Zoos are going the extra distance to make their facilities more welcoming to adults. Mixers and after-hours special events are attracting adults to zoos and helping to build memberships, and during the day many zoos are now offering beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages in their restaurants and cafes. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., is one of the nation’s oldest zoos and one of the last free zoos in the country. The zoo, which welcomes more than 3 million visitors per year, is known as a leader in wildlife conservation and community education and is home to more than 1,000 animals. While the zoo maintains a strict family atmosphere, it does offer alcoholic beverages to guests on a daily basis and for special fundraising events. “Two years ago, we began offering beer and wine to our guests at our cafes,” said Erika Kohler, Senior Director of Guest Services. “We offer organic beer and wine at Café at Wild Things, which is an all-organic eatery. Zoo guests can also sip cocktails at our newest eatery, the Patio at Café Brauer, which is open late after zoo operating hours and becoming a new happy hour destination for the Lincoln Park neighborhood.”
The Patio is located on the beautiful new Nature Boardwalk and features local draft beer, including a specialty beer that is only served at two locations in the city. The zoo also sponsors a number of black tie fundraiser gala events that offer alcoholic beverages for guests.
“We do want guests to know that beer and wine are available at certain eateries before they come so we include the restaurants that serve these beverages in our zoo visitor guide,” Kohler said. “We also have ample signage at the cafes and signs that promote our specials at the Patio.”
Alcohol sales account for about 5 percent of the overall food operation budget, and Kohler believes it has helped make the zoo a new destination place for adults who look for something different to do in the evenings, and this awareness gives the zoo the opportunity to bring its message of conservation and education to the focus of more people.
“Serving alcoholic beverages at the zoo requires no different strategy than any other food or drink item. You have to know your audience,” said Kohler. “Are they concert goers, an after-work crowd wanting to sample wines or maybe a dad wanting to enjoy a beer with lunch? If you identify your audience and potential audience, you can meet their needs and bring them into the zoo.”
Founded in 1919, The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens in Naples, Fla., features animals within a historic botanical garden. Zoo guests get close to animals such as lions, leopards, monkeys, alligators and other species as they explore the 43-acre site. The zoo focuses on children and family, but it also understands that adult guests are important too. Beer and wine sales are available for guests each day but only at two locations: Zoo Café and the Jungle Café.
“We are glad to offer alcoholic beverages to our guests, especially our large number of international guests,” said Tim L. Tetzlaff, director of Conservation at the zoo. “At the same time, we do not include alcohol in any promotions or place extensive signage in sensitivity to our family atmosphere.”
While beer and wine are a convenience for guests, these sales are not a major contributor to overall revenue of the zoo, accounting for only about 2.3 percent of food sales.
“Our daytime visitors don’t have a strong expectation for alcohol availability, but our guests at our evening events do,” explained Douglas Rickenback, director of Operations at the zoo. “As businesses, wedding parties and charitable groups gather to celebrate, they enjoy having alcohol as part of their socializing. Our evening events do feature beer, wine or a full bar nearly every time.”
A kayaking safari through the wilderness, feeding a gentle giraffe or stroking the scales of a baby alligator are just some of the adventures awaiting guests at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla. The zoo, which includes exhibits such as Paws on Play, Expedition Africa, Wild Florida, La Selva and Australia/Asia, is home to 550 animals representing 165 species. As Director of Operations for the zoo, Sharon Connelly understands how important it is to meet the needs of the more than 360,000 visitors who visit each year from around the world.
“We want to make our guests feel as at home as possible, so we do offer beer and wine for sale at our Flamingo café during zoo hours, which are 9:30 to 5 p.m.” Connelly said. “The zoo also has a rental facility that sells beer and wine throughout the day, and we have a liquor license to sell beer, wine and liquor. We currently choose to sell liquor at special evening events in the zoo and at special events at our lodge such as weddings and fundraisers.”
While alcohol currently accounts for about 15 percent of total food sales, the bulk of that percentage is from the renting of zoo facilities for special events.
“While we are happy to be able to offer alcohol to our guests, especially our large number of foreign guests, our focus on serving alcohol was to accommodate the special and private events that guests book at the zoo such as weddings and private parties, which are often held in the evening after zoo hours,” Connelly noted. “We need to be competitive with other venues in the area such as hotels.”
Brevard Zoo does not promote alcohol except at the Flamingo Café. At evening events, the zoo does have alcohol stations in the zoo, and the zoo does promote alcohol availability to those who inquire about renting the facilities for special events.
“We want them to know it’s available here for these events, but we are very conscious that we are a family friendly facility,” said Connelly. “We maintain a strict serving policy, and our staff takes alcohol training classes on a quarterly basis. We understand it’s important to offer alcohol to our guests, but it is not in any way our highest priority.”
At Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, guests can purchase alcoholic beverages at one of the food stands located near the Ford African Rain Forest, and in the summer months, outside the zoo’s main restaurant, Wild Planet Café.
“The ability to serve alcohol gives Zoo Atlanta the opportunity to host not just picnics but all types of events such as fundraisers, weddings and client appreciation events,” noted Senior Vice President of Operations Cary Burgess. “This has made us one of the most sought-after venues for group and special events and in turn has enabled us to increase our catering sales.”
Zoo Atlanta welcomes more than 700,000 guests per year and is home to 1,500 animals representing more than 230 species. The zoo, which is known for its work to protect endangered species, has the nation’s largest collection of gorillas and orangutans, and it is only one of four zoos in the United States that houses giant pandas.
“Guests come to have a full experience and participate in all our events. Our family atmosphere is important to us as is the comfort of all our visitors. We want to accommodate them so they will come visit again and again. We attract guests not only from Atlanta and Georgia, but from all over the United States and the world. We want everyone to enjoy their visit.”
Zoo Atlanta promotes alcohol sales through its catering services and offers special event clients different types of bars and specialty drinks.
“We go out of our way to make an event special and unique. Our catering services work with clients to ensure that the event runs smoothly and that each guest remembers the event as unique and fun.”
Tips for Promoting Alcohol
- Know your customers and where they come from. Many zoos get international guests who are accustomed to drinking beer or wine during the day.
- Have specialty drinks and bars for special events and gala occasions. If you make the event different and fun, guests will remember and possibly book their event in the future.
- Never lose sight of the zoo’s family fun focus. Staff should receive special training when it comes to alcohol service. Keeping a watchful eye on guests when alcohol is served is essential. Alcohol sales can encourage more adults to come to the zoos for special events. Providing a fun, safe and unique atmosphere for get togethers and events makes visitors want to come back.
- Have beer and wine specials with meals and display these specials on signage. It is not necessary to have a separate campaign to promote these specials. The daily alcohol specials can be low key.