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A staycation summer like no other

As the pandemic triggers a boom in domestic holidays and local days out, attractions face both challenges and opportunities

Kids at Marwell Zoo staycation

By Sean Mannie, Marwell Wildlife

It is impossible to ignore the impact of this year’s ‘staycation summer’ on zoos and aquariums, as well as on the wider tourism economy. So, as the new school term beckons, let’s get a snap first impression.

On the upside and as expected, there seems to have been no shortage of staycationing guests. Regardless of whether sites have flung open the doors, or are still maintaining capacity limits, there have been plenty of guests to go around. And they certainly want to spend, spend, spend. Catering and retail takings have been, in some cases, at record-breaking levels.

underwater habitat marwell zoo
Marwell Zoo/Paul Collins

Upsides and downsides to the staycation boom

There has been one particularly encouraging sign for me. And that has been a very noticeable broadening in the demographics and diversity of the audiences visiting our zoo this summer. We have seen guests in significant numbers from across the socio-economic spectrum and from a much wider cultural and ethnically diverse spread than traditionally.

There is a huge opportunity here. We will all want to try and capitalise on this interest to develop new long-term audiences that are not simply a COVID-influenced ‘blip’.

Busy sites are always, of course, the prerequisite for a successful summer. But that heightened demand during this ‘staycation summer’ has placed huge pressures on staff and infrastructure. Much of this has not been seen since the dim days of ‘normal life’ in 2019 and with some extra twists added in.

Children enjoy a day out at Marwell Zoo staycation
Marwell Zoo/Paul Collins

There have been traffic jams at some sites, and more guests ignoring ticket pre-booking to just turn up. Not to mention varying tolerance around COVID guidance and yes, some challenging behaviours. All of this has added even more pressure on operational managers and teams.

It has been a huge positive to welcome new audiences who would normally be jetting off abroad for their holidays. However, the heightened demands and expectations of some guests have been an extra challenge. Particularly to hard-pressed and often younger staff, who have little life experience of dealing with the extremes of guest service.

Staffing issues

Have the benefits of this staycation boom outweighed some very real operational pressures? From the financial view and being able to welcome thousands of new zoo and aquarium guests – absolutely.

However, I am concerned about some of those young seasonal staff, often employed in their first jobs. We would all like to hope that some of them would have been thinking about careers in the tourism and hospitality sectors. After this very strange summer and having read so much recent press reporting concerning staffing, I do worry about how many may have changed their minds and what will be the longer-term impact on our industry’s ability to attract the best and the brightest in the years ahead.

All images kind courtesy of Marwell Zoo. Header image credit Jason Brown

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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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