10 min read

Exclusive: The Real Story Behind The SeaWorld-Southwest Breakup

This has been a rather rotten summer for SeaWorld, especially today as their stock plummets in reaction to their dismal second quarter report. Negative publicity has continued to plague the park: a 22 percent attendance drop, announced today, sparked a nearly 30 percent collapse of its stock, and some even speculate that the earnings drop is directly linked to the termination of SeaWorld's and Southwest's 25-year partnership. Even as anti-captivity activists cheer the string of bad news, few are aware of the behind-the-scenes but intensive efforts to get Southwest to sever its alliance.

Before a Change.org petition with more than 30,000 signatures demanded that Southwest cut its travel packages and deals with SeaWorld, a San Francisco-based marketing/branding consultant and avid Southwest frequent-flier began contacting airline officials offering reasoned, business-based arguments in favor of the split up. Her name is Kimberly Ventre, sister of former SeaWorld orca trainer Jeff Ventre (who was featured in the film "Blackfish" and the book "Death at SeaWorld") and an ardent captivity opponent herself. Ventre recently spoke with The Dodo about her personal campaign to bring about the high-profile corporate divorce. It took a dose of tough love, Ventre said. "I'm not joking when I say I love Southwest," she said. "They have taken care of me so many times, I've lost count. Their hustle and commitment to customer service is unmatched in the airline industry."

But then came a shocking event that would change Ventre's life and the course of the captivity debate: the orca Tilikum killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at SeaWorld Florida.

"On February 24, 2010, my brother texted me: ‘A whale killed a trainer at SeaWorld," Ventre recalled. She turned on CNN, which was airing a press conference with the Orange County Sheriff's Office. "When the spokesperson stated the trainer slipped and fell, it seemed so incongruent with the earlier text and eyewitness reports, I just felt something was wrong. That was the start of it."

By late 2013, a coalition of whale groups, animal-welfare advocates, ex-trainers, scientists and others came together to oppose captivity and support the message of Blackfish. Ventre proposed a timeline for reaching out to Southwest. "We were targeting mid-to-late January because we knew over the holidays the Southwest team would be focused on their busiest time of year," she said.

Ventre recommended a diplomatic approach: "I thought suggesting an open dialogue before a protest might be more effective and, given they are so good at public relations, I didn't want to put them into a position where they might feel compelled to come to SeaWorld's defense."

The only way the consultant knew how to address the matter was from a marketing and brand management perspective, "because that's the world I know," Ventre added.

In late January, Ventre sent packages to the airline's CEO and Marketing Leadership Team addressing their partnership. This was co-branding that had run its course.

Ventre suggested a meeting between Southwest leadership, journalists, filmmakers, scientists, ex-trainers, orca activists and so on to discuss cetacean captivity. "I also asked if I could set up a screening of the movie ‘Blackfish,'" she said. "The packages all included copies ‘Blackfish,' ‘Death at SeaWorld,' numerous articles and scientific papers."

The executives responded immediately, offering to review the materials. "They wanted to remain transparent and open in their desire to learn and educate themselves," Ventre recalled. "I was quite happy with their response and certainly took them at their word."

For a while, the company's spokesperson answered Ventre's emails regularly, but over time, perhaps because she made the emails public, the communication stopped. That's when Ventre wrote a critical blog, ‘Tainted LUV,' which was viewed thousands of times.

Ventre started the campaign, but knew she couldn't act alone
 "I'm sure what I did was quite tiny compared to what longtime activists have been doing for years," she explained. "I consulted with people who are a lot smarter than me. Courtney Vail at WDC had written some of the information I sent and educated me on some of their airline campaigns. Same with the team at Ocean Preservation Society (makers of ‘The Cove'). They have a vast network of followers.

It was the ex-trainer group Voice of the Orcas and the anti-captivity coalition who "really turned up the heat on social media," Ventre said. "Plus several journalists wrote articles about the Southwest letter and my approach."

Ventre and her colleagues didn't know at the time that other groups were already organizing protests and posting the Change.org petition.

Why did Southwest make the move? "It's my opinion that the SeaWorld partnership became the marketing equivalent of a toxic asset," Ventre said. "The joint statement from Southwest and SeaWorld reads like a celebrity divorce, stating it was a ‘mutual' decision."
 Of course, the estrangement is not absolute. Southwest continues to have a hospitality agreement with SeaWorld, much like Richard Branson's Virgin Holidays. "My prediction is that both Virgin and Southwest will want to be on the right side of history on this issue," Ventre said. "Public opinion is turning rapidly against captivity, sea circuses and swim with dolphin programs."

But what Ventre helped bring about is still cause for celebration, she believes.

"I think anti-captivity activists should be very happy with Southwest. In a relatively short time, they broke off a 25-plus year relationship and decided to eat the cost of repainting three airplanes ... not to mention the revenue from the overall deal."

Ventre hopes activists will reward Southwest with their patronage. "They are listening, learning and engaging with their customers," she said. "They are a world-class brand."

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