How Will Guests Drive the Future Innovation of Your Cultural Attraction? 

Mom and son looking at elephants

May 2, 2023 • Cait Witherspoon • ECHO Digital, ECHO Digital, Zoos + Aquariums

A Guest Centric Experience 

What guests want in their visit and how we respond is ever evolving. How do we ensure we’re providing an integrated guest centric experience from start to finish? We joined Shannon Fitzgerald, Chief Brand Officer at SSA Group, in a conversation exploring what the guest experience could become when we look at it through a different lens, holistically.  

SSA Group partners with cultural attractions across the nation to drive revenue, innovation, and impact. SSA manages all revenue generating services for cultural attractions through best-in-class integrated services across food, retail, and admissions. This unified operational platform means more opportunities to maximize your mission and evolve the guest journey.

Key Takeaways

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks
Actively seeking out and taking risks, without a good idea of a return on investment, is something that most zoos and aquariums try their best to avoid. Shannon Fitzgerald introduced us to one organization that does it on a regular basis and has, in turn, taken the guest experience to new heights – the Savannah Bananas baseball team. Yes, we know that a baseball game is vastly different than the day-to-day work zoos and aquariums do to care for and protect wildlife. And we understand that updating the experience in zoos and aquariums takes a lot of capital. But we feel that their approach to the guest experience, “Fans first, entertainment always,” could be something that zoos and aquariums could learn from. If the Bananas can risk changing the time-honored tradition of baseball, zoos and aquariums can challenge the assumptions of what a zoo or aquarium experience could become.

The Idea Factory
Everyone has good ideas and developing a way for staff to share and try out their ideas is a great place to start. In the case of the Bananas, half of each practice is dedicated to working on baseball skills and the other half is used to think of new dances, games, and other on-field antics for the week’s game. The team strives to try 5 new things at each game knowing that two-thirds of the ideas will be a flop. They use each game as an opportunity for growth, pay close attention to how their guests respond, and keep the ideas that work and throw out the others.

Zoos and aquariums put a lot of effort into providing an excellent guest experience, however sometimes it can feel like the same tactics and programs are used over and over with slight changes happening occasionally. Other organizations are used as benchmarks and their success is repeated. While it would be exceedingly difficult to keep up with the Bananas pace of 5 changes each week, developing a process of rapid prototyping for new ideas within zoos and aquariums could be a way to elevate your guest experience in new and innovative ways.

Learning What Guests Want
Ryan Levesque of the ASK Method Company says that people really don’t know what they want. Rather, they know what they don’t want and they hyper-focus on challenges they encounter. To understand their fans, the Bananas began by watching the security footage. They learned that fans begin losing interest around the 2-hour mark and when one team pulled so far ahead that there was no coming back for the opponent. Now, in Banana Ball, no new inning can start after 110 minutes of game play and a new scoring method was developed to keep each game a nail-biter. The team also began taking note of when fans pulled out their phones and began recording. Whatever was going on at that time, they tried to repeat it as often as they could.

We sometimes get so caught up in being scientific in developing assessments, we can easily forget about methods of observation that could be the low-hanging fruit. Really, it’s all about improving your program’s effectiveness. If guests show you they like it, lean into it. If something causes friction in their day, take a closer look.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page
The Bananas’ owner, Jesse Cole, always admired the great showmen, including P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney. One thing both were exceptionally good at was ensuring their entire team – from top to bottom – were aligned in providing an outstanding guest experience. Setting the tone early in the onboarding process is an important piece of the puzzle, but also finding a way to incentivize providing a great guest experience might be the key to longevity and continuity. In the case of the Bananas, players receive incentives for the experience they provide to fans and not for their performance on the field. Breaking down silos – real or imagined – that keep teams from sharing ideas and goals is something that zoos and aquariums should also focus on. As Walt Disney said, “Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”