Originally Published Aug 28, 2023

This interview first appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of CORAL Magazine

Matt Pedersen interviews MASNA President Travis Knorr

The Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA) has led the organized saltwater hobby for over 30 years. But after weathering the Covid Pandemic, and struggling to find its footing in the aftermath, the organization wound up canceling this year’s Marine Aquarium Conference of North America (MACNA) which was planned for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hobbyists and the aquarium industry alike have wondered whether the organization’s tenure had come to an end. The current leadership says no, and we’re all about to learn what’s next for MASNA. Matt Pedersen discussed the future of MASNA and MACNA with its President, Travis Knorr.

CORAL: What is going on right now with MASNA?

Travis Knorr: So, we’ve been very, very busy. MASNA and MACNA have had some struggles because hosting conferences during the coronavirus pandemic deeply impacted the turnout and success of those conferences, and left the organization in a very tough predicament. We’ve negotiated and worked on alleviating some of the financial stresses imposed by those conferences, and we’re back in good standing to continue on a path to plan a successful MACNA 2024.

There’s a team of new and former board members that have made this happen. They’ve been working at this nonstop since we left Milwaukee [MACNA 2022]. I know there has been this pseudo-silence from the organization; it doesn’t mean we haven’t been doing anything, it means we’ve been working in the background on bouncing back from the problems caused by the pandemic.

CORAL: How bad did things get for MASNA?

TK: It got to the point where we were discussing what the future of the organization looked like, and it was difficult to remain optimistic. We had to take a very hard look at the probability of making it through, and we needed to consider being prepared for the worst case. But, none of us felt right letting that sit. So, we put our heads together, considered all of our options, and decided that doing the best we could and working as hard as we could was the only acceptable option. So, we had to defeat the odds, because the rumor mill was stirring and there were a lot of folks that assumed the organization was done.

It is true that we did not meet some of the requirements for the Milwaukee show, coupled with the Pittsburg cancellation, which left us with some obligations. Because of the hard work by our new board, we were able to negotiate through those commitments and settle the charges comfortably. I would like to address the rumors that we are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt; that’s simply not true. Of course, MASNA was in a tight space, but we have successfully moved past that and are planning for the future.

Now we are queued up for a really successful MACNA 2024 in Orlando, and we’re already working on the contracts for 2025 and beyond. We still have a lot more to do to continue to guarantee the success of MACNAs in the future and the organization of MASNA.

CORAL: Fundamentally, have the mission and objectives of MASNA been forced to change?

TK: Without a doubt, we are staying true to the mission statement of the organization, however, we are looking at updating it to reflect the changes that have happened over the last several years. We are making changes in the organization for it to benefit the members in a way that they deserve.

CORAL: Expand on that. Who are the members? What benefits are planned?

TK: There are tons of potential members that don’t realize that there is something for them in this organization. The landscape of membership and society has changed, and we need to change with it, however we can’t stray too far away from our mission statement and how we relate to members, the industry, and trade. It’s not the Marine Aquarium Society [singular] of North America; it’s the Marine Aquarium Societies…

We’re setting up a membership benefits scheme that’s going to encourage those subchapters, those member societies, to stay involved. The MASNA Speaks program is a staple benefit. We’ve all learned how to use Zoom and these virtual platforms so fluidly with our daily lives, so that kind of changes and expands what we can offer to the clubs. It no longer costs so much money to have a guest speaker. We can bring in guest speakers from out of state and out of the country, and we can enhance what we offer to that program.

People are shifting where they get their information from. The social media platforms are receiving the bulk of attention from hobbyists, however MASNA has somewhat lagged in staying up to pace with this transition. And so we’re revamping the newsletter; we’re expanding it, and offering more digital content to folks. We’re hoping to be much more involved with other influencers and their programming. Of course, we already have some folks that occasionally are interviewed or are presenting, but we’re certainly going to be getting more organized and involved with how we do that.

As far as the membership packages and benefits, we’re going to be doing some things that MASNA has never done before. We’re adding a new tier of membership, and this tier is going to include some very nice and valuable gifts and benefits. These will include gift certificates and discounts from some of the big-name vendors, such as the 50%-off 1-year digital-only subscriptions to CORAL and AMAZONAS magazines that you’ve committed to offer. There will also be exclusive privileges within the organization. We have created an elegant plan to try to make everyone feel that they’re getting their money’s worth, and that they can support the organization at a price point that is acceptable.

This might be a good segue…we are considering the organization’s particular non-profit tax status. Right now, we’re limited. MASNA cannot lobby. We’re restricted from having an official opinion on political matters, which has become ever increasingly important with proposed restrictions to trade and the pet industry. I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’re sharing information, but we’re not voicing our own opinion. I feel like the membership needs us to, they are requesting us to, so our goal is to, if possible, alter our non-profit tax status to a non-profit designation that is able to make public statements of our opinion, not just share knowledge, but share the other side of the truth. Of course, there’s certainly a multitude of organizations that would love to see the aquarium trade come to an end. It’s our duty, per our mission statement, to protect that for our members, so this change would really allow us to step up and go to bat for our team.

And I think it’s important for folks to understand that because MASNA is a non-profit, MACNA is a very different conference than all the others. We are the only aquarium show that returns all profits back to the organization to fund scholarships, support education through our various programs, and protect the aquarium community’s ability to keep marine life in their home aquariums.

CORAL: What’s the future of MACNA?

TK: The future of MACNA is going to push some of the boundaries of the conference. More stuff, more activity, more excitement, we’re trying to pack the weekend full. We’ve changed the format. Friday is education day. It is going to be speakers only in three tracks; beginner, intermediate, and advanced. This will feature lectures that are directed to those experience levels. Everyone can benefit from what’s available. Of course you’re not limited to picking a specific track, you can bounce between them.

We’re bringing in a completely new palette of speakers. These folks range from industry professionals to coral restoration nonprofits. There’s nothing wrong with speakers that have traditionally presented at MACNA, however we’ve made a point to not use the word “traditionally” anymore. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we’re trying out some new tires. This is going to be hugely beneficial to our attendees that want to do one thing and not the other. If they want to get an education, come on Friday. We’ll still do group speakers Saturday and Sunday to offer sort of a mix, but we’re really focusing on that educational component as it’s part of our mission statement.

We’re also going to have hands-on activities, whether that be instruction on water testing, test kits, things of that nature, hands-on plumbing stuff…instead of hearing and watching PowerPoints, people can get up out of their seats, they can get their hands wet, they can learn something like advanced techniques on coral fragging while getting a deep understanding of the biology of corals as it relates to farming and restoration.

Specifically for 2024, we’re going to have an expanded show floor. Mote Marine Lab will also be doing some hands-on fragging on the show floor, a chance for every single attendee to get their hands wet, as well as a mermaid photo booth. The Kid’s Cove is coming back in a big way. We’ve earmarked a big chunk of the show floor—I don’t want to understate how important the Kid’s Cove is—because the kiddos need to have a great time as well as their parents; they are the future of the organization. I’m hoping to expand the educational day to include junior workshops where kids can do their own water quality testing, mix some salt, set up a simple tank, and learn some of the very basics of how to care for a tank and live marine animals.

CORAL: Will meet-ups still happen?

TK: Yes, of course, all those social aspects of the event are staying. The reception and banquet are going to stay; they’re key components of the weekend. Some people enjoy them, some not so much, but we’re doing everything we can to make them more exciting. We want people to be entertained at MACNA, rather than just shopping for corals.

CORAL: When and where is MACNA 2024?

TK: Friday, August 30th is the education day. The rest of the conference continues on Saturday, August 31st, and Sunday, September 1st. MACNA Orlando will be held at the Dolphin and Swan Resort in Orlando, FL; the hotel for the show is the Dolphin. We have secured an incredible room rate that has not been this cheap in years. Plus, the room rate extends three days before and after the show, so folks can come in early, hit all the parks, they can come to the conference, they can stay longer and hang out in Orlando. We’ll also have a discounted Disney rate on park admission tickets. All of this is on the ticket sales website (www.MACNA.org).

CORAL: Looking beyond MACNA 2024, what is MASNA planning for the future of this event and other MASNA programs?

TK: It’s hard to make everyone happy when picking a location, and we’re trying to take a lot of that feedback into consideration for MACNA locations in the coming years. Of course, there was a large portion of people who thought Pittsburgh was a strange place for a MACNA, however all the locals were really excited and then disappointed when we had to cancel [since MASNA had not started ticket or booth sales, thankfully there was no need to refund anyone who had planned to attend].

One of the big things we’re paying close attention to is the cost of traveling to the host city. Orlando is affordable, flights are plentiful. Las Vegas is another winner in those terms, but we’re considering some of the older cities as well. Toronto has been discussed, as well as some others in the northwest and just across the border into Canada.

MASNA Award programs will continue uninterrupted, and we look forward to soon revealing who has been selected for recognition in 2023. The Dr. Junda Lin Memorial Fund [For Publishing Open Access Marine Aquarium Research] isn’t going anywhere; it caused a lot of excitement when it was created, but that’s tapered off because it hasn’t seen the promotion it deserves. The last MASNA scholarships were awarded in 2021. That said, the scholarship money is protected in another account, so if our finances ever run over this money is protected. While scholarships weren’t awarded in 2022 and won’t be awarded in 2023, we are planning to return to the MASNA Scholarships program in 2024. Once we have a second to take a breath, we can reinvigorate some of these programs, soliciting funding to keep them strong.

CORAL: So what is the takeaway for everyone reading this in CORAL?

TK: Change is the takeaway. We’re tweaking, we’re changing, we’re reconsidering, and we’re not stuck in a rut. We’re steering the ship in a different direction, one that benefits the members, the community, the industry, in every way that we possibly can.


Learn more about the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America, and become a member at www.MASNA.org


Read the full article HERE.