How does the guest experience differ when attending an event at a zoo or aquarium, compared to a traditional venue?
This is a much deeper question than it leads on. What is a “traditional venue” in today’s world? With people hosting events in open fields and farms, on rooftops of skyscrapers, at sporting arenas that fit 25,000+ people, and everything in between, “traditional” has definitely been broadened; thankfully!
We consider ourselves a Cultural Institution, just like any museum in the city. As a Cultural Institution, our primary Mission Statement is more focused on global initiatives, rather than hosting events. I mention this as our Mission drives “how” and “why” we sell events, but also “what” events we host. When hosting an event at any one of our five properties, we want all of our guests to experience the history of the properties, as well as the story each one of them is trying to tell. Our marketing tagline sounds something like this:
From a more fun event-sided approach, our properties obviously have informative animal exhibits, which is a huge difference from any of the other “event venues.” In addition to being able to view and learn about the animals, our properties and their buildings, contain so much amazing history and architecture.
Some of our “selling points” are: dine in our Congo exhibit, overlooking the gorillas; or, enjoy cocktail hour inside of the Madagascar exhibit with the lemurs, then grab some canapés next to the California sea lions; or, celebrate your Mitzvah underwater the sharks; or, just stroll through our Tropics and Penguin exhibits while sipping cocktails, starring at the 59th Street skyline.
We certainly have guidelines and restrictions in which we need to work within, but our truly unique Experiences are certainly more than just adding some décor or games to a blank space or ballroom, our venues literally have a life and story of their own!
All of your zoos and aquariums are so unique. What are some of the most impactful ways that past events have utilized these spaces?
Another great question! With such unique spaces, I like to think that you do not need to do much to make these spaces work for you. However, we are event planners and we are always going to figure out ways to make the normal into extraordinary!
In the same exact space, The Firm Event Design turned that space into Whoville from Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” You almost forgot where you were when you walked in! Even the CEO of our society brought his family by to check it out.
At the New York Aquarium location, Mitzvahs and Sweet 16’s love the underwater theme, as the backdrop is already built-in.
Our team also really, really enjoys all of the super high-end, elegant, sophisticated, and FUN weddings that are produced at the Bronx Zoo and Central Park Zoo locations each year (as you know first-hand!).
These properties are not only helping drive our conservation efforts, but they lend to really fun locations for events, that can also appeal to the black-tie crowds.
Is there one wedding or event in particular that really stands out to you among the rest?
We are involved with about 400-500 events each year, across all parks. Some we plan from beginning to end, while others we may only need to support in minor roles, or we are following an experienced event planner’s lead as just the venue manager. These include external events (corporate, social, non-profit, etc…), as well as internal events (our Gala, Brew at the Zoo, educational driven events, partnership or membership events, meetings, etc…); all of which are super important to our Mission and the bottom-line.
Therefore, I am going to take a selfish approach here, as we take a lot of pride in our “event planner, industry-driven” hosted events. These events were created to show our colleagues as to why they should host events at our properties.
In April 2017, we hosted two Central Park Zoo events in the same week; our Tuesday evening event, April’s Spring Awakening, was in the middle of a thunderstorm, followed by our Thursday afternoon event, Tea & Cake with April; both of which had over 200-guests.
Fast-forward to September 2018, two months after the New York Aquarium’s newest exhibit, Ocean Wonders: Sharks! opened, we hosted another event to showcase a totally different property. Besides bringing in all that Coney Island and Brooklyn had to offer, including the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, and dozens of other great partners, the event featured a local string quartet playing alongside the sharks indoors, while a 12-piece band, atop a 40’ stage that we rolled in (yes, rolled in!) rocked the outdoors. With a very wet, rainy morning, we still hosted over 400 event professionals on a Friday evening in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Thankfully, 2019 was another strong year for us! On the second Tuesday in May, we had over 600-guests “play hooky” (#SAVEFERRIS), and join us for an 8-hour event at the Bronx Zoo. The event included access to the entire Bronx Zoo, including our Dinosaur Safari, a BBQ with custom cocktails and carnival games, zip-lining over the Bronx River, a Biergarten, a mobile scavenger hunt across our 265-acres, and concluded with a happy hour featuring music, indoor golf, a whiskey sommelier, Oysters XO, and of course, some tasty F&B!
Then, in September 2019, we went back to the Central Park Zoo, where the Jordan Kahn Orchestra brought the house down (well, it was really a 200’ long tent), among over 700 of New York’s finest event professionals. This was our “Event Planner’s Night Out” event.
It MAY sound like a traditional Tuesday evening cocktail party, but I’ll let the images and guests speak to how it was far from the traditional cocktail party! I don’t know about you, but when you host an event and someone PROPOSES within the first hour, you’re doing something right!
Apologies, I thought this was going to be a much shorter answer, but how could I pick just ONE event : )
What was the most wild (pun intended) request that you’ve received from past clients?
Everyone laughs when we tell the story of the groom who requested to ride in on an elephant, as it sounded like an important part of their culture’s tradition. When we told them no, they asked if they could bring in their own elephant. We politely declined that request as well. I think they settled on a wooden horse for him to “ride” in on.
One bride was actually talking to our tenting provider about using a helicopter to place a massive temporary structure over one of our sea lion pools. We also had to politely decline that request.
The wildest request came from Toys R’ Us, asking for a fully exclusive buyout of the Bronx Zoo for an entire day. We did multiple revisions to the proposal and had a bunch of internal discussions, trying to make this work. Then they went radio silent. This was right around the time their bankruptcy stories were starting to make headlines. We think that they were trying to squeeze in one last hurrah before everything crumbled around them. It could have been an amazing going away party!
If you were to leave us with something to think about, what would it be?
In today’s current climate, there is SO MUCH to think about, especially considering where our industry is. I think that some friendly reminders are always a good thing, especially now:
- Have empathy and/or sympathy for others.
- Be humble have humility.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help; don’t be afraid to offer it either.
- Make sure your learn everyday, but also make sure you teach everyday.
- Take care of yourself daily, mind, body, and soul; your very own triquetra.
- Always find some positivity within any situation.
- If you look for love, it will find you; if you look for hate, it too will find you.
- Passion isn’t born, it’s created.
- Successful people didn’t get there without trying; they also didn’t get there without some failures.
Visit Wildlife Conservation Society’s events and catering website to learn more.
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