The guest experience isn’t a linear process. It’s not as simple as guests finding you, buying tickets, spending a day at your zoo, and then heading home. That’s an outdated mindset that worked for marketers before digital tech came along, as driving admissions was one of the only predictable ways to increase revenue.
Today, digital tools enable us to connect with our guests across the entirety of their journey and predict or influence their pre-, mid- and post-visit behaviour. This transforms the modern guest experience into a flywheel. Connecting with the guests throughout their journey helps them make the most of their visit, which increases guest satisfaction. Happy guests mean better reviews, more positive noise on social media and increased visitation, which keeps the flywheel keeps spinning. As a result, you build longer-lasting, more meaningful connections with your guests.
We spoke to the digital teams at Columbus Zoo, Zoo Tampa and the SSA Group to see how they are using the flywheel approach to drive engagement and spending across the entire guest journey. Here's what they had to say.
Gen Z and Millennials make up 32% of zoo-goers in the US, with many of them having at least one child in tow. They’ve grown up with tech and rely on it to improve and manage their day to day lives.
“There’s 72 million consumers out there,” said Jason Keller, Growth Ventures at SSA Group, “and right now you're seeing what's called ‘digital natives’ who are consumers that are often millennials or Gen Z that have expectations for their digital experiences. This group will be the majority of our consumers as we go into 2025.”
These generations expect friction-free experiences enhanced by technology, and their zoo visits are no different. Missing their favourite animals and long queue times just won’t cut it. Mobile app platforms address these worries by seamlessly blending the physical and digital experience. They create a new communication channel, to engage with your guests and help them make the most of their time with you, right from the moment they hear about your brand.
To explore this further, we took a look at a typical guest journey and asked the experts how they approach each stage. Enter Lucy. She’s a mum of two, who’s never visited your zoo before. She’s a fresh slate. How do you go about turning Lucy from a first-time visitor into a long-time brand advocate?
Lucy discovered your zoo through a social media post, and then headed over to your website to find out more. As a first touch-point, you’ve got to make a good impression.
“Our goal is to meet and exceed the expectations that digital native guests have, right from that first interaction. This is from a brand perspective, but also a user experience and an operational perspective. Lucy represents a new guest. From her initial discovery, she's going to engage with the brand. She's curious. She wants to know more. The goal here is to make sure that that transition feels as seamless as possible. We’re making sure that everything is optimised whether Lucy’s on mobile or desktop and we’re facilitating her curiosity through the pre-visit.” - Andrew Preble, VP of Digital Experience, SSA Group
The goal here is converting curiosity into sales. Lucy’s got the curiosity to seek you out, and you’ve got to make sure the experience of interacting with your brand is as seamless and user-friendly as possible. It’s a crucial awareness stage, not only of your brand but also of your mobile app that will improve her visit. Make sure you’ve got buy-in from your marketing team as they’ll be responsible for informing new guests that your mobile app is available to download.
With this pre-visit stage nailed, you’ll ensure that Lucy enters your attraction with positivity and excitement.
Lucy’s bought her tickets and she’s ready for her visit. But, the ‘arrival’ part of the journey starts well before she even rocks up at your zoo. Before the core experience has even begun, there’s potential for some frustrations to get in the way, including
These frustrations are going to happen, but with them come many opportunities to create positive interactions.
“The guest experience must be first and foremost in everyone's mind when they decide to invest in guest-facing technology,” said Bob Mayes, VP of Technology Services at Columbus Zoo. “We want to make sure that the guests can purchase their tickets, see what events are available for the day, and plan their visit, so that when they transition from the world they live in, to the world we create at the zoo, it’s seamless and easy for them.”
Jacob Thompson, Head of Customer Success at Attractions.io outlined the three key ways that a mobile app platform can make an impact at this point:
Zoos such as ZooTampa in Florida and San Diego Zoo have already moved towards encouraging guests to import their memberships and tickets directly into their app to reduce admissions frustrations. Not only that, but they’re eager to do away with paper passes for good, driving their sustainability initiatives, which zoo members are proud to support.
“As a conservation organisation, we wanted to lead by example. Our team felt a responsibility to demonstrate how we can minimise our impact on the environment and teach our guests how they too can make a difference, whether that’s by going paperless, reducing water or something else entirely. The challenge was finding a tool that helped us work towards our own goals and communicate them clearly with others.” - Sandra Torres, Director of Communications at ZooTampa
Once Lucy’s past the gates, you’re faced with the biggest opportunity to delight, but also the greatest risk of disruptions in the guest experience.
For guests, this is the part that typically involves the most disparate sources of information. Lucy might be faced with printed maps, web-based checkouts for food, wait times for talks and rides on digital signage etc. This creates a disconnected experience, where she’s wasting time trying to find the information she needs.
Imagine instead that Lucy just takes a quick look at the mobile app, and finds the live wait times for rides and shows. Things are busy, so she decides to order food directly in the app while she waits via a seamless native checkout experience. Simple.
Mobile app platforms make the attraction experience easier by mimicking what guests are used to in real life. Whether it’s ordering food at a restaurant through an app, using a self-checkout in a supermarket, or calling a taxi directly to their location, digital native guests rely on technology to improve their experience. And it’s not just beneficial for the guest, mobile app platforms also lead to a boost in secondary spending revenue.
‘At self-order kiosks, we’re seeing anywhere from 30 to 50% higher average transaction value versus an in-person cashier, and mobile ordering is anywhere from 60 to 80% versus in-person. Cashiers are able to come out from behind the counter and become true customer service ambassadors.’ - Carly Somma, VP of Business Transformation, SSA Group
A driving force behind this success is personalisation. Tech giants like Amazon and Netflix have this down to a fine art—they use consumer data to create a truly personalised experience that delivers the right message at the right time to the right person.
“For zoos that are still early on in their digital development, the on-site experience can often be a blind spot due to a lack of reliable data. Mobile app platforms solve this by introducing a value exchange, where guests benefit from an improved experience in exchange for sharing their data and preferences.” - Jacob Thompson, Head of Customer Success, Attractions.io
Putting this into practice, Columbus Zoo use guest data to personalise the experience as soon as guests step on site:
“Our personalisation begins before the guest even enters the park. We have Bluetooth beacons outside our gates, so if you have the mobile app and you come in, we can welcome you to the zoo with a personalised greeting. We're also looking at the data that we're getting from the mobile app platform to create targeted messages. If it’s your third time to the zoo, we’ll tell you how much we appreciate you being a member and thank you for coming back again – Now, by better understanding our guests’ behaviour, we can target messages as they go throughout the zoo to ensure that they have up-to-date information, and the best experience possible.” - Bob Mayes, VP of Technology Services, Columbus Zoo
Ideally, Lucy leaves your park feeling happy, informed and engaged. Once she leaves, you have an opportunity to maintain that engagement through the communication channel you established during their visit. Your audience is primed.
With a mobile app platform on hand, you might choose to:
All of these can be delivered with strategically positioned push notifications that keep the conversation going. It shouldn’t be a bombardment of on-the-nose sales messages, but a subtle pairing of engaging information and the right call to action.
Columbus Zoo saw great success with this method of personalised communication. In fact, since launching their mobile app platform they’ve seen:
Every guest who consents to these channels keeps the conversation going, allowing the zoo to send them ongoing personalised messages to keep them updated on the animals, upcoming events and to encourage revisitation. If guests remain aware of the zoo and its ongoing activities, the chance of re-engagement is significantly higher.
Feeling inspired to get your flywheel spinning and better engage with your guests? Introducing a mobile app is the first step to opening that vital line of continuous communication with your guests. To round up our discussions, Kevin Bonifas, Director of Technology Services at Columbus Zoo, shared these three top tips for rolling your new tech out successfully:
Want to learn more about how you can launch your own mobile app platform to seamlessly connect your guest experience? Book a discovery call today.