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Science North exploring new ways to generate revenue in the midst of pandemic

CEO Guy Labine believes organization will end 2021 with a small surplus

In the wake of a tumultuous year for the tourism industry, Science North CEO Guy Labine says that one of Greater Sudbury's biggest attractions is on track to regain its footing in 2021.

Entertainment and tourism businesses were some of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in 2020, and Science North was no exception, closing its doors on March 13 last year and remaining closed until July.

"We reopened on July 4 and then were open until December and we've been closed ever since," said Labine. "It's amazing that we've been able to migrate to online. We were able to equip our staff with technology in their homes so they were able to work with teachers and students from their homes."

During the period that Science North was closed however, a number of employees were laid off, the majority of whom were hourly workers. 

Labine confirmed that roughly 150 hourly staff members were laid off and 18 salaried staff members were also laid off in two groups, 10 in March and eight in October. 

"The challenge we had, we go from an organization that's open seven days a week and pretty much 362 days a year, and then we were closed," said Labine.

In addition to the work done at the science centre in Sudbury, Science North felt a crunch due to restrictions on travel.

"We weren't able to travel to install our travelling exhibits internationally," said Labine. "At any given point, we have eight exhibits that we produce. We have a team of seven people that go on the road and do installations; in March when everyone closed, at one point every science centre in North America was closed for a significant period of time and many are still closed now."

In July, Science North was able to bring back almost 100 hourly staff members who had been laid off. The 18 salaried employees that had been laid off were brought back in December.

"We had about 100 hourly staff until we were closed again on Dec. 22, so now we still have about 30 hourly staff who are working and all of our salaried staff are back," said Labine. "We're fully deployed and it sounds a bit bizarre because we don't have visitors coming in person, but we're engaging with audiences virtually." has obtained a copy of an internal memo to Science North staff, and despite widespread layoffs in 2020, the science centre was still able to compensate a number of its workers with incentive-based compensation for the first time since 2018.

"While 2020-21 has seen unprecedented challenges for Science North, the hard work, resiliency and innovation of our workforce has resulted in many new and exciting opportunities," said the memo, dated March 24 and signed by Labine.

"The board supported maintaining the incentive in the budget. Based on our goal and financial performance they agreed with the variable pay component for 2021. This year's incentive was budgeted at $400,000."

The memo goes on to explain the incentive pay structure, outlining that the pay would be issued in the amount of $9.408/$100 of earnings, or 9.408 per cent of 2020 eligible earnings. For example, an individual with a salary of $40,000 would receive an additional $3,763.20 in variable pay.

"This is a considerable amount and our variable pay component is based on our ability to achieve success with our operational goals and our budget," said the memo. "While individual performance is important, working together effectively through collaborations gives us the ability to achieve our strategic priorities."

The incentive approved by the board comes on the heels of three consecutive annual business reports, which are available online, where Science North projected a deficit that has increased yearly since 2017-2018.

The 2017-2018 business plan projected a deficit of around $284,000, the 2018-2019 business plan projected a deficit of around $324,000 and the 2019-20 business plan indicated a deficit projection of around $439,000

Labine wouldn't get too deep into the pay structure or the $400,000 incentive that was approved by the board.

"I'm not going to get into our compensation structure. If you want information on that you can go to the Sunshine List or you can go to our website, our executive compensation plan is there," said Labine. 

"We have a pay structure that has a base salary and has pay-at-risk based on our financial performance and it's something that we've had in place for a long period of time,” Labine said.

"It's not one that is discretionary; it's based on the ability to meet targets for the organization. It's part of our compensation philosophy that when we have significant challenges (and) the pay-at-risk element is challenged, and if we make it prudent like we did this year, there's an opportunity for the entire workforce to share in those successes, but it's based on a plan that has been in place for a number of years that follows a formula but that's obviously confidential to the organization."

Labine said that Science North's financial position is strong and he is projecting a surplus for the end of the year, thanks in part to the organization's ability to adapt and secure new streams of revenue.

"Things like the production and sale of our multimedia shows to other science centres and museums; that supports about 20 full-time jobs in the organization," said Labine. "Our Jane Goodall films support core operations and the ability for us to get support from the Ministry of Education and the ability to secure funding from organizations like the Ministry of Labour and Skills Development."

The Science North CEO stated that many science centres around the world are operating at a fraction of their regular capacity and in April 2020 around 90 per cent of the member organizations of the Association of Science Centres, a global body that has a membership of 670 science centres from 52 countries, were closed entirely.

"I would say that probably 90 per cent of them are still operating at a fraction of what they were because they have a limited window to be able to generate revenues," said Labine. "The fact that we have these major projects that are funded by other science centres and the ability to work on projects for sister and agencies and the funding that we were able to get from the Ministry of Education really supported the organization through these difficult times."

The challenge for Science North now, much like many other businesses being impacted by COVID-19, is waiting for their sector to be able to re-open entirely. Labine is optimistic that Science North will be able to return to its summer programming and will once again be able to run in-person summer camps in 2021.

"We're waiting for when the tourism sector will recover and we think we have an important role to play in that space," said Labine. "We can only do that once it's safe to do so. At the same time we need to react to the interests of our audiences here in Sudbury. 

“We're anticipating the ability to do in-person camps (for July and August) and I think we initially had about 900 spots that we had earmarked in six communities and I think 80 per cent of those spots were taken within a week. There's a pent-up demand, (and) parents are quite interested in getting their kids into these camps."

Science North draws a large portion of their earned income through its summer camps, and the inability to run the camps last summer due to provincial restrictions put a significant strain on the organization.

"We were forecasting significant deficits last summer because we lost most of our earned income; $900,000 from summer camps and almost $2 million from admission revenues is in large part why we had to lay off staff to be financially viable," said Labine. 

"We were able to generate new revenue streams from international sales, from working on specific projects and I anticipate when our year-end audit occurs in May and is presented to the board in June that we'll end the year with a small surplus."