What essential features to look for in a zoo app

Planning a mobile app for your zoo or wildlife attraction? Here are the top 5 features we think every zoo visitor app should have...
November 2020

Guest-facing apps are a fast-growing topic across all attraction types. However, as non-profit organisations with unique challenges and goals, wildlife attractions such as zoos, safari parks and aquariums, in particular, can benefit from mobile apps. This is because wildlife attractions need to do two things: sustain the day-to-day operations of the zoo while also raising awareness of, and supporting, their conservation projects. 

Because of this, having an engaged and loyal audience for zoos is essential. At the same time, however, if zoos are to sustain long-term growth and diversify their audience, they need to solve what Bernard Donoghue, the CEO of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), calls the visitor attractions trilemma: balancing volume (the number of visitors) with value (the money visitors spend) without taking away from the visitor experience. 

So, how do you solve this trilemma? Well, according to Donoghue, there’s one thing that all visitor attractions that have increased their guest numbers sustainably while also diversifying their audience share: innovation. These attractions are “provocative, they’re disruptive,” said Donoghue. “They take risks, both in terms of the staff team, but also in terms of the trustee boards. These successful attractions stretch their brands, and they develop new audiences.” 

Technology is an integral part of this forward-thinking for the more future-ready attraction brands. By seamlessly integrating digital with the physical experience, attractions can create a fully immersive, connected experience. Done correctly, a mobile app can help you achieve this new gold standard of customer service while engaging with a new demographic of guests. 

By leveraging the smartphone everyone already has in their pockets, the barriers to entry for a mobile app are low — and offer big potential. But one question remains: what features should a zoo app have?

Top 5 features a zoo app should include:

Not all apps are created equal, so it can be challenging to settle on the right approach for your attraction. However, from our experience, there are a few key features that should be on an app spec, thanks to their ability to align with zoos’ unique operational and communication needs:

1. Location-based messaging

According to a 2019 study on the zoo experience, the more zoo visitors interact with animals, exhibits, and zoo staff, the more likely they are to have a positive perception of zoos in general. Moreover, while the majority of zoo visitors are open to conservation messaging and initiatives, they’re 20 times more inclined to take part in conservation opportunities when on-site than they are to engage in these kinds of actions after a visit. This is especially true if conservation actions are facilitated via staff and programs as opposed to passive visits.

Location based messaging
Location based messaging

For zoos, this means that finding a way to communicate with their visitors while they’re on-site is crucial. While it’s not realistic for zoo staff to deliver a 1-1, personalised experience for each and every guest, luckily, location-based messaging may help fill this gap. Thanks to location-based messaging, zoos can provide visitors with additional information on animals and ongoing conservation work, as well as show adoption, offers based on demographic info, or how long they spend at a particular exhibit. This is important as visitors are more likely to take conservation action for a specific species they connect with versus the conservation of biodiversity overall.

With location-based messaging, zoos can also promote memberships to local and returning day visitors. Indeed, the above-mentioned study found that repeat visitors have an increasing interest in conservation efforts compared to first-time visitors. 

2. Digital ticketing

Presenting an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate paper waste, digital ticketing is a great way for zoos to reaffirm their dedication to the environment, particularly now that more than half of consumers are either very or extremely environmentally conscious. 

However, digital ticketing can do more than just reduce paper waste and printing costs. Digital ticketing is more convenient than traditional paper ticketing, both for your visitors and staff. That’s because digital ticketing removes queues at the entrance and reduces the risk that visitors will forget or lose their tickets on the way to the zoo. 

Mobile Wallet

It can also boost revenue by allowing zoos to promote ticket upgrade options. Memberships are vital income generators for zoos, membership passes can too be managed within an app, while also delivering additional benefits for members, such as special member offers and exclusive experiences to help incentivise and reward loyalty. 

Furthermore, digital ticketing reduces the number of physical touchpoints guests need to interact with — something that’s becoming more and more important due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. Maps and wayfinding

In 2020 we’ve witnessed a growing trend amongst our customers to ditch their paper maps in favour of digital alternatives, or even going fully paperless. For zoos in particular, this can be one of the biggest drivers for launching a mobile app, as we saw with Twycross Zoo

For some visitors, the experience of finding their way around a zoo with hundreds of animals and a wide variety of thematic zones can be a navigational challenge. 


To cater to these changing visitor preferences and demands, zoos are adopting digital maps and wayfinding. Unlike paper maps, which are often confusing or overwhelming to use, interactive maps allow guests to see their exact location and navigate easily. Visitors can choose between the fastest and accessible routes, and take advantage of intelligent search options to figure out the best time of day to see their favourite animal as well as find out:

  • What animals are nearby.
  • Which exhibits are currently quiet or busy.
  • Which public animal feedings and keeper talks are starting soon. 

Conversely, zoo operators can use wayfinding to manage guest flow with one-way routes to comply with COVID-19 related restrictions. 

4. Virtual queuing

Virtual queuing is a major growth area at the moment, accelerated in recent months by social distancing requirements. But is it worth investing in now that the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine is on the horizon? 

In normal times, queuing mightn’t seem like an issue for zoos. Rather, long queues are something most people associate with other attractions, such as theme parks. However, the truth is that high-profile exhibits often require queuing to limit crowds and provide the best experience for guests. Creating a more intimate experience through virtual queuing also helps build connections and enhances overall visitor satisfaction. Besides, fewer crowds is better for the animals’ well-being.

On the other hand, long queues lead to irritation, especially as animals can be unpredictable. Imagine standing for half an hour at the entrance of the tigers’ exhibit only to realise that the tigers are hiding when it’s finally your turn to see them. 

Virtual Queuing

Virtual queuing removes the frustration of having to wait in line. Guests can join a virtual queue using their smartphones and receive an alert when it’s their turn to see an exhibit. This gives visitors more time to explore everything else you have on offer. It can also boost your revenue. On one level, guests who have extra time on their hands are more likely to stop by the cafe for a cup of tea or visit the gift shop. On another, virtual queuing also allows you to build upgrade offers (like skip the queue, behind-the-scenes experience, or a photo package) into the user journey, which can further increase secondary spend growth.

5. Mobile food ordering 

As zoos struggle to survive in the restricted world that COVID-19 has created, zoo administrators globally have had no choice but to reduce salaries and lay off some of their employees. However, as the director of Dublin Zoo, Dr Christoph Schwitzer, said recently, “you can’t furlough an elephant, you can’t switch off a zoo at night when you go home.” 

With limited capacity numbers, zoo operators need to find new revenue sources. Since secondary spending on food and drink already makes up a large part of the overall revenue at zoos, it makes sense to invest heavily in mobile food ordering to capitalise on this visitor spend. With intelligent cross-sells, up-sells, and automatic reminders, mobile food ordering can increase transaction sizes by up to 42%, while also freeing up staff and reducing printing costs by eliminating the need for physical menus. 

Mobile Food Ordering

Mobile food ordering is more convenient, as well. People generally don’t come to your zoo for the food, they come to see the animals. The last thing they want to do is spend half an hour waiting to be seated at a cafe and then another half an hour waiting for a sandwich. A bad experience at a zoo cafe can spoil a visitor’s entire visit. Mobile food ordering lets visitors order their lunch from anywhere in the park, pay with Apple or Google Pay, and collect it when they’re ready —giving your visitors longer to enjoy the zoo.

How to choose the best features for your mobile app:

Still not sure which features to opt for? To determine the functionality your app needs to have, consider:

  • Guest feedback. The main objective of a mobile guest app is to reduce friction and maximise the guest experience. Although you might have a good idea of the friction points that a mobile app could solve, your guests know best what could improve their visit. Talking to them and evaluating their feedback can help you pinpoint some of the most common frustrations.
  • Business objectives. An app can offer tremendous value for improving key metrics like guest satisfaction, secondary spend, memberships and donations, net promoter score (NPS), cost-saving, and much more. Make sure that the features you choose support the metrics that matter to you.
  • Industry and consumer trends. The world is continuously changing. To stay relevant, you need to see what expectations and drivers your app should respond to, for example personalisation and contactless payments.

Final thoughts

Interested in getting started with a mobile app? We can help. Here at Attractions.io, we believe that technology can make the visitor experience infinitely better for every attraction.. That’s why our platform removes the traditional cost and complexity barriers typically associated with mobile apps, giving every attraction whether large or small the opportunity to develop their own visitor app.

To learn more about our platform, read our brochure. Alternatively, if you’d like to find out what makes a mobile app successful, read our eBook. 


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November 2020
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