Feeding time for the animals at America’s zoos and aquariums might be on a set schedule, but, for visitors, eating is an all-day affair. And, as the number of guests looking for on-the-go, family-friendly meal and snack options at leisure locations continues to grow, so do marketing opportunities for local and national quick-service brands.
According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), attendance at its more than 200 member attractions is estimated at 143 million each year. A 1999 study cited on the Web site for The American Association of Museums (AAM) reported that American museums (including zoos) average about 865 million visits per year or 2.3 million visits per day. More than 100,000 of those visits are to arboretums and botanical gardens and 60,000 to art museums.
The average zoo or aquarium visitor can spend up to 50 percent of his stay at service amenities such as food concessions, gift shops, or restrooms, says David Goetz, vice president of marketing and development for Service Systems Associates Inc., a Denver company that specializes in handling concessions and catering for 25 zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens across the country. Whether or not those amenities meet their expectations has an impact on whether they view their entire visit as a positive one, not to mention how much money they spend.
Until recently, however, foodservice ranked low among the priorities of most cultural and leisure attractions, says Monica Hahn, vice president of marketing for the sports and entertainment group at Philadelphia–based Aramark Corp., one of the nation’s leading foodservice management companies. At stadiums and arenas, she notes, quick-service food has always been viewed as a key part of the entertainment. Not so at more mission-oriented destinations where the emphasis is on education. For guests, having a meal or snack was a pause in the experience instead of a part of it.
“Foodservice was viewed as a necessary evil and often consisted of overpriced, prewrapped sandwiches,” says Cindy Simpson, director of business development at Gaithersburg, Maryland–headquartered foodservice management giant Sodexo.
Some brought quick-service brands in to appease guests’ pangs with more familiar fare, but, for many, fast food’s reputed contribution to American obesity, particularly among children, and the proliferation of waste materials generated by take-out packaging were cause for concern, says Ray Coen, a California-based consultant whose clients include the Los Angeles Zoo, the L.A. County Museum of Art, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.
“The image of quick-service didn’t fit their image of themselves or the one they wanted to promote to visitors and the community,” Coen says.
Simpson credits New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for bringing food to the forefront several years ago when it opened an independent upscale restaurant on site. MoMA’s example demonstrated to other institutions how foodservice could enhance guests’ experiences. Just as important, it suggested that food could become a source of revenue.
“For guests, eating became part of the fun of a day out at the zoo or aquarium,” Simpson says. “For the institutions, the money food brought in became another way to support their missions.
Now in zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and art museums across America, visitors are never more than a few steps away from something to snack or sip on. Options range from full-course fine-dining and family-style meals to soft pretzels and ice cream.