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Zoo meetings: Animal magnetism

By Stephen Wynne and Vickie Mitchell

Courtesy The Living Desert

Even with the speed of modern travel, there’s no way a board of directors can dine in a rain forest and have dessert in Antarctica, unless, that is, the board meets at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

There, groups can book the country’s largest indoor rain forest, the Lied Jungle, a 1.5-acre dome as tall as an eight-story building; home to fruit bats and cinnamon trees, tamarind trees and pygmy hippos, or spider monkeys and allspice trees, depending on which of the three rain-forest habitats you are in. From there, it is a short walk to the cool Antarctic roost of gentoo, king and rockhopper penguins.

Cindy Joy-Rodgers planned such an evening for 250 members of the National Newspaper Association (NNA).

“We enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Treetops, which overlooks the rain forest,” said Joy-Rodgers. “Our people had the run of the rain forest, at least until 8 p.m., when the bats start to come out.
“After dinner, we had dessert in the Penguin House,” she said. “And the penguins were in keeping with the tone of the evening; they looked like they were all dressed up in tuxedoes.”

Like many of her peers in meeting planning, Joy-Rodgers has found that zoos offer attendees a change of scenery, not to mention a good bit of enlightenment as they meet face-to-face with exotic and endangered animals.

And although the zoos in second-tier and third-tier cities might be smaller than their big-city counterparts, most are big on helping meeting planners create out-of-the-ordinary after-hours events.

Sandra Hadley, a planner with Planning Forever Events in Evansville, has staged a number of meetings and events at Evansville’s Mesker Park Zoo and Botanical Gardens; one of them was a client appreciation night in October for Ameriprise Financial.

“Ameriprise had asked us to think outside the box,” Hadley said, “to do an event that wasn’t the traditional presentation with a sit-down dinner. They wanted a venue where the attendees could mix and mingle. And what better place to mingle than a zoo, not only with the other people but also with the animals?”

Toyota Corp. holds a variety of team-building events at the Living Desert, a zoo in Palm Springs, Calif.

Among them are scavenger hunts and an exercise in which teams compete to install recycled equipment in animal areas, such as converting old fire hoses into ladders for the animals.

“Attendees at our meetings seem to come with a sense of joy and anticipation at the chance to be a kid again at night, after the meetings are over,” Franchesca Forrer, events manager at the Living Desert, said. “And they certainly feel like kids again when they try the black truffle mac-and-cheese bits at the Discovery Center.”

“Zoos offer some very special extras to meeting planners,” said Dawn Ream, communications and marketing director at the Henry Doorly Zoo. “Your attendees have the opportunity to get away from the traditional four-walls atmosphere of most meetings. They have the opportunity to wander around in the fresh air during breaks. And most zoos are nonprofit, so when you meet there, your dollars go toward helping the zoo and the local community. It’s a ready-made corporate social-responsibility program.”

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Colorado Springs, Colo.
On occasion, guests at events at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo behave like animals, because — well — they are animals.

This zoo likes to ensure that its 700 resident creatures add life to meetings and other events held there. Scavenger hunts have an animal theme; during a break, a board meeting of eight or fewer can have an up-close encounter with an elephant, a rhino, a penguin or a python, overseen by a zookeeper.

“We have a number of after-meeting programs that are really fun for attendees,” said Carol Overbeck, catering sales manager. “For instance, they can walk along an elevated boardwalk and feed the giraffes, who will come right up to them.”

The zoo is a logical location for an off-site event, given its proximity to the Broadmoor Hotel, which sits below the zoo at the base of the mountain. The hotel and the zoo share a history: Philanthropist Spencer Penrose founded both.

Three years ago, the zoo entered the event business in a bigger way when it opened a 4,200-square-foot mountain lodge as part of its Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit.

The Lodge at Moose Lake makes the best of its mountainside site, with large glass doors that open onto a large patio with mountain views. Another venue, the 1,000-square-foot Safari Lodge, with a deck overlooking the African Rift exhibit, continues to be popular for smaller meetings.

In addition to its animals, the zoo is known for its food. House caterer Wild Things Catering was chosen Best Caterer for 2010 by the local newspaper. After hours, groups can opt for dinners in the Grizzly Grill, the zoo’s new public restaurant, which opened last April with nearly 5,000 square feet of space indoors and out.

Because of its mountain setting, the zoo offers meetings more than a place to connect with wildlife.

“If one of the goals of a meeting is to energize the attendees, how can you not be energized by the incredible panoramas of the Rocky Mountains?” said Overbeck.


Fort Worth Zoo
Fort Worth, Texas

A party at the Fort Worth Zoo’s Bluebonnet Cafe supplies a megadose of Texas wildlife within the Dallas metroplex.

The cafe, an outdoor space in the middle of a faux Western town, is fringed by Texas Wild!, an eight-acre exhibit of black bears, alligators, otters, jaguars and other creatures. In the evening, after the zoo closes to the public, groups can book the entire exhibit so guests have room to roam.

The zoo’s 39,000 square feet of meeting and event space and in-house catering staff make it among Fort Worth’s most popular venues.

“We’ve been doing corporate and association meetings for a long time,” said Remekca Owens, public relations manager. “And planners who’ve held meetings here usually come back. In fact, half of all the events we do here are for corporations.”

The new Chesapeake Pavilion, side-by-side permanently tented spaces bounded by landscaped grounds, offers options for larger groups. In the zoo’s center, the Picnic Outpost is a favorite for company picnics, outfitted with picnic tables and ceiling fans.

Not every venue is large. In the Portraits of the Wild art gallery, paintings of lions, water buffalo and other African animals by artist Wilhelm Kuhnert reinforce the theme of the venue that overlooks the zoo’s African Savannah exhibit.

In terms of zookeeping, the Fort Worth Zoo is also a winner. In the past 20 years, it has added 16 permanent exhibits, and it attracts more than 
one million visitors a year. Home to approximately 5,000 animals representing some 500 animal species, it was ranked No. 5 among zoos by Family Travel magazine and is a top attraction in Dallas/Fort Worth.


Mesker Park Zoo
Evansville, Ind.
Donna, the oldest in-capacity hippopotamus in the world, is quite happy at the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden. Wild hippos typically live to 35; Donna, who attracts hordes of fans, is nearly 60.

It’s likely that meetings and events will be equally content in this small Midwestern zoo. About 70 percent of the events held there are corporate, most from businesses in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.

“Our grounds are beautiful, with rolling hills and a lot of greenery,” said Stephanie Sanderson, curator of visitors services at Mesker Park. “And, in addition to meetings, we host a lot of team-building programs here. We recently had an engineering company here for team building, and they performed a community service by renovating the grounds.”

The zoo’s newest exhibit is Amazonia, an indoor tropical rain forest inhabited by baby jaguars and other exotic animals. The Rain Forest Grill, which overlooks the exhibit, is popular for dinners and receptions because of its decks.

The Mesker Park Zoo also stages private animal shows and behind-the-scenes tours for groups.


Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo

Omaha, Neb.
Imagine dessert in the desert beneath the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome, a cocktail hour in the company of gorillas or a formal dinner for 250 above the world’s largest indoor rain forest — all in Omaha.

There’s no question, events at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo can go in many directions. In addition to traditional spaces such as a 312-person auditorium, a picnic pavilion and a small meeting room, the zoo offers exhibits like its butterfly house as event venues.


The Oregon Zoo
Portland, Ore.
A tram transports visitors up a green hill to the Oregon Zoo, two miles from downtown Portland. There, visitors find 2,200 animals that represent 260 species, including 21 endangered species.

The zoo is geared to meetings, with the 7,000-square-foot Cascade Crest Banquet Center and its 1,900-square-foot lobby, both decorated in the woodsy style of the surrounding Cascade Mountains.

Another meeting space, the 2,400-square-foot Kalahari Room, has an African zoo motif.
“We do meetings for a variety of corporate and association groups,” said food-and-beverage manager Kim Gerlack, “with 60 percent of our meetings being on the corporate side. We definitely try to incorporate the zoo experience in the meetings and events that take place here. And the planners with whom we work love it; they’re always telling us that it makes for an experience that you just can’t have at traditional meeting spaces.”

Noted for its elephant-breeding program, the zoo continues to open new exhibits. Last year, it was the award-winning Predators of the Serengeti, inhabited by lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and other animals. September saw the opening of Red Ape Reserve, home to African primates.

Amanda Laycock, a project management associate for Wells Fargo, organized the Oregon Leadership Conference for 165 attendees, held in October.

“We’re not a newcomer in holding meetings at zoos,” Laycock said. “In fact, we’ve been holding meetings at the Oregon Zoo for some years now. The prices are reasonable, the access is very easy from downtown, and our attendees love it — they tell us it’s an extraordinarily productive atmosphere.”


The Living Desert
Palm Springs, Calif.
As an Amur leopard paces a few feet away, business executives, seated at antique tables in a room where art and antiques are abundant, calmly discuss their company’s future.

A sheet of clear glass that invisibly separates them from the big cat is the key to their composure. It is also a key to the popularity of the District Commissioner’s House, an unexpected venue at the Living Desert, a zoo in Palm Springs.

“We’re the only zoo/gardens in the world focusing on the world’s deserts,” said Forrer, the zoo’s events manager. “You can go on a safari here, you can have unusual team-building experiences, and you can see animals that you won’t see anywhere else.”

You can also ride a camel or spend an evening under tiki torches in the five-acre African village WaTuTu. The replica of a North Kenyan village, with its mud huts and thatched roofs, is home to the District Commissioner’s House, a re-creation of a home in which an African official would have lived in the early 1900s.

The village can accommodate groups of up to 1,000; the commissioner’s house is suited for gatherings of about 20.

For events that are somewhere in between, the Palm Garden Patio, with more than 50 species of palm trees, is a good option.

Barb Smith, a partner with Palm Springs-based Access Destination Services, brings most of her clients to the Living Desert.

“We love the team-building options that the zoo affords,” Smith said. “One of the things we’ve done there is a GPS team-building exercise. Using a GPS system, each team has to find landmarks around the zoo; then they have to follow the instructions given them at each landmark.

“This really helps our clients to find out the different strengths of different people. We’ve also done build-a-bike team exercises at the Palm Court, where we build bikes for underprivileged children, then bring them to the zoo and give them the bikes.”


For more on Zoo meetings:

Animal magnetism
ZOOm Air Adventure
Aquariums aren’t just for fishes