Imagine you're eight years old, and your family takes you to a zoo that has a Humboldt penguin enclosure. Once there, you keep annoying them with questions like "why don't the penguins just fly away?" or "where do penguins live?"
Luckily, a friendly zookeeper is nearby. She lets you know that penguins don't fly but are "flightless" birds, live in cold places, and hunt for fish under ice flows. She also tells you that their habitats are being damaged by climate change and other human activities.
Seeing a penguin up close and learning these facts is such a novel development. You just have to tell your friends all about it. It's also a learning experience that can change your life. Afterwards, whenever you hear abstract terms like "climate change" or "habitat loss," there's a strong chance you will remember your first time meeting vulnerable animals like those penguins.
Each year 700 million people visit wildlife attractions worldwide and have experiences like this one. But providing fun and educational days out is only the tip of the iceberg of what wildlife attractions do.
Species' survival programs at wildlife attractions have brought wild populations of animals like the California Condor back from the brink of extinction, and zoo-led captive breeding programs have helped keep other species like the Przewalski's horse from dying out altogether.
Even small wildlife attractions provide rich environments for rare animals and do vital research, teaching, and advocacy work. Most people recognise this fact. But for public support of wildlife attractions to continue, you can’t just do this work in the background. You have to communicate it too.
Research shows that highlighting conservation work is crucial for wildlife attractions that want to maintain a positive image and make guests feel comfortable. The opposite is also true. When tragic events happen, like a high-profile animal dying in a zoo, opinions about wildlife attractions can quickly swing to the negative.
Unfortunately, it's not always easy to educate the public while entertaining them at the same time. Many people go to zoos and other wildlife attractions for novel experiences, not necessarily educational ones. Research shows that zoos with a variety of animals get more visitors than zoos with fewer species. Visitors are not naturally interested in attending seminars, listening to lectures, or participating in conservation opportunities.
Wildlife attractions cannot just rely on static information displays either. Many guests find informative content displayed on panels, websites, and leaflets hard to read or simply not interesting.
Your guests are more familiar with digital technology than ever before, and it's not just younger visitors who are getting more comfortable with tech. Since the pandemic, a worldwide boom in digital tech use has left older adults with levels of digital literacy well above previous projections.
Meanwhile, younger generations have grown up in a new digital paradigm. Unlike people from older generations whose technological progression went something like desktop PC - laptop - mobile device, Generation Z (people born after 1997) have grown up with smart mobile technology at their fingertips. Their familiarity with high-quality app interfaces gives them higher user experience expectations than their predecessors. As a result, they tend to expect accessible and entertaining digital experiences everywhere they go.
Their parents, typically Generation Xers, are not too far behind, spending an average of 2.5 hours a day online. Even among younger children (those under 12 years of age), the rise of digital learning in school has broadened the role of technology in the learning experience.
As a result, while even the most digitally native guests don't go to wildlife attractions looking for digital experiences, they expect to engage with your attraction before, during, and after their visit through a digital channel.
Connected mobile technology can help wildlife attractions meet these changing guest expectations.
To see why, think about how a zoo interpretation manager might traditionally show guests information about their zoo's conservation activities. They will probably put this information, which might be pretty detailed with lots of facts and figures, up on the zoo's website or leaflet that guests can pick up around the zoo's campus.
The idea is that by putting the information out there, guests will engage with it. Unfortunately, if the zoo's guests are anything like average readers, who read 28% of the words on a webpage or interpretation board, this concept is flawed.
Using mobile technology to add another layer to the guest experience means your wildlife attraction will still put detailed information online. The difference is that you will also create new digital learning touchpoints to weave moments of education throughout someone’s visit.
For example, you might send guests with children a push notification on the morning of their visit, saying, "Rise and shine! Here are the animals that wake up early in the morning like you. Can you guess what they have for breakfast?"
Then, once inside your wildlife attraction, Bluetooth beacons could alert the same guests about a successful breeding program you are working on. Or let them know, through an in-app popup, how reducing their palm oil consumption could help preserve the habitats that creatures like Orangutans need in the wild.
You will still have physical interpretation boards for guests to read. But you can also give guests the option of using interactive technology to learn more about the creatures they see.
ZooTampa has already done this. “When people visit the zoo, they want close encounters with our animals,” said Director of Communications Sandra Torres. “And when they are here, we want them to make the connection between the animal standing in front of them and an action that they can take to help that same species out in the wild.
For example, when they visit our Orangutan habitat, they see these beautiful animals up close, often for the first time. At that moment, if a message pops up saying, ‘you can help these animals in the wild by buying sustainable palm oil,’ that really resonates. We make that connection through the app so that when they leave the zoo, they go back into it and check what they can do to help.”
After their visit, you can continue to engage with guests digitally. The same digital app these guests use before and during their visit can also let them know more about the animals they met and give them seasonal tips on the best time to come back and see particular creatures.
At Attractions.io, we’ve spent the past ten years empowering wildlife attractions to deliver a blended digital education and entertainment experience. Attractions.io's guest experience platform allows wildlife attractions to send guests smart push notifications based on their location and give them access to digital maps and interpretation content.
Leading wildlife attractions like San Diego Zoo, ZooTampa and Chester Zoo use the Attractions.io platform to give their guests this kind of immersive experience. To learn more, read our ZooTampa Case Study.