Creating a Zoo-tacular Experience with Dynamic Storytelling (Case Study: Hattiesburg Convention Commission)

Museum Hack - Renegade Tours

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Mississippi: the land of sweet tea, pre-Civil War mansions, and magnolias.  Nestled in the southern heart of this state is something you probably wouldn’t expect: over 80 species of animal wildlife!  At home in the Hattiesburg Zoo, the animals are part of the many tourist facilities run by the Hattiesburg Convention Commission.

The Hattiesburg Zoo has been experimenting with audience engagement techniques, seeking to bring new life to their diverse collection through experience-based programming.  The zoo wants visitors to come away with a sense of awe and a desire to return, fostering long-term relationships with visitors and an appreciation for the diverse inhabitants of our planet.  

Ethan & Dustin in front of the Hattiesburg Zoo
Ethan and Dustin from Museum Hack in front of the Hattiesburg Zoo.

The Hattiesburg team knew that stories and genuine human interaction were key parts of successful engagement, but zoo staff were struggling with the structures they needed to tell stories in a dynamic, juicy, and well thought out manner.  Rick Taylor, Director of the Hattiesburg Tourism Commission, traveled to New York City, where he experienced our engaging tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History.  After their Museum Hack experience, Hattiesburg Zoo knew that our methods for dynamic storytelling were the key to achieving their goals.  It was time for us to hack the zoo!

Dustin Growick and Ethan Angelica traveled to Mississippi to assist Hattiesburg Convention Commission staff in brainstorming and developing ways to bring their unique stories to life.  We led a discussion of our methods with staff members from Hattiesburg area museums, historic sites, and the zoo, exploring how our techniques to engage audiences could be integrated into their current and future programming.

Dustin and Ethan present to the Hattiesburg Tourism Commission.
Image courtesy Visit Hattiesburg.

Dustin and Ethan also led a workshop on audience engagement for staff at the Hattiesburg Zoo.  These two Museum Hackers helped the zoo’s staff develop the skills needed to tell engaging stories and keep audiences coming back for more.  We discussed techniques for high-level audience engagement, such as games and activities that invite audiences to participate in crafting their own memorable zoo experiences.  We also demonstrated the “hack” structure of our tours, discussing how proper pacing and infusing tours with personal passion keeps visitors energized and prevents “museum fatigue.” 

“We spent a day speaking to staff about storytelling, offering examples of our activities and storytelling with their staff. I focused on my favorite primate – lemurs – and the things I find fascinating about them (primarily stink-fighting), while Dustin focused on ways to create activities that would help guests explore the zoo’s collection on their own terms.

Overall, the theme was about creating holistic stories. The zoo is not just a place for conservation education – it’s also a living, breathing institution in itself. The experience of working at and running a zoo is often as fascinating to guests as the animals themselves. Our goal was to empower keepers to passionately speak about the work they do and the animals they love, while also conveying a strong conservation message.”

— Ethan Angelica

Hattiesburg Zoo staff with a tortoise.
Hattiesburg Zoo staff and Ethan with a tortoise.

One area of our focus was developing fun, informal games to foster visitor learning.  We began by asking questions: What do zoo staff do every day?  What are the major points that zoo staff want audiences to take away with them?  How can we foster personal connections with the animals?

Using these questions as our guide, we helped Hattiesburg Zoo to develop activities that engage visitors with the animals while having tons of fun.  One of the primary functions of zoo staff is the care and keeping of the animals — including feeding time!  We developed an activity that invites guests to become keeper for a day and challenges them to match the foods staff provide to the animals. 

We also dug deep into one of the major scientific concepts that zoos can discuss: adaptation.  Gamifying this scientific concept into a fun “genetic mashup” game invites visitors to find an animal they love.  Visitors are challenged with pairing up their animals to mate, then imagining what kind of “mutant” will be born as a result — and what adaptations it will have!  Visitors name and describe their animal to others in their group, discovering traits that make each animal unique and discussing how “mutants” have paved the way for the diversity of life we know today.

We found a "large animal" at Hattiesburg Zoo!
We found a “large animal” at Hattiesburg Zoo!

Dustin and Ethan also discussed how staff can create a sense of behind-the-scenes action for visitors, giving them glimpses of the everyday workings of the zoo and inspiring visitors to contribute to the ongoing success of the zoo’s programs and conservation efforts. We also shared techniques on how to deal with challenging questions around science; how to build events, stories, activities and experiences to make them social; and how to help guests actively participate in the creation of the meaning of their experience.

The workshop was a success!  Hattiesburg Zoo staff loved the skills they gained and the fun team building we achieved along the way.  By the end of the workshop, it was all hands in for creating the best zoo experience ever:

We had an amazing time with the Hattiesburg Convention Commission and Hattiesburg Zoo staff!  As Ethan stated, “And we got to hold a sloth. It was terrific, and everyone (including us!) learned a ton.”

Dustin Growick holds the Hattiesburg Zoo's sloth, Chewy
Dustin Growick holds the Hattiesburg Zoo’s sloth, Chewy.

Rick Taylor, Director of the Hattiesburg Tourism Commission, also sent us a wonderful letter about their experience:

“Dustin Growick and Ethan Angelica spent the better part of this past week with us in humid Hattiesburg, Mississippi teaching us how to truly engage with our audiences.  Sure, I am aware of the importance of storytelling, but Dustin and Ethan opened our eyes to connecting with each individual guest far beyond just telling a story.  We learned the importance of two-way communication, gamification and how to create a personal shared connection between our staff and our guests.

Not only was the content powerful and our first step in improving the zoo experience, but Dustin and Ethan truly connected with our zookeepers, the prime target of the training.  They showed us how to use guest engagement over a range of areas that will allow us to move forward our message about the importance of conservation of the natural world while also creating memorable experiences that will create repeat visits.

I wish we had even more time to spend with Dustin and Ethan, because we just saw the tip of the iceberg and have been truly left wanting more.”

Learn more about our consulting work with museums, or email us to find out more about how we can help your institution develop fun activities and new audience engagement strategies.

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