Going Animal: Wildlife Parks and Aquariums as Special Event Venues

Successful Meetings magazine, March 2006

Your tuxedo-clad guests are listening to quiet jazz, mingling, and sampling delectable hors d'oeuvres—off red plastic plates. Fortunately, they don't mind at all, even with all of the fish staring at them. Welcome to events at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD.

"Because all of our exhibits are open and not fully encased in glass, everything must be served on red plastic so we can see if something is dropped in the tank," explains Paula Katz, director of sales and services at the National Aquarium. "We've even had black-tie affairs that abide by that rule because once people hear the reason, they want to help." Groups that prefer a seated dinner to a strolling reception are free to choose their own dishware.

These days, aquariums and wildlife parks are increasingly popular venues for events and receptions from casual picnics to black-tie affairs. But sharing space with wild animals can necessitate certain restrictions when it comes to decibel level, lighting, decor, and dinnerware.

"We have restrictions in the dolphin building against steel drums, loud bass, and loud percussion," Katz continues. Also, "Strobe lights are not permitted—that bothers the dolphins as well as our octopus—and we do have a restriction against late-night parties because our animals require a certain number of hours of darkness." Restrictions are set by the biological programs department, which also deemed balloons a hazard to the animals.

Planners have found that, regardless of the restrictions, groups are eager to comply once they learn the reasons for the rules. "You're picking the location based on wanting your people to experience this awesome national treasure," says Cynthia Lavery, senior sales manager at GEP Baltimore (Global Events Partners), which has used the National Aquarium for numerous clients. "I think people are so enthralled with the actual venue that restrictions are not an issue. You have to respect where you are going and you run into different venues with different rules."

"When we educate a client as to why they can't have certain things, they are in complete agreement," says Bill Hardt, vice president and co-owner of Quantum Productions, a San Diego, CA, DMC, who takes precautions a step further by requiring vigilance from his own team when using the San Diego Wild Animal Park. "Our crew is required to account for every last piece [of setup material] because you have animals that roam the park and eat things. Peacocks, for example, eat anything."

Animal Planet
The aquarium or park often uses a group's visit as an educational opportunity as well as a business one. "We try to subtly educate people about conservation; for example, we do not allow fish to be served that are overfished," Katz says, citing Chilean sea bass and swordfish as two prohibited entrees.

Aside from such caveats, the level of involvement by the venue is really up to the planner, and the animals can serve as background or as the main event. Either way, one of the benefits of using animal parks and aquariums is that the theme is established and decor is virtually complete before a planner walks in the door. "The surroundings are so natural that it sets the perfect backdrop for an event. You don't have to spend nearly anything on decor if you don't want to because the theme is built in," says Michelle Menzhausen, manager of the special events department for both the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the San Diego Zoo.

Janet McCartney, events director for the TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference, based in New York City, uses the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA, each February for a 750-guest event. McCartney and her team incorporate additional interior decoration by creating a "chill-out lounge" for guests; "we don't try to detract from or change what they have, but add a comfortable seating area."

"They [TED] transform the aquarium more than anyone else," says Blair Robinson, event sales manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "Most of the groups come here because of the aquarium, so normally you don't see too much transformation," although groups do play off the theme to add to their event. Aquariums and wildlife parks often make docents and handlers available to groups to answer questions about the animals, and some planners elect to provide additional entertainment and education in the form of a dolphin show, a dive presentation, or allowing guests to meet a cheetah. "The cheetah is always the hit of the party," according to Menzhausen. "It's very interactive and truly an extraordinary event. Guests get to view the property but also have an up-close and personal experience," says Hardt.

NGALA, a private reserve in Naples, FL, provides customized special programs for groups that can include Coulter the giraffe, Zeus the zebra, Tyson the baby Florida panther, or chimpanzees that often hang around NGALA's antique Land Rover. "We have over 40 species of animals on 40 acres, so depending on the type of event or the theme, we might have an alligator and parrots and one of our pythons or something," explains Megan Canizares, NGALA's director of marketing.

"The animals are out throughout the cocktail hour and frequently through dinner and are always accompanied by a handler so people can ask questions," Canizares explains. "We allow photo opportunities, but you can't feed or touch some of the animals." In addition, NGALA can provide authentic African Kobake dancers, drummers, fire eaters, and stilt walkers to entertain and amaze attendees.

Planners also think creatively when using these facilities, particularly when launching products that will not fit in a standard ballroom. "The new trend has been for groups to use our lawn area for product launches,"says Canizares. "We have a few companies looking to bring out diversified merchandise such as lawn equipment and golf products to do demonstrations—so we're getting more out-of-the-box requests for our space."

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
As the need for space and facilities grows, aquariums and wildlife parks have responded by increasing the quality of services across the board. Visitors are no longer forced to turn to a bottle of water and prepackaged sandwich from the café cart for sustenance; these venues now employ first-rate chefs who create menus tailored to each event, and some go so far as to have dedicated event services staff.

"They have exemplary chefs on staff," says Hardt of the San Diego Wild Animal Park. "They have menus that are 'cookie cutter,' but they also have menus that they can customize for you. I've always received accolades on food and beverage."

Between the Wild Animal Park and the zoo, the two facilities manage over 600 events per year, so a catering chef works out of each location and an events team handles all functions, according to Menzhausen. "The nice thing about the Wild Animal Park is that it's vast—about 1,800 acres total—so there is a lot more flexibility than at the zoo, where we are confined to smaller spaces." Also, the park can host functions at any time of day, though some groups prefer after-hours events, so they can have the facility to themselves.

When privacy counts, NGALA is the ultimate in animal-friendly exclusivity. "We're not a zoo or a theme park," emphasizes Canizares. "NGALA is not open to the public, so a big plus of our property is that it's not like Disney World where you can take your family there on your own"; NGALA visitors must come as part of a scheduled group. While visiting NGALA, groups dine on food prepared by chef Blaine Dry in a British-colonial-style tented setting and enjoy cocktails and appetizers served butler style. "We have cocktails chilled and made fresh when the guests arrive because we are in communication with motor-coach drivers," who bring guests to NGALA from their hotels, Canizares explains.

Why Go Wild?
"Any time you're in a museum with a living collection, it's going to be unique," Katz says about why planners should consider these unique venues for events. The benefits extend far beyond a beautiful setting, though—for instance, supporting aquariums and wildlife parks is also a way to support the animals that call them home. "The aquarium is a self-funded nonprofit organization, so programs like our night events fund school programs, new exhibits, and feeding and caring for the animals," explains Robinson.

Also, bringing guests to the venue allows them to "make the connection between the natural world and whatever they're doing" at their meeting, says McCartney of her attendees. TED's attendees, who have included Bono, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, and Al Gore, can be tough to impress, but "they are always excited to go to the aquarium and spend the evening there. They love the venue," she says.

"I bring a lot of repeat business to the [San Diego] zoological society because the animal experience is so rewarding for clients," says Hardt. "It's so unique and you really feel that you are in a different cultural environment when you go there." The only word of warning to planners considering such a venue: "The aquarium is one of the top sellers, so it can be difficult to book," cautions Lavery.