We Can't Stay the Same if We Expect to Survive.

We Can’t Stay the Same if We Expect to Survive: Take-Aways from @AZA2017

The National AZA Conference is history, but the lessons we learned in Indy will serve our collective profession and missions for many years to come.  From our vantage point, there were two recurring themes – 1) if zoos and aquariums don’t change, adapt, and evolve, we’re toast and 2) zoos and aquariums are getting much better at telling their stories…but there’s still room for improvement in what and how we communicate with our guests, stakeholders, and policy makers.

The ZA team was busy! We moderated two sessions: one on the topic of women in leadership, and the second on how organizations are putting their mission-work at the forefront. We facilitated get-togethers for the next generation of industry leaders, and for the leaders of partner-groups (Societies, Friends, and Foundations). Despite our busy schedules, we made sure to keep a pulse on what was happening inside and outside the convention center.

Here’s what our team of Kathy Wagner, Zach Winfield, Sherrie Graham, and Dr. Eric Miller learned:

  1. This was the conference where we all felt our conservation messaging was really taking hold. It will lead us into the future. There were lots of conversations, some at sessions, some in the hall (and even at the bar!) about messaging and rebranding--developing (and delivering) a cohesive set of conservation messages.
  2. “Naturalism” is not the be-all end-all. There is more than one way to design a blockbuster exhibit. Standing around the Orangutan Center, we witnessed hundreds of grizzled zoo professionals as giddy as young children. Very powerful.
  3. A holistic approach to the guest experience is necessary—it can’t be just one person’s job anymore. Every staff member, from the CEO to the parking attendant, can have a strong positive impact on a visitor’s day.
  4. There are some seriously creative thinkers floating around this industry. The future of zoos may look radically different than we all expect.
  5. Data has arrived. We heard more people say something along the lines of “it’s not what you think, it’s what you can prove” this conference than ever before.
  6. No one has all the tools and resources they want, but they’re making do in very creative ways. This is an industry of boot-strappers and optimists.
  7. Many sessions offered real and practical solutions – regardless of your budget size – on how we move into the future and put our conservation mission forward. One session on how to get zoo staff involved and excited about conservation was truly inspirational, and posited ideas including bringing conservationists in at 7 AM to meet with front line staff.
  8. More and more organizations are developing thoughtful plans and strategies for conservation and education, and their contribution to the field.
  9. Education programming can be a year-round revenue source, during "off-season" when visitor-driven revenue is down, we’re seeing growth in nature day care, nature pre-schools, and outreach. Early childhood and nature play remain strong. 
  10. Evaluation and metrics continue to be critical—San Antonio Zoo was able to demonstrate gains in pre-school early literacy via PELI testing (pre-school early literacy indicator) with their nature preschool.
  11. There is a growing focus on guest experiences/encounters; one zoo noted that 50% of their programming was dedicated to guest encounters as opposed to programs like camps and classes. 
  12. Citizen science is now "beyond a trend" according to some presenters. These programs offer students and families the opportunity to get out in nature, do "real science" and make a contribution.
  13. The profession has made progress with greater representation of women in leadership roles, but we still have a way to go. The percentage of women Zoo and Aquarium Directors and CEO is still less than 30% across AZA.
  14. The Future of Zoos panel was excellent, and like last year, offered ideas that were “outside of the box.” It clearly reinforced the message, we can't stay the same if we expect to survive. 
  15. Carl Jones was one of the best speakers – speaking from experience, and practicality – conservation will not be completed in the next 3 years, maybe not the next 100.