It’s no surprise that live family entertainment took a hit when the COVID-19 pandemic started. March Madness became known as March Sadness and indoor events like concerts, theater and movies were virtually non-existent, while outdoor events and sports had to pivot to find ways of being safe yet relevant to consumers trapped at home. As we emerge from the pandemic, the return of live entertainment has been one to watch and the digital customer experience for attractions is more important than ever.
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Greg Heanue, Chief Marketing Officer of the Oklahoma City Zoo about their unique approach to innovation.
How did the Oklahoma City Zoo innovate during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic forced us to close on Friday, March 13, 2020 which was the start of spring break and our busiest week of the year. Revenues from spring attendance are crucial for the care of more than 1,100 animals at the Oklahoma City Zoo. For us, the pressure of the pandemic sparked a lot of discussion and new ideas to generate funds while also connecting people with wildlife in a safer way. One idea was to create daily videos featuring the wildlife and caretakers on Facebook and YouTube. This series called OKCZOO @ 2, premiered daily at 2:00 pm, and featured up close looks at wildlife, behind the scenes tours and even a few game shows. Another innovative idea was the launch of SIP & STROLL, an evening event series exclusively for adults age 21 and older. While indoor bars and restaurants remained closed, guests could enjoy food, conservation themed drinks and see wildlife all outdoors in the Zoo. These kinds of innovative ideas helped us reach new and younger audiences and encourage us to take more risks.
How has the OKC Zoo attracted younger guests in the last few years?
Connecting with Millennials and Gen Z is a serious challenge for cultural institutions. Though it’s easier to reach younger demographics through targeted ads on social media, sincerely connecting and engaging with this group is hard. Zoos have two advantages that other cultural institutions don’t. First, we provide the interactive, multisensory and immersive experience millennials want. Second, Millennials and Gen Z are beginning to see sustainability as a requirement in all of their endeavors. The Oklahoma City Zoo and hundreds of other accredited zoos and aquariums are not only advocates of wildlife conservation and sustainability, but we demonstrate this commitment in the experience we provide. By creating novel immersive experiences, deeply rooted in sustainability and conservation, we’re able to better engage Millennials and Gen Z.
How has the OKC Zoo positioned itself as a sustainability agent?
The Oklahoma City Zoo has the opportunity to demonstrate sustainability at every touchpoint to more than a million guests annually. We are continually evaluating and adjusting the guest experience to make an impact on the environment and our guests. Our visitor maps are shifting from paper to downloadable files or photos. Our vending machines sell water in aluminum bottles, not plastic. All straws, plates and utensils are made from compostable materials. New buildings being constructed are LED-certified. Single-use plastics are being eliminated from our gift shops and restaurants. Even the green spaces in our parking lot are being converted into pollinator gardens with native species. Our goal is for guests to discover these sustainability actions and adopt them when they leave the Zoo. Everyone remembers their visit to the Zoo, so now we want our visitors to be inspired and take action.
In my book “The Purpose Advantage 2.0” I look at the topics of sustainability, innovation and purpose in detail. In today’s age of rapid change, brand action trumps brand communications and the OKC Zoo’s brand actions are an essential and visible way for brands to think about bringing sustainability to life.