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Innovation in a Pandemic

By Hillary Richard
min read

The Commercial Member Engagement Council

The Commercial Member Engagement Council was created as a way for Association of Zoos and Aquariums commercial members to bring innovation and insight to the community at large. In 2020, after two years of planning, the CMEC faced its first major challenge: COVID-19.

The CMEC founding members are Zoo Advisors, SSA Group, and Event Network. Each partner comes with a unique set of business skills and a proven dedication to conservation.

“We have some leading commercial members in our community paving the way for innovation and thought leadership. They’re heavily involved in programming and continuing education, plus they financially support the community in a multitude of ways, so they were a natural fit to join the council,” said Gina Velosky, director of integrated marketing at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, who added that the council has plans to add several more members in the future. 

A Common Refrain

A common refrain across 2020 has been, “We can’t furlough our animals.” Unlike other businesses, zoos and aquariums have ongoing fixed costs associated with animal care.

Only weeks after COVID-19 shut downs started in March, SSA launched a reopening task force that created strategic plans broken down into retail, food, experiences, and more. SSA had most of their VPs, district managers, and headquarter team members drop everything and focus on creating various reopening plans. They then published it and shared it widely with anyone who was interested.

A woman and child watch an otter swimming

“Our strategy was to be the first to talk about reopening even amid full shut-down conversation. A lot of other food and retail providers in our space focused on closures and figuring out how to stop the bleeding. Ours was to help them get more revenue streams back in place,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, chief people officer with SSA.

Part of this reopening strategy was a fully touchless experience. For food, this meant using a QR code, placing an order via phone, and picking it up in a to-go bag without any hand-to-hand contact—something that became normal for restaurants quickly, but not for zoos and aquariums. For retail, shoppers could order online and pick up at the store within an hour.

“We saw in analytics that mobile and kiosk ordering was averaging two times more than it used to in-person. So, customers not only want it and feel it’s safer, but from a business standpoint, that’s twice the revenue to work with. It was a win-win,” said Fitzgerald. SSA helped set up ecommerce websites for clients early on, so families that weren’t comfortable going out could still give their kids a sense of normalcy.

“CMEC provides everyone with additional voices and perspectives. We can share trends that we’re seeing, what people on the ground are experiencing, and how we can all live up to our partners’ missions and messaging,” said Andrea Froehle, vice president of marketing and communications with Event Network, who joined CMEC with the goal of advancing everyone’s conservation efforts.

Promotional images for Event Network's t-shirt

“Nobody anticipated this. All of our partners and AZA members were closed for longer than they ever had been before. The biggest challenge was helping them survive,” she said. Event Network got creative by launching an “In This Together” t-shirt campaign where proceeds went to the AZA Relief Fund.

Zoo Advisors put together extremely popular “community conversation webinars” on everything from navigating finances to mental resilience during the pandemic. They hosted approximately 30 professional webinars over nine months, which gathered thousands of attendees.

Woman wearing Event Network's In This Together t-shirt

“This really created a space for people to talk and share resources on a variety of topics, from things that are core to our business—like strategic and financial planning—to how to care for staff, to future trends. We’ve hit on some of our best ideas coming out of this hard time,” said David Walsh, president of Zoo Advisors.

Zoo Advisors also developed free resources for AZA members like its financial forecasting tool, which allows someone to understand how various scenarios would affect their facility’s bottom line now and down the road.

On the lighter side, they hosted a virtual concert at the 2020 Virtual AZA Annual Conference. They sent pizza parties to zookeeper teams who remained at their facilities tending to animals early in the shut downs.

It’s very important to us to have partners who understand our conservation mission…

Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y., utilized the financial modeling software created by Zoo Advisors to predict the funding needed over the next five to seven years to counteract COVID-19 damage. Norah Fletchall, chief executive officer at the Zoo, and her team members have also taken part in the free webinars on everything from mental health to furthering conservation while facing restrictions. They worked with SSA to respond appropriately to government regulations and to reopen safely in hard-hit New York.

A woman and child look at animals in an exhibit

“We operate in a unique field, so it’s very important to us to have partners who understand our conservation mission and to use the networks AZA provides for us and facilitates,” said Fletchall. 

The Zoo’s rapid embrace of technology helped. In the spring, the Zoo switched to an online ticketing model, which provided them with the unexpected bonus of being able to understand guest buying patterns and experiences in a new way. For temperature checks, they switched from a handheld thermometer to a device people can put their wrists under. They brought in automated counters that can track visitor capacity.

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C., reopened close to Mother’s Day during a time when many families were struggling. The Zoo wanted to continue its traditional and popular Mother’s Day event, so SSA helped them create make-at-home dinner kits. The Zoo chef put together recipe cards, ingredients, and wine, which families could pick up and take home to make for the mothers in their lives. They sold out.

Bringing the Zoo to You

SSA’s merchandizing and product teams worked hard to make holiday retail sales especially appealing while still being sustainable. They created stuffed animals made out of fully recycled materials they already had in their inventory, then decided to deliver them in boxes that transformed into cut-and-fold experiences like jeeps the toys can “ride” in or animal habitats. Inside, products come with a QR code that spark videos about favorites like Fiona the Hippo and her animal friends at the zoo, or other educational and interactive content. Customers started ordering these items online before they were even promoted.

“Zoos and aquariums are all about the memorable experience. Is it the same as going to the zoo or aquarium? No. Is it our best attempt at bringing the experience to you? Yes,” said Fitzgerald.

The pandemic brought to light the AZA community’s determination, sense of responsibility, and resilience, thanks in part to expert guidance of the CMEC. In a year when everyone nationwide was struggling in one way or another, this had a positive effect through the AZA community.

“Zoos and aquariums really are the sanctuaries that we can all turn to for stress relief as places to escape from some of the harshness around us. People who work in the field are amazingly dedicated, whether that’s caretakers, maintenance and grounds, educators, administrators, the finance office, the people who answer phones,” said Fletchall.

“That’s not news to us, but it’s a nice reaffirmation.”

Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.


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