Zachary, Renee (personal friend), and I attended the Travel & Adventure Show at the Washington DC Convention Center today, where we checked out both the Busch Gardens Williamsburg/Water Country USA (BGW/WCUSA) booth and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment (SWP&E) display. Regardless of my concerns about the cost of having such a large presence at the show, I think they effectively conveyed their messages.

 

Busch Gardens Williamsburg & Water Country USA

BGW’s booth was prominently located near the entrance of the show floor and was both large and professionally done. They had the pamphlets and giveaways one would expect, but the real draw was Chef Justin’s cooking demonstration.

BGW’s Executive Chef and two of his team members prepared and handed out samples of the Asian Lettuce Wrap with Sweet Chili Sauce. We tried the dish and honestly it was better than when we sampled it at Pass Member Appreciation Day. I asked Chef Justin what was different, and said that it was freshly made and still warm. Unfortunately, because the Food & Wine Festival (F&WF) will be in June, when it is hot, he plans to serve it cold, just as he did that the Pass Member Tasting.

We sampled several test dishes in the Festhaus last September, and while I do not know if all of them made the final menu, Chef Justin did mention a few specifically to us. In addition to the Lettuce Wrap, he mentioned that the Lemongrass Custard that we loved so much had been slightly modified, because of logistical constraints, especially the problems associated with preparing food in a kitchen and then moving it to the distant F&WF stand. The texture will be slightly different, but I hope the flavors are the same. Additionally the Thai Ice Tea we tasted during the pass member event will be available at the Eastern Asia booth.

While we were chatting with Chef Justin, we asked him about the French Quarter menu, since it hasn’t been posted yet. He told us they had just finished testing all of the dishes and the website should be updated soon. In the meantime, here are a few of the items you can expect to see at the new Cajun booth:

  • Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo;
  • A Muffuletta Sandwich;
  • Bananas Foster Cheesecake; and
  • Frozen Hurricanes.

In any case, the booth looked good and the cooking demonstration was clearly drawing a crowd. Chef Justin and his team were friendly and great ambassadors for the park. Honestly, I’d like to see more of them at the various Pass Member events. Overall, between the location and the food, I think BGW did a great job of marketing the park and their Food & Wine Festival.

 

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

In the back corner of the show we found a large SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment booth, dominated by Animal Ambassadors from across the chain. Full disclosure: I love the animals at the parks and am happy to watch them for hours. As much as I loved chatting with Chef Justin, I think I enjoyed talking to the keepers even more. They clearly love their animals, and just as obviously have extensive knowledge and demonstrated qualifications.

There were six animals on display, when we visited: a Black and White Ruffed Lemur from SeaWorld San Diego, two Magellanic Penguins from SeaWorld Orlando, a Peregrine Falcon, a Short-beaked Echidna from Busch Gardens Tampa, and an African Bullfrog from SeaWorld San Antonio. As you must have noticed Busch Gardens Williamsburg is not included on that list. The keepers confirmed for us that SeaWorld has removed all of their Animal Ambassadors from the Williamsburg parks. Personally, I think that is a strange decision, when the chain is combatting Blackfish… but I digress.

We learned a lot about the Animal Ambassadors. As we all know, they are selected for their interest in interacting with people. What I didn’t know is that in many cases they learn to prefer being with us, because they were previously rejected by their own kind and were “adopted” by the keepers. All of the SEAS parks use modern training techniques, based on positive reinforcement, and incorporating daily “enrichment” activities for the animals. For the Ambassadors, interacting with people is stimulating and reinforcing. In other words, not only do they enjoy it, often they seek it out. Although SWP&E did not let people at the Travel & Adventure Show touch the animals, it was clear that all six were comfortable with both the audience and their keepers. The lemur and penguins in particular seemed to be showing off for the crowd.

Once again, I think SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment accomplished their goal with their second booth: I believe they demonstrated that the Blackfish rhetoric is unfair and exaggerated. The crowds were clearly delighted with the animals, and the keepers did a fantastic job of marketing both the parks and their training techniques. I know they plan to do more messaging to counter the false claims made by PETA and their allies, and I hope they continue to be as effective.

 

The Debate

Some people on our Forum—me included—have questioned the wisdom of renting two large booths at a global travel expo, when the chain is making drastic cuts across the board. Long-time employees have been let go; animals have been removed; and other austerity measures have been put in place. As important as expanding their market and combatting Blackfish may be to their bottom-line, is this year the right time to focus on growth?

Having experienced both highly-effective booths, I can honestly say that I don’t know. If this were not an austerity year, I would be congratulating the company without reservation for their participation in the DC Travel & Adventure Show. The District is the obvious place to market a food and wine event: we are foodies with access to a wide variety of international cuisines. Similarly, bringing the Blackfish debate to the political center of the nation is a brilliant way to get their case heard by people who care and have the power to make it easier or harder for them to continue with their conservation mission. All of that said, I hope spending the money on this event didn’t force cuts elsewhere that could have long-term ill-effects. I am not sure I would trade Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s wallaroo for a single cooking demonstration at the Washington Convention Center.

Regardless, I believe we all had an unexpected great time at the show, and I honestly believe SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment had two of the most memorable and entertaining booths there. I believe they achieved their goals, and hope they continue to participate in these sorts of events in the future.