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Creature Features at Zoos and Aquariums

Nothing against a convention center or a hotel ballroom, but it’s probably safe to say that meeting attendees can’t feed a giraffe there. Those venues also probably don’t offer diver demonstrations or let attendees meet a flying squirrel, a giant gecko or a legless lizard. And when guests sit down for dinner among tanks filled with giant sea turtles and ethereal moon jellyfish, planners don’t have to worry about decorating the space.

These zoos and aquariums offer meeting planners and their attendees all of the above and more.

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Columbus, Ohio

At the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio, “there’s a view there you can’t get anywhere else,” said Kevin Rohrbacher, senior sales representative at the zoo. In the zoo’s Africa Event Center, “giraffes can come right up to your patio, and you can see zebras and wildebeests — you’re not going to get that anywhere else.”

The zoo can host daytime business meetings, high-end after-hours events and company picnics, and attendees have the opportunity to go out into the zoo, which makes for good breaks or after-meeting free time.

The Africa Event Center is the zoo’s most popular space, and its two rooms can each seat 200, or 400 when combined. Sliding glass doors provide indoor/outdoor access to a patio where guests can experience a private giraffe feeding with a keeper present to answer questions. The center also has a separate entrance and parking lot.

The Water’s Edge Events Park has four pavilions and a large plaza that groups can mix and match for rentals; the area overlooks the Scioto River, which gives attendees “a great view and a nice breeze off the river,” Rohrbacher said. The newly renovated, climate-controlled Lakeside Pavilion can also seat up to 350 guests.

From May through September, large groups can rent out the entire zoo for after-hours events, and smaller events can reserve a region, like Heart of Africa, or Shores and Aquarium. The zoo has divvied its scavenger hunt into regions, so groups that have more time can tackle the whole thing or stick to one region.

Mystic Aquarium

Mystic, Connecticut

This spring, the Mystic Aquarium opened its $10 million research and education facility: the Milne Center for Ocean Science and Conservation. In addition to housing the aquarium’s preschool, the two-story, 18,000-square-foot building also contains classrooms, conference rooms and offices.

Conference space on the first floor of the new building can host events for up to 125 people, and a mezzanine can accommodate another 50. The mezzanine will soon overlook the aquaculture lab, which will be completed later this year.

“It really opened us up to be able to host events during business hours,” such as the Second International Workshop on Beluga Whale Research and Conservation in March, said sales specialist Amanda Wheeler. “Before, all the spaces we had available needed to be for after-hours events.”

Groups can still hold after-hours events on the main floor of the aquarium, which can accomodate 250 for sit-down banquets or 500 for receptions. The aquarium’s indoor-outdoor layout also gives planners flexibility for events. A group can start with a cocktail hour outside near the beluga whale exhibit and then move inside for dinner or a presentation.

The education department can create team-building or education activities and can customize them for meeting groups. Planners can also use the aquarium’s traveling teacher program, which allows attendees to touch and learn about starfish and crabs.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

Dubuque, Iowa

When planners choose the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, for a meeting, they do so because “it’s a unique space, and we pretty much provide the entertainment,” said Teri Witt, sales and banquet manager.

The museum and aquarium is dedicated to the freshwater and saltwater habitats of the Mighty Mississippi. The facility hosts more after-hours than daytime events because of limited space during operating hours. Meetings and events typically use the River Discovery Center in the Mississippi River Center building, where up to 250 guests “are sitting right among all the animals and exhibits,” Witt said, “so people could be sitting by paddlefish or the otters or the frogs.”

In the same building, planners can use the 82-seat Journey Theater for presentations or speakers, and an upstairs temporary exhibit space can seat about 250 people for banquets when not in use, usually October through April.

An open-air harborside plaza works well for cocktail hours or company picnics, and guests are treated to views of the river and of the William M. Black, a 1930s steam-powered dredge boat that they can tour.

Groups can also do a scavenger hunt, or the education program can bring an animal or two — usually a snake, frog, toad or tarantula — to the event for guests to touch and learn about.

A planner could also opt to provide access to the museum’s Wetlab, where a touch tank allows visitors to meet mussels and crayfish.

Minnesota Zoo

Apple Valley, Minnesota

Most groups that choose to gather at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, south of the Twin Cities, do so for two reasons: They want to be off-site, and they want a fun experience.

The Education Event Center is the zoo’s main daytime event space; it can seat 48 for meals or 60 in a theater setup. But the most popular space — for evening events only — is the combined Tropics Trail and Discovery Bay. Attendees usually start in the Tropics exhibit, which is about 77 degrees year-round, for cocktails and hor d’oeuvres as they meander along the trail, taking in rainforest wildlife, brightly colored birds and a 500,000-gallon tropical reef.

“It’s a great way to see unique things, and it’s such a great ice breaker,” said sales manager Cheryl Tait.

Guests then move into Discovery Bay, the zoo’s marine aquatics center, where up to 250 people can dine between Hawaiian monk seals and a Pacific shark reef. Groups may also use a 200-seat auditorium for evening presentations or awards ceremonies.

A planner can add a tropical reef dive demonstration, where divers feed the fish and can even talk to attendees using an underwater communication system. The zoo also offers encounters with educational animals, such as a snake, a chinchilla, a porcupine or a skunk.

The zoo’s scavenger hunt serves as a fun team-building event and can be customized depending on the event’s schedule. All-zoo rentals, typically for groups of 1,500 or more, are also available mid-May through mid-August.

Tennessee Aquarium

Chattanooga, Tennessee

In addition to getting people out of the convention center or hotel, holding a meeting at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga gives attendees something to see — and “lets them see our city in a different way,” said Meredith Roberts, director of hospitality and marketing.

“They can have their bar in the middle of a gallery with turtles, or you can have hors d’oeuvres in front of the penguin exhibit.”

Evening events can rent the entire aquarium or choose one of three venues. The RiverJourney building can accommodate up to 300 for seated dinners, and Ocean Journey can host dinners for 50 guests. The Imax Great Hall can seat up to 250 for meals, and the Imax 3D Theater has a capacity of 384.

An outdoor pavilion allows guests to enjoy their cocktail hour with views of the Tennessee River and Lookout Mountain.

In 2018, the aquarium renovated a 3,000-square-foot multipurpose space that’s available for daytime sessions while the building is open to the public. The space is fully equipped for meetings and has three aquatic tanks, so guests still get the aquarium experience.

Groups can do the aquarium’s scavenger hunt, and animal encounters bring people face to face with a snake, a lizard, an opossum, a giant gecko or flying squirrels that will sometimes even demonstrate natural behaviors.

Planners can also incorporate a dive show, where the diver speaks to guests using an underwater intercom.

Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Sanford, Florida

The Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford, Florida, has two main areas available for rental: the Wayne M. Densch Discovery Center and the Rainforest Pavilion. The discovery center features five spaces, including the Safari Room, a 3,260-square-foot divisible space that can seat 180 guests and connects to an outdoor porch. The covered porch leads to the Gazebo Courtyard, a lush garden with a wooden gazebo that works well for a cocktail hour or team-building activity.

The center’s atrium and lobby has vaulted ceilings with natural light flooding through the glass-topped roof. There, walls are lined with displays of butterflies and insects, both preserved and alive, all protected behind clean glass barriers.

The open-air Rainforest Pavilion features hand-painted murals along with a concessions kitchen and picnic tables, making it ideal for company picnics and team-building activities.

Special experiences for groups differ between daytime business hours and after-hours events. During business hours, planners can arrange for their attendees to experience giraffe feedings or rhino encounters, or take on the zoo’s scavenger hunt. One of the zoo’s most unusual options is the Seminole Aerial Adventure, a zip line/ropes course that planners can add as a fun activity or use for team building.

The zip line course is also available for an after-hours “night flight,” when groups use flashlights to navigate zip lines and obstacles in the dark. Animal meet-and-greets are available for both daytime and evening events.