The Whats, Whys and Hows of Guest Experience, Part 1

The following is an adaptation of a presentation I gave in September 2013 at the AZA National Conference as part of the session ‘Enrichment as Guest Experience.’ This is part one of two.

The guest experience is a critical component to any institution that aspires to educate the general public in a single visit.  Zoos and aquariums have a trick up their sleeve, however: the animals.  And as long as we optimize the connection between guests and the animals, the guest experience is elevated.  In order to ‘optimize connection,’ zoos and aquariums can and should use enrichment as a critical element of the guest experience. 

Zoos and aquariums are doing fantastic work across the country and around the world working on conservation, research and education programs.

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With all of this great work, sometimes a critical characteristic of the institutions is overlooked: the Guests.  Zoos and aquariums are places for leisure and recreation.

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They are places that people primarily visit for wholesome, family fun which means we have a captive audience, day in and day out, to which we can directly connect.  Because of that, we cannot overlook the fundamental aspect that keeps people coming back again and again…The Guest Experience.

Simply put, if guests don’t have a great time, they simply won’t come back.

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What goes hand in hand with having a great time? Creating memories.  We have to always remember that we are helping our guests make lifelong memories.

Indulge me here.  Let’s take a moment to explore memory making.  Positive or negative, memories capture a moment in time, and influence future decision making.  A memory is truly a living portrait of an experience–and an experience that makes the most powerful memory has some very specific attributes.

1. It’s sensorial

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There’s a touch, taste, smell, sound or sight associated with the experience.  Something that will bring you back to that moment in an instant.  For me, mothballs remind me of Spring Break at my grandma’s in Florida—doing homework at the kitchen table from the extra days off for the trip.  For some people, music is especially nostalgic…Weezer’s Undone (The Sweater Song) takes me back to dancing around my high school best friend’s living room.

2. It’s emotional

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Happiness, love, fear, embarrassment are captured fully in memories.  Our happiest moments are easily remembered, of course.  But, on the flipside, trauma also sticks with us.  One of my earliest memories is of Santa—and of me, at 3 or 4 years old, hiding under the dining room table at my grandparents’ house clutching the table leg for dear life, tears streaming down my face, shaking in fear of the gigantic, loud, creepy stranger with a weird laugh sitting in my Pappy’s chair and eating our cookies.  Not cool, Santa.  Not cool.

3. It’s new

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Our first time.  It sticks with us.  The experience of trying and failing, trying and overcoming.  The excitement of doing something for the very first time.  These are strong experiences that beget strong memories.  Even for seasoned professionals, that first snuggle with a snow leopard cub sticks with you.

Okay, so we get memory making in general, so next we’ll talk about memory making—and thus experience–at zoos and aquariums specifically.  Check back soon for Part II.

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