How zoos can use apps to support social distancing and aid recovery

COVID-19 closures have hit zoos harder than most. Discover how technology can help zoos bounce back and prepare for the new normal.
social distancing spp for zoos

In an average year, more than 700 million people visit zoos worldwide. Unfortunately, 2020 is far from an average year. Even as COVID-19 related restrictions wind down and zoos reopen to the public, visitor numbers are likely to be drastically smaller. 

Despite losing about 90 percent of their revenue, zoo overheads haven't got any smaller. Lack of revenue from admissions has meant that most zoos and wildlife attractions have been finding it increasingly difficult to cover essential animal care costs. For some zoos, the situation was so dire that they were not sure they’d ever recover unless restrictions started to lift. Others were preparing contingency plans that involved drastically reducing the number of animals they have. 

In the UK, zoos were initially set to reopen on the 4th of July, at the earliest. Many zoos (like Chester Zoo, which needs £1.6 million a month to keep running), turned to the public for help. Showing the depth of goodwill people have towards their zoos, the public not only donated over £100,000 to zoos and aquariums, according to the British Association of Leisure, Parks, Piers, and Attractions (BALPPA) but also used their own social media accounts to lobby on behalf of zoos. You might have even seen the twitter campaign run by the British and Irish Associations of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) campaign, #YourZoosNeedYou. 

These efforts did not go unnoticed. On the 9th of June, the British government made a U-turn and announced that zoos could reopen on the 15th of June, as long as they introduce suitable social distancing measures. Elsewhere in the world, zoos are opening their gates to the public too. Mogo Zoo in New South Wales, Australia, which was closed throughout much of 2020 first due to bushfires and then later due to COVID-19, opened its gates to the public on the 1st of June. In the US, some states are also loosening restrictions and zoos are starting to welcome back animal lovers and families.

Zoos help make the “new normal” normal

Zoos are ideal attractions to help bring back a sense of normality to people's lives while staying safe. Most zoos have large outdoor spaces, with attractions spread over many acres. Visiting a zoo is also a hugely positive experience for most people.

Zoos and wildlife attractions make a significant economic contribution, too. In the UK alone, zoos employ over 11,000 people. Additionally, zoos are sites for vital conservation and animal welfare work, such as Colchester Zoo’s ‘Action for the Wild’ charity and Twycross zoo’s Conservation Initiative.

How a guest app can help

While the public is clamouring for zoos to reopen, zoos need to make a significant effort to ensure they can recover safely and sustainably. This means having the right procedures and investing in new technology to create a safe and enjoyable environment for guests. By embracing the opportunities offered by a zoo app, zoos can quickly get back to creating a truly delightful experience for their guests. Here are a few of the ways that apps for zoos can help zoos recover and grow their visitor experience in the new normal. 

social distancing zoo

Digital ticketing 

Even before the pandemic, many zoos encouraged guests to pre-purchase tickets online to cut down queuing times. Now, having an online booking system is even more critical as pre-selling tickets online can help zoos manage capacity restrictions. 

Working hand in hand with online booking systems, apps can streamline the experience further by enabling guests to import purchased tickets into a digital wallet, ready to scan and go at the turnstiles, even without an internet connection. This reduces customer and staff interactions, as zoo employees are no longer required to handle payments or hand out paper tickets and maps, helping keep zoo guests and staff safer.

Digital ticketing also allows for easy ticket upgrades and upsells and can increase revenue. As guests are leaving the zoo, an app can be used to trigger location-based  promotions for discounted two-day tickets or even a season pass, encouraging guests to return sooner rather than later. 

Mobile food ordering

It’ll likely be a while before guests are comfortable interacting with communal touchscreen kiosks again. While some zoos suggest that guests bring their own snacks and lunches, doing so risks missing out on potential revenue. Secondary spending on food and drink accounts for a large part of the overall revenue at zoos. 

mobile food ordering zoo

One way to bridge this revenue gap while meeting guest safety expectations is through mobile food ordering. With mobile food ordering, guests can order food and drinks via an app, regardless of where in the zoo they are, and choose to collect their order at a specified time and location. 

Mobile food ordering not only eliminates social distancing and hygiene challenges (instead of paying by cash guests can make use of contactless payments) but also gives guests more flexibility. With no more food queues, guests can spend more time exploring the zoo itself.

Mobile food ordering doesn’t just improve the guest experience, though. With automatic in-app order reminders, intelligent cross-sells and upsells like meal deals and in basket upgrades, mobile food ordering can increase the average transaction size by almost 40%. Since printed menus and promotional signage are no longer needed, zoos can save money on printing costs, too (and in the process, help the environment). 

Targeted communication

Effective, targeted communication is more important than ever. Guests are going to be naturally wary of spending time in public locations for the foreseeable future. To increase visitation and grow admissions revenue, zoos need to make sure that guests are kept up-to-date on all that’s happening, and re-assured that it's safe to visit. 

A guest app can enable on-site communication. Zoos can notify guests of revised opening times and new on-site safety measures in real-time as well as ask guests for feedback. Any concerns or negative feedback can be addressed immediately.  On the other hand, guests that leave a good review can be prompted to leave a positive rating on TripAdvisor and help reassure more people to book a visit.

zoo adoption offer

Keeping guests engaged can be a challenge when popular activities, such as animal feeds, talks, and shows can’t go ahead due to social distancing. By using location beacons in conjunction with a mobile guest app, zoos can automatically send guests timed or location-based messages, including notifications about feed times or virtual keeper talks guests can access through the app. If a guest spends a particularly long time at a specific exhibit, the zoo can even promote targeted requests for donations or adoptions based on that exhibit. 


Wouldn’t it be great if guests could pinpoint their exact location within the zoo and find everything on offer, from toilets to cafes to the star Sumatran tiger exhibit, a lot easier? A zoo app makes this possible. With interactive maps, wayfinding, and handy filters (like “animals,” “shows,” and “food & drink”), guests will never get lost again or leave without having seen the giraffes. This technology also helps reduce the number of times guests ask staff for directions and cuts down on potential contact time.

Perhaps more importantly, interactive maps can help guests avoid crowds. To help guests navigate safely while social distancing rules are in place, zoos can implement one-way routes into their apps. To prepare for reopening, Colchester Zoo has already done just that while also identifying the optimal spots on their guest routes for handwashing stations. 

A Digital Solution for the New Normal

Despite the financial difficulties that many zoos currently face, now is the perfect time to embrace new technological solutions. Guests' expectations and reliance on technology have increased during the last couple of months, and guests will increasingly turn to technology to help keep them safe, informed, and entertained. 

Besides, a zoo app doesn’t have to be expensive. Our mobile app platform offers a fast and cost effective way to deploy feature-rich mobile apps that improve the guest experience and support social distancing.

Find out more about how apps for zoos can help improve communication and guest experience by downloading our zoos factsheet

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