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A post-COVID world for zoos and aquariums

What will the future look like for zoos and aquariums in the wake of the global pandemic?

Opinion
Aquarium-visitor-in-mask

By Sean Mannie, Marwell Wildlife

I may be chancing my arm here, but we ought to start looking at what a post-COVID business and operational landscape looks like for our zoo and aquarium attractions, as we hurtle headlong towards 2022.

First, a whole year without lockdowns and restrictions would be tremendously useful. As great as the last summer was, we were all still playing catch-up from the lost spring and Easter. We can only hope that 2022 finally breaks the cycle.

Silver linings

However, not everything that came out of the last 2 years is negative. Post-COVID, most zoos, aquariums and other attractions moved to a pre-booking model for admissions – either entirely or for the majority of paying guests. Every conversation I have had recently, from peers to industry bodies, shows little appetite to return to the old days of ‘open the doors, hold your breath and see what happens’.

The ability to actively manage guest numbers, plan operations, resources and staffing accordingly, avoiding the weather-dependent ‘boom and bust’ model has been nectar for operational and commercial managers and not an asset that we will give up lightly.

I really believe that the daily moderation of guest numbers has also brought positive benefits for guest and visitor experience and was a sizeable factor in the huge upswing that many of us have seen in catering and retail spend this year. Visitors relax if they feel comfortable and spend more when they feel relaxed.

Zoos take on lessons post-COVID

We have certainly learned the lesson that sometimes, less (crowding) results in more (income) and certainly improved experience. That, in turn, hopefully, tracks to increased repeat visits, more word-of-mouth, increased reputation and all the good things that follow.

Of course, many have used ticketing controls or dynamic pricing for many years. They will already be fully aware of the benefits. But now we are all catching on as COVID has perhaps driven a rapid and more widespread cultural change.

marwell zoo animal poo initiative
Marwell Zoo keepers at work

Perhaps the virus will never leave us completely. However, we have adapted and learnt to live with the ways in which it has changed our business world.

Post-COVID, zoos and aquariums should now grasp the positive developments that have become apparent, like those above, refine them and understand that the concept of ‘more guests per day = more money in the tills’ as a long-term strategy, isn’t necessarily as simple or clear-cut as it once seemed.

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Sean Mannie Marwell Zoo

Sean Mannie

Sean Mannie is Commercial Director at Marwell Wildlife, a large charity run zoo in Hampshire. He is also founding Chair of the BIAZA Commercial & Guest Services Working Group and Vice-Chair of BIAZA’s Mission Enabling Committee. He previously enjoyed careers in commercial business and in national museums, including the role of General Manager South for the Royal Armouries.

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