Snow Day at the Zoo!

As this week’s monster winter storm sweeps across the country, I keep hearing one thing:  Snow Day!  Not for me, of course, but the magic of the snow day, even if it’s a treasure that now only others get to enjoy, is infectious. The snow day! To me, it’s luxuriating in the extra hours of winter sleep snuggled under a pile of thick blankets.  It’s waking up at noon and pulling on my snow pants over my pjs, my moon boots over my thick wool socks, and squeezing my puffball hat over my tangled mess of bed head hair, then venturing out with my similarly dressed sister and neighborhood compadres to build a mazelike snow fort through the front yard.  And only after pelting each other with perfectly compacted snowballs until Timmy’s red and snowy face gives way to tired tears do we succumb to the cold and go back inside to lay our soaked mittens, hats and scarves on the wood stove and warm up with a cup of hot cocoa.  Ah the snow day!

But these days, snow days mean a little more to me.  They mean a zoo-born Siberian tiger in Tennessee who’s never seen snow before.  They mean the beaver in the Minnesota Zoo who’s hidden inside his iced over dam, cuddled up hopefully next to the guest viewing window.  They mean the polar bears luxuriating in the extra hours of winter sleep snuggled under a pile of thick, white snow.

They mean experiences people forget to experience at the zoo.

Winter is not prime time for most temperate zoos.  Winter is in fact the lost season.  The dredges.  The figurative Atlantis.  The time for zoos to get projects done since no one is at the zoo anyway.  But what if winter wasn’t the dead zone for zoos?  Can we make winter exciting for guests, and profitable for zoos?

We’re asking that question right now with one of our master plan clients.  Winter is traditionally the forgotten time for them.  Half the zoo essentially shuts down.  No food or drink carts can be found.  No Dippin’ Dots, no popcorn stands.  Most of the restaurants and satellite retail shops are shut down, too.  Not to mention the rides, and the shows.

They do this, they say, because most January and February days see only a lowly 15 people, up to 100 on a good day.  And this makes sense.   In this way, they keep the operating costs down.

But what if we didn’t need to shut down most of the zoo? What if we made an attempt to get guests to show up, even on a snowy cold day like the ones we’re seeing this week?  What if snow day meant Zoo Day?

As part of the master plan process, we’ve done a quick survey of zoo websites to see if anyone out there is making a big deal out of winter.  Generally speaking, most zoos are not.

Some zoos do market special themed weekends with unique activities like ice sculpture carving and music and dance presentations.  Toledo Zoo even gives it a cute name…Frozentoesen!  Some zoos, like Toledo, also have added more indoor activities like an activity zone with bouncy houses and climbing equipment.

But what was missing was an actual campaign to show visitors what a great day they can have at the zoo during the winter.  What about mapping out a winter experience route that not only highlights the indoor experiences and the shortest routes between them, but also stops at exhibits where animals will be more active and happy in the winter, like the polar bears?  If zoos marketed this specific route, told people how long a walk it was between indoor activities, and maybe went the extra mile to provide enclosed transport from the furthest points, maybe we’d see an increase in attendance.   We know people are willing to come to the zoo in the winter, as witnessed by the saturation of holiday lights programs at zoos across the country—and the success of all of these programs.  But what is it that keeps these folks from coming during the day hours?

I think it’s a simple lack of understanding that the zoo is just as good a winter experience (and sometimes better) as a summer experience.

Of course, we could also do as the Minnesota Zoo does, and physically plan the zoo to have a continuous linkage between indoor zoo experiences thus providing a wholly indoor winter time zoo.  But for those who aren’t ready, willing or able to go down that road, why not just first try with simple marketing campaigns and guest experience strategies.  Why not just first try.  Why not just…try?

Speak up.  Let me know why or why not you don’t visit the zoo in the winter.  Or, let me know if your zoo does anything special for winter experiences.