Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More from May's FUNWORLD: Zoomars Expands the Petting Zoo Sector

A big perk to my job is learning about unique attractions I never would have come across had I not gotten to interview operators for FUNWORLD. One of those is Zoomars, a mini-farm turned full-scale children’s petting zoo in San Juan Capistrano, California. Here’s an extended version of May’s Q&A with co-owner Carolyn Gonzalez. (Below: Omar and Carolyn Gonzalez, Zoomars' owners, with previous owners Gil and Millie Jones, Jones Family Mini-Farm)

FUNWORLD: What challenges have you faced while growing Zoomars?
Carolyn Gonzalez: Uncovering a petting farm in one of the most glitzy counties in the country was the perfect platform to create something really special. The unexpected surprise was the amount of support we received from the community. Families who had been taking their kids here for years were so happy we “saved the farm” that we were soon labeled town heroes. Still, it was challenging to figure out how to modernize an old barnyard in need of serious repairs without diminishing the “good old-fashioned” feel. It was in need of serious repair and many of the animals were in poor health. We had over 100 meetings with city planners, council members, and committees before we could even paint the barn. Also, I knew I had to change the name to better represent the attraction that it was. The careful re-branding of a 20-year-old establishment was two-fold and has taken time to catch on. Townspeople still call it “the farm,” but it gets them here.

One of the greatest rewards is when my visitors tell me they remember taking their children here and now get to take their grandchildren. They always say, “Thank you for saving the farm. We need more wholesome places like this.” Being able to continue the tradition the Joneses started has been a real honor.

Like big parks, our main focus is on safety. Animals are unpredictable and we take pride in being overprotective of both our visitors and animals. We have zookeepers on guard at all times, showing guests how to properly pet and feed the animals, and group visits require a lesson in animal behavior and handling before entering the pens.

FW: How do you balance running a business with maintaining a familial staff?
CG: Caring for all these animals means surrounding yourself with a caring staff. I do little things to motivate my team and keep the lines of communication open. Showing appreciation is key, especially when it’s sincere and heartfelt. My staff knows if the zoo succeeds, so do they. The concept sounds simple, but it’s not always apparent and it’s only attainable if people really love what they do. It’s a delicate balance to be the boss and maintain friendships with my small staff, but we work it out.

FW: What program has been your biggest success story?
CG: Our birthday party business has grown tremendously from three each month to 30! And our online reservation system was a huge move. We continue to grow by offering an outdoor experience surrounded by sweet-natured animals and a staff with a “whatever-it-takes” attitude to create the best birthday ever. We’ve learned to keep our party packages affordable. Originally we had only one party area that would be rented all day. I created two more and doubled up on time slots after discovering that people just needed a few hours, anyway. Now we can handle up to six parties a day—some weekends selling out!

FW: How do you advertise Zoomars, and what are your plans for the future?
CG: With every dollar going back into building the zoo, we have no money to advertise, so we attract new customers through community events and hosting events. We load up the animals and take them to every local event we can. We put ourselves out there wherever and whenever we can.

We also host a lot of events and donate party baskets to local charities and schools looking for auction items to raise money. We are hosting a fund-raiser for Project Cuddle, a wonderful organization that helps abandoned babies.

We primarily depend on word-of-mouth advertising. For many of our guests, all it takes is one of my pony walkers taking an extra minute to pose with their young rider for that oh-so-important “My First Pony Ride” photo (like the one to the left).

One of my goals is to create a learning center at the zoo and maybe find a sponsor to fund it. I want to educate kids through animals. By petting a baby goat and gently feeding her carrots, I see how the children open up emotionally, learning about respect, trust, caring, and love. They are not judging or being judged. And all this happens organically without them even knowing it. Kids today are growing up in a fast-paced, complicated world that’s kind of scary. Animals make us more human—something I think we all need a little more of these days.

Also, I just finished hosting a "tweener show" for Pets.TV, a new web channel. It was so much fun and I think there may be more of this kind of thing in our future. Who knows, maybe we’ll even have a TV show one day!

FW: Tell us about your introduction to the attractions industry and what you enjoy about the business?
CG: Coming from a career in the pet industry, running a petting zoo sounded similar, but I soon found myself feeling like Alice in Wonderland in the wondrous world of the attractions business. It was a bright new challenge for me and I’ll never forget walking into my first IAAPA show a few years ago; there I got my first taste of what the industry was about—I was so excited to embark on this journey.

I scraped together money to attend after we had just spent every cent we had and maxed out our credit to buy the zoo. Looking back, going to that show was the smartest thing I ever did. I attended Frank Price’s Birthday University and came back with a new focus on increasing my party business. It’s been the key ingredient to our success. Thanks, Frank!

One thing I really love about my attraction is that it’s pretty easy to satisfy the needs of our market, which are “little ones,” ages 2 to 7. Just give a 4-year-old a basket of carrots and a baby bunny and it’s a joyous moment no mechanical ride or video game can match. I really love this business and love what I do; and I’m just getting started—I may not have a roller coaster, but I sure feel like I’m riding one!

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