Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium: Opening Case Study

The Challenge

Charlotte and the surrounding area within a 4-hour drive time is one with an intimate connection to the ocean and its animal life. A pilgrimage to the seashore is an annual excursion of tens of thousands of local families.


In mid-2013, Merlin Entertainments, the world’s second largest visitor attraction operator whose brands include Legoland, Madame Tussauds, Sea Life, The London Eye and more, announced it would open its 100th attraction—Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium in Concord, NC. The tide was reversed, and the new attraction had to draw people back to Charlotte and establish itself as a place for families to constantly renew their connection with the marine world in their own backyard.

Sea Life tasked Spark to plan, conceptualize and execute public relations, event management and social media around six key milestone events leading up to the Grand Opening. The quick-paced construction schedule proposed a five-month window to complete all events, starting in mid-Sept. and ending in late Feb. at the official Grand Opening. With a focus on garnering media broadcast coverage, the overarching goal was to build general awareness for Sea Life Charlotte-Concord in the community and elevate it as a premier tourist destination in the state.

The Solution

The Spark process started by researching and identifying key target audiences—regional and local media, “mommy bloggers”, key influencers and the broad community within a 2-3 hour drive. Taking it a step further, Spark developed the first ever Sea Life Parent Advisory Council, a carefully selected group of influential local and regional bloggers who became brand ambassadors throughout the pre-opening process. Spark then created the Sea Life PR tool kit, a media kit and supporting documents, press releases and photos that was updated for each event and delivered electronically on a custom 3D shark USB drive.


Merlin came to Spark with an agenda of pre-set milestones—Groundbreaking, Tunnel Arrival, Water Fill, Fish Arrival, Media Preview and Grand Opening—but allowed the local level to make the events into something special, adding unique elements and creative ideas not previously utilized at other sites. One of Spark’s non-traditional elements woven throughout each event was the Sea Mural. With the assistance of a local artist, the 6’ x 9’ mural was executed by children in stages, as a paint-by-number format; at each event, another layer was added to the ocean scene, building the anticipation for the completion and final unveiling at the Grand Opening celebration. Another Spark element at the heart of the PR effort was the Sea Life Kid Reporter. After an audition process, two students were selected to provide “live”, on-site video reports of event happenings in a fun and engaging way. Memorizing Spark-drafted scripts, the Kid Reporters filmed at each of the five milestones. At the end, videos were edited together into one overall brand story—a time-lapse of the construction and pre-opening events.


Additionally, Spark engaged local morning television and radio show personalities who are key influencers and “celebrities” in the community to broadcast live from Sea Life, as well as host a special contest-winner preview event just before Grand Opening. With live tweeting, fun contests and customized hashtags, Spark’s social media efforts added to the buzz at each media milestone.

To kick things off at the first event, the “Wavebreaking”, Spark produced a unique sand shovel media invitation to go out to key media targets. At the event, several local dignitaries outfitted in dive masks and Sea Life hardhats turned the sand with oversized beach shovels in a large sandbox. Continuing to build excitement and anticipation, the Tunnel Arrival event was the first look inside the new aquarium for media and bloggers. Spark utilized blown-up room renderings on easels to give a sneak peek of what was to come. Closely following, for the Water Fill event, Spark secured a local fire department to bring a fire truck to Sea Life to start filling the 117,000-gallon ocean tank. Beforehand, a local FOX TV host donned a wetsuit and climbed into a smaller tank, broadcasting live from inside the water-filled display.


Rolling out the red carpet, Spark created a VIP-style event for the highly-anticipated Fish Arrival, a day when the first sharks and stingrays were delivered to Sea Life. A police-led caravan that also included a NASCAR pace car ended with Sea Life’s mascot Sharky exiting a limo with children from the Young Environmentalist student ambassador panel. Members of the media were able to get an up-close view of the creatures from the ocean catwalk above the tank. For Media Preview and Grand Opening, Spark created and hand-delivered media invitations rolled into large seashells, inviting guests to a “Sea and Be Seen” event. A “blue carpet” event, the Grand Opening featured a bubble theme and several detailed elements that culminated into a festive celebration attended by state dignitaries and Merlin’s Global Head of Marketing. With speakers, music and entertainers, a ribbon-cutting, cake-cutting and toast to Merlin’s 100th, Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium was officially opened.

The Results

Over the course of the five-month campaign, Spark’s outreach resulted in more than 500 media stories placed and over 47 million total impressions in broadcast, print, radio, online and social media channels. All six Charlotte area broadcast stations filmed the Groundbreaking event as well as many other pre-opening milestones. Stories ran in print and online from Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Business Journal to FOX Atlanta and Miami Herald. At Grand Opening, the social media fan base for the Charlotte location was already higher than sites previously open for several years. Based on the amount of press coverage, the launch campaign of Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium was dubbed by Merlin Entertainments as one of the most successful attraction openings to-date. Due to the level and quality of coverage achieved, Merlin adopted the Sea Life Charlotte-Concord opening as “best practice” for all future openings for the brand.


“We appointed Spark to support with the opening of our new SEA LIFE Charlotte-Concord Aquarium. Spark are without doubt one of the best agencies we have had the pleasure of working with, they went above and beyond to deliver fantastic media coverage not only in the number of media hits achieved but also in the quality of the broadcast, print and online coverage. I would highly recommend Spark as an agency.”


-Amanda Starmer – Head of Marketing
Midway New Openings North America
Merlin Entertainments Group



2013 block & grinder, charlotte, nc restaurant opening case study


The Challenge
opening (and sustaining) a restaurant is no easy feat- especially one that generates consistent revenue and tempts the taste buds of the local community. block & grinder’s farm-to-table concept seems ingenious enough for mass admiration by foodies and families alike; however, with three weeks until opening day, SPARK was charged with getting the word out about south charlotte’s newest dining experience.


The Solution
the medium is always the message. SPARK chose to hold a vip event for relevant media- reporters, bloggers, editors and t.v. personalities- to sample and savor block & grinder dishes before the general public. hand delivered on a silver platter, bent forks held the invitation appropriately entitled “meat and greet”.


once at the vip event, b&g divulged a glimpse of their farm-to-table menu in the form of a media kit. the hand-crafted, artisan look of both the invitation and the media materials mimicked the ambiance of the eatery.



The Results
you guessed it- b&g’s delectable dishes and talk-of-the-town event garnered attention from various prominent publications across the greater Charlotte metro area. with an average audience reach of nearly 190,000 each, the Charlotte Observer, Charlotte Magazine, Creative Loafing and Southpark Magazine provided rave reviews of the restaurant and its food. covering a wide demographic including mothers, 20-somethings, and working business men and women, 11 popular foodie blogs including Fervant Foodie, Helen Schwab and Life During the Commercial Break, gave their readers an interesting insight into the ambiance of the restaurant as well as a tasty close up of their orders. block and grinder has experienced an incredible social media boom while also establishing itself as one of the highest ranking restaurants in Charlotte on Yelp with 55 reviews and a 4 star average rating. since its opening, the now-popular spot has continued to receive accolades from the local & regional media, devoted patrons and big names just passing through town. time will ultimately tell the fortuned fate of this south charlotte establishment as they continue to add more “meat” to their story.



















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