The Alaska SeaLife Center was in dire straits last summer. Without a steady stream of summer visitors, the Seward nonprofit was bringing in a fraction of its normal revenue.
To keep afloat, the center needed to raise $2 million in donations and memberships. In under three months, it brought in twice that and tripled its members.
SeaLife Center President and CEO Tara Riemer said they were floored by the support.
“That was enough to make this coming summer and the fact that we don’t have cruise ships not nearly as scary, because we were able to budget through the year without having to count on there being cruise ships coming," she said. "Which, now, knowing that that’s close to becoming a reality, is very helpful to know.”
Over half of that $4 million came from individual donors. The center is inviting those who donated — and anyone else who wants to come — to its annual Alaska Marine Gala tomorrow.
Like most events of 2020 and 2021, this year’s gala is a virtual version of an event that’s usually held offline.
“Our traditional gala has been held in Anchorage," Riemer said. "And it’s a dinner event, we call it ‘blue tie,’ with a live auction, silent auction, a dinner program, awards. Big night out sort of thing.”
That event is limited to about 700 people and it usually sells out. This year, there’s no cap on who can come. The gala is free and open to the public.
“We’re doing a little bit of a spoof on the traditional gala," Riemer said.
In place of a multi-course meal, each “course” will be a visit to a different animal in the center’s collection. They’ll take viewers around with a camera.
“I know that there will be dinner with Forrest, the Steller sea lion," Riemer said. "And so he will get to eat at the time. And people will be able to learn how training works, first of all, how do we feed our animals, how do we feed our Steller sea lions? But then some of the training. And we’ll get to meet one of our marine mammal trainers and meet Forrest in a bit of a dinner scenario.”
The salad course will be with puffins. The dessert course features an octopus.
It’s all a fundraiser for the SeaLife Center. And though it’s free to attend this year’s event, the center is keeping its fundraising goal the same, at $242,000. They’ll be raising money through a virtual silent auction, which started Wednesday and runs until midday Sunday.
The gala also has corporate sponsors.
“Not as many as we’ve had in the past, because of course there are some companies that are really struggling and we did not have any expectations that, for instance, folks in the tourism industry would be able to support us this year like they generally do," Riemer said.
Since it’s all happening online, she said those who donated to save the center last year can come, no matter where in the world they are.
The SeaLife Center’s 2020 fundraising campaign wasn’t originally intended to last the center through this upcoming season, as well. But that back-up support will be invaluable during a still-uncertain summer.
Most of the center’s expenses are tied to animal care — a need that hasn’t stopped during the pandemic, even with fewer visitors. And it’s unlikely Alaska will receive any big cruise ships this summer.
Still, that’s not as devastating a blow for the SeaLife Center as it might be for other tourist-dependent businesses.
“We do get some people off of cruise ships, but we probably get more people that are just coming and travelling independent in Alaska," Riemer said.
For a while, the center was hosting virtual visits. It’s back to hosting in-person visitors now. Without school field trips, it’s also been able to cut the number of days it’s open during the week.
“But we are seeing about the same normal number of visitors that we would get in the winter, and last weekend, we were almost sold out on Saturday.," Riemer said.
Last weekend was a holiday weekend. That’s also when Seward held its shop local incentive campaign, Shop Seward.
Starting the week of March 7, which is spring break for both the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage school districts, the center will extend its hours and open seven days a week.
“We are waiting to see how visitors come before announcing hours for after spring break," Riemer said. "We’re going to be basically opening the number of hours we need to open to get everyone in.”
Tomorrow’s gala will be streamed through YouTube and Facebook live, from 6 to 7 p.m. You can register for the auction on the SeaLife Center’s website, at alaskasealife.org.