for enrichment, something not seen before in another rehab facility. We have an infinity pool where the sea turtles can get back their muscle tone. We’re giving them the best fighting chance at survival.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

@ South Carolina Aquarium

For three years, Mills served on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), letting him have a voice in policy for the entire organization. “It was a very rewarding and gratifying experience to not only be at the heart of conversations that help shape the future of our profession but also learn from so many talented professionals,” he recalled. This year, the South Carolina Aquarium will be engaging in a community wide strategic planning process. “I think the task ahead of us is to make sure we’re providing relevant information and content that can help our public understand the value of the natural world and how to protect it,” Mills noted.

@ South Carolina Aquarium

@ South Carolina Aquarium

“I think the aquariums that will be successful in the future will be those that offer people a place of shared community around shared ideals,” Kevin Mills concluded. “That includes conservation, education and even aspects of socialization, spirituality and entertainment. I’m most proud of how our team has really pushed the bar in providing quality animal care and sharing that care with the public in a way that inspires future care of those species.”

@ South Carolina Aquarium

#SouthCarolinaAquarium #SaintLouisZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti