Have you ever been face-to-face with a tiger? What about a koala, or a baby platypus? Visitors can experience this connection with wildlife during a visit to the San Diego Zoo. However, due to restrictions on tourism enacted in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, enthusiasts are not able to see their favorite animals in person. Instead, they can watch one of the Zoo’s array of free live cameras on their site — without ever leaving home.
The live cameras, operated by volunteers and sponsored by various companies like Coca-Cola and Nintendo, are just one way the zoo has continued to innovate, said Ted Molter, Chief Marketing Officer of San Diego Zoo Global.
“All of these things [like the webcams] try to give people this window into our world at a time when they can’t actually enter the zoo and the Safari Park…At this time last year, there were about a million people accessing these cams… In the time that we’ve been in the stay-at-home, that’s gone up to 29 million, and it’s still growing,” he said. “[These are] investments we’ve made over a long period of time to have a rich format and content available that works and functions and fulfills these needs right now.”
The San Diego Zoo has been closed to the public since March 16. And while the zoo has been closed for short periods the past due to weather, Molter says that this closure has been much longer and stretches into an unknown future.
“We’re gonna have to…invent a new future for ourselves [after this pandemic]. And for us, it’s really important that the mission of San Diego Zoo global is part of that reinvention,” Molter says. “So we’re going to keep that forefront of everything that we do.”
During the call, Molter also covered:
Leveraging social media tools like Pinterest and TikTok to reach new audiences. By posting about the features and attractions of the San Diego Zoo parks on Pinterest, the organization was connected to a number of brides using the site to plan unconventional, wildlife-themed weddings. Similarly, on TikTok, an application most popular with younger demographics, videos of animals amass millions of views and likes, leading to new followers and fans of the content.
Using existing resources to create educational content that engages people of all ages. San Diego Zoo Global had developed a number of workshop modules used to train volunteers and zoological workers called the San Diego Zoo Global Academy. A few weeks ago, the organization decided to rework some of these training materials and put them online as free courses for junior high school, high school, and college students. So far, they’ve had about 27,000 people engaged with the workshops.
Developing relationships with sponsors to fund content, like live cameras. Prior to the closure of nonessential businesses, San Diego Zoo Global was planning a large-scale spring break event for kids at the zoo that was sponsored by a large company. Once the program was shut down, the sponsor was convinced to move the sponsorship over to one of the zoo’s live cameras, which ultimately garnered even more exposure than the in-person program would have. This led to a number of new sponsors across all of the cameras.
Delivering on promises made to donors pre-COVID-19, and the difference between restricted and unrestricted funds. Because the needs of the nonprofit have changed, the newer dollars that are coming in from donations are being categorized as unrestricted funds that the nonprofit may use for any purpose, Molter said. However, construction projects that were planned prior to the pandemic, for which the organization received earmarked donations, are going to continue. Maintaining constant communication with these donors is key, Molter said. He also anticipates that members, who pay an annual fee for unlimited admission to the parks, will be among the first allowed to enter once they reopen.
Planning for an eventual re-opening of the attractions. According to Molter, making visitors feel safe is going to continue to be a priority moving forward. The zoo is already planning to make some back-of-house operations, like the janitorial services, much more visible in order to show guests that the facility is clean. Other considerations include adding plastic barriers between a guide and a tour group on vehicles used for tours, and incorporating social distancing guidelines to keep visitors several feet apart.