Harnessing Technology to Improve the Guest Experience at Zoos and Aquariums

The Internet, social media and smart phones are common tools for obtaining information in everyday life. However, technology is also helping zoos and aquariums inform and educate their guests and the public on animals that live both on land and beneath the sea.

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in British Columbia, Canada, has always embraced new technology. The aquarium was the first aquarium to put up an official Web site in the early 1990s, and its You Tube video “Sea Otters Holding Hands” gained so much attention that You Tube had to give the aquarium their own channel.

“The You Tube video really got a lot of views,” said Aquarium President and CEO John Nightingale. “I think it’s at over 15 million now. But it confirmed our belief that the Internet and technology not only reaches our guests but the public who may never set foot in our aquarium. We can reach them and educate and inform them on not only the animals but on conservation, the marine environment and ocean issues.” Known globally for its ability to engage people, the aquarium welcomes 900,000 visitors per year and more than nine million people through its Web site and You Tube.

“We reach 10 times as many people through our Web site and You Tube and that number doesn’t include the people who find us on Facebook, Twitter or our blog,” Nightingale noted. “We easily adapt to new technology and these channels can distribute information quickly and accurately.”

Trying to get people engaged through the Internet and social media is helpful in both a business sense and a mission sense. In order to support the Internet channels, the Vancouver Aquarium built a new education wing that houses a digital contact lab. The aquarium also added to their staff a complete content team.

“The lab looks like a mini television station. The team operates 90 monitors that are placed throughout the aquarium. The entire aquarium is committed to digital imaging,” explained Nightingale. “We have come from didactic graphics to storytelling in our digital content. It used to be that there were just pictures, but animals move and things happen and the digital technology captures it and allows our human interpreters to tell the story too. Technology enhances the experience for our guests.”

Also adopted by the aquarium are smart phone applications. The apps give those interested in helping the marine environment a way to do so.

“Often, people do want to know about ocean issues and do their part, but they don’t know how,” Nightingale observed. “The apps give them direction. We have the Great Canadian Shore Line Clean up App as well as the Oceanwise Sustainable Seafood App, which allows Smart Phone users to find restaurants that serve sustainable seafood and also gives the prices for those meals.”

Vancouver Aquarium has more technology improvements in the planning stage. Within the next few months, there will be a Bump program for IPhones. The Bump program allows IPhone users to tap into the information about the aquarium that other IPhone users may have.

“The rate of technology has sped up a great deal, but it is good for us. The new technology gives us the opportunity to not only bring in more guests but to educate the public on our mission and on the marine environment. Technology builds fans, and fans want to make the world a better place, and they come to us to learn.”

As Design Manager for the San Diego Zoo in California, Damien Lasater sees the importance of bringing new technology to the zoo to enhance visitor experience. The zoo has hired a social media planner whose job is to reach the public and inform them about the new technology.

“We have Discovery Days at the zoo, and these days focus on a specific animal or a group of animals,” explained Lasater. “We ask guests with smart phones to interact with the exhibit. We are able to relay more information through the smart phones. We also hold ‘Tweet Ups’ – the Twitter version of Meet Ups for those who follow us on Twitter.”

Twitter followers who met for “Reptile Mania” could meet and talk with the animal expert in charge of the exhibit. They were also allowed to take photos with the zookeeper. For the Koalapalooza exhibit, which highlights Australian animals, Twitter followers could walk through the exhibit and see the animals up close, a behind-the-scenes look that could not be given to all zoo guests.

Along with Twitter, the San Diego Zoo relies on Facebook and Four Square as well.

“We have 85,000 fans on our zoo Facebook page, and we have a Facebook page for the safari park too. We are constantly interacting with our fans and trying to make them be involved in not only the zoo but in environmental causes as well. We ask them to post their photos of the zoo, and write about their experiences.” Lasater said. “The new Polar Bear exhibit opens soon and if Facebook fans post a pledge to help Polar Bears, we post on their wall different conservation sayings such as ‘I will turn off the water and reduce climate changes and that will help Polar Bears.’ ”

The San Diego Zoo utilizes a Three-Screen Strategy when it comes to technology.

“We want our information to be on Television, PCs and now mobile,” he explained. “In November we opened Big Frontier, which is especially suited for the new tablets that are out now such as the IPAD. All content related to exhibits will be available for mobile. For example, we have a new kids’ Web site that can be seen on a PC screen, plus it can be accessed on a mobile device or tablet as well. We have launched a special mobile Web site too.”

Down the road, the San Diego Zoo is hoping to use a GPS enabled map that tells visitors where they are and gives information on the animals or exhibits that are in front of them. The GPS feature will also link photos so guests can share the pictures they have taken at the zoo.

“We are excited at all the new technology that is available now and coming in the future,” Lasater noted. “We have a great team here that knows and loves technology, and wants to make it a part of our guests’ experience.”

The Florida Aquarium in Tampa welcomes 675,000 guests annually to the four-gallery, 250,000-square-foot facility in Tampa. In 2008, the aquarium re-opened one of its galleries and debuted “Ocean Commotion.” Built with technology in mind, the gallery is Smart, Wi-Fi, Location Aware. The technology uses multiple antennas to triangulate where a guest is and gives out information to those with smart phones.

“For example, a guest with a smart phone walks up to the Octopus exhibit and then puts the aquarium into the browser on their phone. Then, on their phone, a list of catalogs comes up and they select the Octopus and they can get videos, photos and sometimes an audio clip of that exhibit,” explained aquarium spokesperson Tom Wagner. “When guests walk away from the exhibit and go to another one, new information on that exhibit is available immediately.”

Although more and more guests are purchasing Smart Phones, Wagner does not want to alienate those guests who do not have those phones. So, people with regular cell phones can get an audio tour of the exhibits by calling a number. The recorded voice of the scientist or biologist who is an expert on the exhibit gives the audio tour.

The audio tour has been in existence since 2007, and in February a new version was launched in both English and Spanish. Through a grant from AT&T, all new content for the exhibits was created and now guests can hear sounds of the animals in their natural setting as well. The Aquarium also has its own IPhone App that provides information, directions and links to Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and the aquarium’s Web site pages.

“We want our guests to feel as if they have been right there with the animals, and each new technology that comes along, makes our guests’ experiences so much better.”
As Director of Guest Experience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, David Rosenberg sees how new technology helps visitors and the public understand the mission of the Aquarium.

“Aquariums used to run a great deal on interpretation, and it was hard to get people to the exhibits in time for interpretation for animal activities like feeding,” Rosenberg explained. “Now, we have launched text messaging for our guests. They text the word ‘feeding’ when they come into the aquarium and anytime there is an animal getting fed, they get a text back. We give them a five-minute warning. The text goes out to the interpreter as well, so everyone is in the loop and coordinated for that feeding.”

The 350,000-square-foot aquarium is also home to the one million gallon open water tank that houses the Great White Shark research program. Young sharks from Malibu are either collected or come in as bi-catch from fisherman. They are tagged and brought in to the open sea tank. The aquarium holds them until they reach a certain size, and then they are released. “As a research facility, guests expect us to be on the leading edge of technology trends,” Rosenberg said. “And we want to be able to give our visitors a different experience each time they come.”

The aquarium uses digital technology to change exhibit maps. New information is updated on a daily basis. Tour guides have also been equipped with IPads as well. “Interpretation is very important in aquariums, and the IPads give our tour guides the most recent and accurate information available. The IPads makes their job easier, and having so much information at their fingertips makes the experience more interesting for guests too.” –

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