June 3, 2020

Reopenings and Restarts—What’s Working and What’s Not?

For AZA member organizations, the road back from the current crisis is long and winding. In recent weeks, several facilities within the zoo and aquarium community took the first step down that road by reopening. Most AZA members are still charting their strategies for operating under the current circumstances.

Last week, Zoo Advisors hosted the ninth in our series of weekly webinars for a facilitated discussion on Reopenings and Restarts. During the webinar, panelists from facilities which have reopened shared their experiences, trials, tribulations—what’s worked for them and what hasn’t.

On the same day, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) hosted a similar webinar on reopening, with panelists from five continents.

Key takeaways from both sessions include:

  • Remain flexible and adaptable. We’re all working in uncharted territory—what worked today might not tomorrow. It’s important to be agile and quick to adapt to unplanned contingencies.

  • A surprisingly large proportion of organizations report that they have no firm idea of when they might be able to reopen, but panelists advised them to be ready. The “go ahead” can come at a moment’s notice.

  • The week is the new weekend. While weekend attendance might be down, at least one zoo reported large increases in weekday attendance, perhaps attributable to pent up demand and a lack of other options for leisure time at the moment.

  • Prepare your staff. They’re your front line and can make your guests feel safe and comfortable. One panelist even put her staff through body language training to overcome the challenge of being welcoming while wearing a mask. Furthermore, your staff are human, and they need care just like your animals. One zoo held a staff talent show to boost morale and create a welcome diversion.

  • There’s no time like the present to implement timed ticketing and push your visitors to purchase their tickets online ahead of their visit. Given your need to control capacity, it’s a requirement for all but the smallest facilities.

  • It’s going to take time to get your facility back up to full operating capacity, so take a phased approach to restarting your amenities, experiences, and outlets. Consider implementing to-go food options, which enable you to capture additional revenue while reducing overhead and increasing profit margins.

  • Everyone’s a little on edge right now, so have your cleaning crews present and visible. Put a positive spin on guest behavior training: instead of signs that say “do not touch,” consider “high touch area” to allow visitors the leeway to make their own decisions about how to minimize risk.

  • Even if they can’t be operating at full capacity, open those gift outlets in way that you can. Panelists reported higher than usual retail spending after reopening.

  • Don’t lose track of your conservation mission. Take the opportunity to study animal behavior without the presence of visitors—you might be surprised at what you learn. And don’t forget to promote your wins: a successful conservation story (such as Chester Zoo’s large heath butterfly reintroduction) will receive a warm public welcome.

  • Don’t forget, as a major attraction, you’re a leader in your community. Other smaller organizations look to you as an example of how to weather the storm.

  • Most importantly, after many hectic weeks, keep in mind that your visitors are happier than ever to see you again. Your presence in the community is a welcome respite from their stressful day-to-day.

On Zoo Advisors’ webinar, topics covered included:

Admissions Operations

Although not at the time, the admissions strategies of days past seem simple. We’d line up our guests, sell them tickets, and let them into our zoos and aquariums. Those days, at least for the moment, are gone. The new world means we need to be far more thoughtful about how we admit our visitors. Three out of four of our panelists have adopted timed ticketing paradigms—wherein guests are strongly encouraged (and in some cases required) to purchase their tickets online and ahead of their visit. But Sally Jacobson of Red River Zoo found that timed ticketing isn’t required for her facility, which is smaller and hosts many fewer visitors than our other panelists’.

All four panelists noted the importance of allocating representative percentages of their total reduced site capacity to both members and general admissions visitors, and they also agreed that they have seen the percentage of member visitation increase the longer they have been reopened. They’re also being creative in reducing congregating areas in order to maintain social distance by extending queues and demarcating space with the ground placards that are now so familiar to us all.

Early on in the crisis, there was robust discussion about discounting admissions fees on reopening, but the vast majority of facilities who have reopened are maintaining their pre-COVID fees and have received little (if any) pushback.

On-Site Operations

As we look towards more and more reopenings, we face not just the challenge of getting our guests through the gates, but how to make them feel safe and welcome once they’re inside. Our panelists shared what they’re doing to accomplish this. From a high-level, the visitor experience, at least for the time being, is best described as “stripped down.”  Each has implemented a “one-way” or “tracked” experience. Instead of having free range to roam facilities, visitors follow a pre-set path. In most cases, on site experiences (e.g. keeper chats, ambassador animals, rides, etc.) aren’t operating. Food and retail services are either non-operational or operating at a reduced capacity. One unexpected finding is that visitor retail per caps (per-person spend at retail outlets) is actually increasing. Panelists speculated that after weeks or months cooped up indoors, guests are feeling “spendy.”

Another hot topic was masks. All panelists reported requiring their staff to wear them, but official regulations make it impossible to require the same from their visitors. One panelist reported taking a “fun and friendly” approach to encouraging mask and cleanliness behavior in guests by utilizing cartoon character-adorned signage to suggest participation. Another recalled special training for staff on body language and “whole-face smiling” to overcome the challenge of interacting with guests through masks. Panelists also agreed that they’ve seen a stark decline in total percentage of visitors who are wearing masks over time since reopening.

Odd & Ends

Our last topic-area gave panelists the opportunity to discuss a hodge-podge of other issues and challenges they were facing after their reopenings. On the topic of membership and whether or not they’re making reparations to members for lost time, panelists agreed that they’re handling these requests on a case-by-case basis as opposed to implementing blanket refunds or extensions. They reported generally that their membership constituents are extremely understanding of their challenges and haven’t made a significant fuss.

On the topic of restrooms, all panelists are limiting occupancy and capacity to some extent and implementing robust cleaning protocols. One panelist noted that he implemented a “clean team,” or a group of staff easily identifiable by bright shirts, who were constantly circulating the site and disinfecting high-touch surfaces in order to make guests aware of the effort being made to ensure their safety.

The Chat

Not only did our panelists have valuable insight, but chat participants also shared their own thoughts and recommendations, including:

  • Consider adding “hold harmless” language to all ticket purchase transactions. You’ll want to consult your attorneys with specifics and wording, but minimizing liability for your organization is critical.

  • Develop a short “pre-visit” video that ticket buyers can view on your website before they purchase admissions. The video will prepare them for what they should expect prior to setting foot on site, and how their next visit may be different from their last.

  • Encourage mask-wearing by messaging the importance of “protecting our staff and animals” to your guests.

  • Have internal discussions about contact tracing protocols—if they become mandatory, you’ll need a plan to quickly be compliant.

Trust Your Gut

Towards the end of the session, we asked our panelists a prepared question: Tell us one thing in your reopening plans that did not go well. We were surprised by the lack of response, and it led us to the primary final takeaway from this session—trust your gut. As it turns out, the previous weeks’ strategizing had an unsurprising outcome: the plans worked! By focusing on the fundamentals of visitor health, safety, and comfort (and by training and trusting their staffs to execute); our panelists found that they were able to reopen with relative ease. Challenges were few and far between, and by remaining flexible and adaptable, our panelists’ respective organizations were able to solve them with relative ease.

Thanks to our panelists for being so generous with their time:

  • Heather Doggett, Chief Operating Officer of Loveland Living Planet Aquarium

  • Jeff Ettling, President and CEO of Sedgwick County Zoo

  • Sally Jacobson, Executive Director of Red River Zoo

  • Doug Lund, Senior Vice President and COO of Utah’s Hogle Zoo

Click here to watch the recording of the session and enter the password 5m?19**W.

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