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Creating Culturally Relevant Visitor Experiences

By John Kemper, Jo-Elle Mogerman, and Dean Watanabe
min read

2020 has been a year of global and community challenges. Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities play an important role within their communities as leaders in conservation, environmental education, animal care, and entertainment.

However, just as important, is the willingness and agility to adjust to their communities’ needs. If the AZA community is to continue playing a meaningful role, it must respond to changing audiences and the growing demands for racial equity and social justice.

The ways it respond through culturally relevant programming and experiences will determine its ability to advance its mission.

Changing Demographics and Expectations

Each year, AZA commercial member, PGAV Destinations, collaborates with H2R Market Research to prepare Voice of the Visitor, a comprehensive report on the state of the travel industry. The report interprets results from 1,500 participants and uncovers actionable insights for zoos and aquariums that are planning attractions, programming, and special events.  

The 2019 Voice of the Visitor notes that by 2045, Caucasians will be the minority of people in the United States. The combination of Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and other races will pass the 50 percent mark for the first time. The lesson? Zoo and aquarium attractions should no longer assume their current offerings will appeal to future audiences. They should begin by looking at the diversity of staff and board members and make sure the future diversity of interests are represented now. 

Another important takeaway from the 2019 Voice of the Visitor is that minorities are less likely to travel for leisure activities. Combined with pandemic realities, this means that facilities must appeal to local audiences—providing special experiences and event themes that reflect local populations. 

According to the report, people of color exhibit lower satisfaction with their attraction experiences when compared to non-Hispanic whites. Whether it is their overall satisfaction, the friendliness (or rudeness) of attraction staff, or feeling welcome, people of color aren’t perceiving the same quality experiences as non-Hispanic whites. They also have a significantly lower instance of recommending attractions to friends and family.

To change this, zoos and aquariums must work to provide environments and experiences that satisfy underrepresented demographics. 

In The Experience Economy, author Joe Pine explores mass customization and how it is an essential component of today’s business success. It’s far more than being able to provide a wide array of options, easily combined in myriad choices, quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively. The key to success is better understanding people and celebrating and empowering differences.

Lastly, minority groups are significantly more likely (10 percentage points) to own season passes or memberships and are looking to use them. Roughly half of Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and more had intended to visit each kind of surveyed attraction in 2020 (prior to pandemic), where only about a third of whites generally intend to visit each one (with history and animal associated attractions topping their wish lists at approximately 50 percent). Coming out of COVID-19, memberships will be more important until people are again comfortable traveling. 

Some AZA members have engaged more diverse audiences into their exhibit process. Admittedly, it challenges how we “usually do things” and extends timelines but it results in relevant exhibits, more supporters in new guests and donors, and deeper support and commitment to the mission.  

Community Connections Through Exhibits

Golden statue

With the openings of Sea Lion Cove in 2012 and African Adventure in 2015, Fresno Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif., established a focus on building immersive exhibits that sought to transport visitors to the central California Coast and the savannas of eastern Africa, respectively. In 2017, design began on Kingdoms of Asia, the next major phase of Zoo growth which will consist of new exhibits for tigers, sloth bears, Asian songbirds, tomistoma, and Komodo dragons; renovations to the exhibit for orangutans and siamangs; and a new café. From the beginning, the intention has been to create a sense of place with Southeast Asia and specifically Angkor Wat in modern Cambodia.

Fresno is home to a diversity of cultures and races. Nearly 20 percent of its residents were born outside of the United States and only 27 percent of its residents are white according to the 2020 census.

Within this rich diversity, a large number of Lao, Hmong, and Cambodian immigrants, refugees, and descendants call Fresno home. As members of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo team began to work on interpretive elements for Kingdoms of Asia, it became apparent that the most critical resources for this part of the project already existed within the community.

As part of the interpretive planning and evaluation process, the Zoo facilitated the creation of a Cultural Advisory Group to act as liaisons and resources throughout the planning and design of the project. This group consisted of local leaders, academic experts, and even some Fresno Chaffee Zoo staff helped inform the stories, connections, and details of the design. These advisers worked with designers and consultants to ensure the experiences within the exhibit were impactful while being culturally relevant and accurate.

The Zoo also worked directly within the Southeast Asian community thanks to introductions from our cultural advisers, visiting the local Cambodian Buddhist Temple to learn first-hand from their monks, and conducting front-end evaluation of exhibit concepts at the Cambodian New Year celebration.   

This relationship has become a partnership, and the exhibits and accompanying experiences will be richer, more meaningful, and more connected to the community. Kingdoms of Asia is set to break ground in 2020.

The Takeaway

Changing demographics, The Black Lives Matter movement, and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how stark differences can be in how people know and experience the world despite their living in the same geographic communities.

As organizations that are part of systems that perpetuate racism, we must take a pause. We need to explore how systemic racism is operating within our thoughts, practices, and organizational structures.

Who does what within our organization? Who does not participate in our offerings, volunteers, or boards? What do they really have to say about our organizations?

Whose story is it to tell? Are there are other stories we have not considered? How we are telling those stories? Who is the storyteller?  

Communities and culture are dynamic and so is our relevance as zoos and aquariums. When we look inwardly, we are enriched and grow in new ways. As we grow, we also grow our audiences, development capacity, relevance, and credibility. 

John Kemper is vice president for PGAV Destinations.

Jo-Elle Mogerman is the director—St. Louis Zoo North Campus.

Dean Watanabe is the chief conservation education officer at Fresno Chaffee Zoo.


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