I recently enjoyed a family staycation in Suffolk. I was there for a week to enjoy the beaches and coastal villages, with two toddlers in tow, my father in law was keen to take the boys on their very first trip to a zoo.
We all agreed a zoo trip was a great idea, he booked us in and was very excited but the booking stage is the first of many stages in the customer journey that left us somewhat confused. As it is now evident to us, Africa Alive! is part of Zoological Society for East Anglia, who have a sister site just an hour away, called Banham Zoo. Using the mobile site, my father in law had unknowingly booked us in to Banham, which has a very similar looking site and same price list. When he realised the mistake, he tried to call to sort the issue out quickly but found no number. He then emailed to which he did get a response to say it would be sorted, but he was unclear how and when. With no correspondence, he then had to chase again a week later when he was told that this has happened many times before (!) credited with the initial booking and told to re-book for the correct zoo himself. Other prospective customers may not have been as patient or keen for a visit and could have easily been frustrated by this process and dropped out of the customer journey altogether. This also indicates that whilst the zoos may be under the same ZSEA umbrella, their processes are not necessarily joined up, leaving more work to both employees and customers.
For a day trip to a zoo, a sense of arrival is key, you’re looking forward to the day, likely to be both excited to see the animals and in these strange times, anxious to be parked up and through the gates for your narrow timed arrival slot. Driving in, I was both in awe of the gargantuan wind turbines that were seemingly right above our heads and confused, as it looked like we were driving into the holiday park that’s a field away from the entrance. We kept going following the little signage and parked up on the field. Closer to the entrance, we saw big banners of lions, meerkats and flamingos as we walked, following a one way sign to the entrance, where a welcoming staff member scanned our online ticket and waved us through.
On entering the park, we could see the main hub which looked like a food and beverage offer, toilets, the shop and learning centre directly in front of us and as a party of 6 adults and 2 toddlers, we inevitably decided to use the facilities. This is where the confusion set in.
We managed to follow some small signs around to the back of the hub where there was a very long, socially distanced queue for the loos. We joined the queue and soon realised that the two sets of toilets were now both unisex and for family parties only, encouraging each family/ person/ couple to go into the toilet block at the same time and lock the door. Fair enough, had we looked at the website beforehand, we could have watched a YouTube video and been pre-warned about this new Covid-19 measure. However, judging by everyone else’s confusion, I don’t think many others had either and it was causing seemingly unnecessarily long queues, a frustrating start to the day and throughout the day as people would inevitably need to use the facilities again and again. To try and help this situation, a handful of Portaloos had been placed around the corner, we could physically see some people’s reluctance as they seemed to be less hygienic and less cared for throughout the day. I had a flashback to V festival in 2011 and it was enough to put me off. We hear about toilets at leisure attractions all the time. Visitors want them to be easily accessible and clean, they should be a standard and uneventful part of a day out. When they become a barrier, they can limit time spent on park, as it did for us, along with some other factors.
All sorted, we set off for the main attraction, the wildlife. The toddlers were charging around, excited to see exotic animals they had only so far seen in story books. The joy on their faces when they saw lions, giraffes, zebras, snakes and meerkats was wonderful. We stopped at an hourly talk in an outdoor arena where a very entertaining and knowledgeable chap brought out mountain goats, guinea fowl and a porcupine (not all at once!). It was a real brand amplifier that brought Africa alive; where people laughed, learnt and relaxed, enjoying the animals and entertainment whilst taking a break. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, other potential brand amplifying activities (such as Feed the giraffe) have been paused, which is understandable.
The park was well kept and had a lovely feel to it. It wasn’t overly polished, it was charming. It felt well thought out and the animals seemed to have more space in their paddocks than I have seen at some other zoos and wildlife centres, making
me feel more at ease.
Nearing lunchtime, we had gained a good understanding of how big the park was, and the toddlers needed feeding. We found a picnic bench with a takeaway kiosk near by where we were expecting a minimal selection of food and drinks due to its size. We purchased a few drinks and a handful of sandwiches to share and ‘keep the adults going’ until we could get back to the main hub and a bigger choice of food. All had a quick snack except me as I am newly gluten free, there was nothing suitable which was fairly disappointing but something I am coming to expect.
We enjoyed the lions, rhinos and cheetah on the way back to the hub at the entrance only to be confused again. We could see lots of people sat around eating but we couldn’t see any restaurant or larger café that looked open, only another small kiosk with the same offering. I asked another customer who was having her lunch, she had brought her own but told me that there was a restaurant around the corner ‘with loads of choice’. I duly went around the corner, couldn’t see any restaurant to speak of. I’m still confused now but I’m sure there probably was a bigger place to get food, but it wasn’t marked out clearly and there weren’t any members of staff to ask. This lack of basic F&B offering, or signage (and bothersome toilet situation), meant that we left the park hungry and decided to go to a nearby coastal village in search of lunch. We would have stayed much longer and spent much more money with the zoo had these basics been better.
Overall, my experience of visiting a zoo for the first time with my toddler was a little disappointing. The lack of basics in F&B and toilets really added an unnecessary stress to the day and made our trip around the site more difficult and tiring than it needed to be and ultimately resulted in lost revenue for the business.
Of course, my son won’t remember any of that, if he remembers anything at this young age, he will remember seeing the amazing animals and running around feeling free, that’s the magic of a zoo that Cx basics should facilitate, not hamper.
Customer Experience Review
Africa Alive: Brand amplifiers are roarrrr-some but don’t forget the customer experience brand basics
As a Senior CX Strategist, Katherine enjoys moderating research and facilitating collaborative workshops to provide clients with essential insight for the development of their brands. Previous management roles at McDonald’s and Marks & Spencer mean that Katherine’s passion and expertise is rooted in retail and hospitality.
Find out more about Katherine