by Jodi Helmer
Following the release of the blockbuster film “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” in 2009, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., fielded countless calls from families who wanted to fall asleep near dinosaurs and mummies in exhibits.
The demand led the museum to introduce “Sleepovers at the Smithsonian,” an overnight experience that allows parents to bring children between the ages of 8 and 10 to spend the night in the museum. The program includes art projects, games, science experiments, and an Imax film. “When someone sleeps over it leaves a lasting impression,” says Brigitte Blachere, program manager for The Smithsonian Associates.
The National Museum of Natural History is among a growing number of zoos, aquariums, and museums that are scheduling after-hours programs, offering access to exhibits and habitats during hours when the gates are normally locked. In addition to providing a new revenue stream, inviting guests to experience exhibits and habitats under the cover of night enhances visitor experience and attracts new guests.
Capitalize on Demand
The demand for overnight programs continued even after the Smithsonian lost the rights to show “Night at the Museum.” Instead of canceling “Sleepovers at the Smithsonian,” the institution re-created the program to be more museum-centric and guests continued to register. Each of the 10 sleepovers the museum hosts annually, which are capped at 150 guests per event, attract sellout crowds, according to Blachere.
“We try to create something different than what people expect; something that not only highlights what [the] museum is about, but allows people to experience it differently than they would if they were to visit it on an average day,” she says.
When the Tennessee Aquarium introduced overnight programs, attendance was limited to Girl Scout troops that worked on badges while learning about marine life. But the education department started fielding calls from guests asking about sleepovers and, in 2006, “Sleep in the Deep” opened to the public.
Thaddeus Taylor, senior educator at the Tennessee Aquarium, estimates he gets 10 calls per day from groups interested in spending the night in the undersea cavern while sea turtles and sharks swim past in a 618,000-gallon saltwater tank.
Although the aquarium can accommodate up to 80 overnight guests, educators struggle to keep up with the demand. Groups often travel from surrounding states to attend “Sleep in the Deep,” spending $40 to $50 per person for the experience. “I get so many requests for sleepovers on Saturday nights that I have to turn people away,” Taylor says.
The Toronto Zoo began hosting Serengeti Bush Camp in 1998 to coincide with the opening of its new African Savanna habitats. According to manager of education Heather House, the overnight program was created to provide additional educational opportunities.
The overnight programs, which run from May to September and cost between $87 and $108 per person, often sell out. Serengeti Bush Camp includes dinner overlooking the rhinoceros habitat, VIP tour of the savanna and African rainforest pavilion, games and activities, a campfire and overnight accommodations in safari tents. The biggest draw, according to House, is the experience of being in the zoo after dark. “It’s a unique way to experience the zoo,” she says.
Attract a New Audience
Offering a new experience at a familiar destination was one of the main reasons the Potter Park Zoo in Michigan began hosting “Wine and Stein” in 2010. The events are held after the zoo closes to the public and limited to those 21 and older. The $30 admission fee generates revenue for the zoo but has the added benefit of drawing a different crowd to experience the zoo. “It was started as part of a larger effort to show that there is something for everyone at the zoo, [and] it’s a concept that resonates well,” explains marketing coordinator Payal Ravani. “Not only does the event draw in a young professional crowd but often groups of them. We see a lot of repeat visitors from year to year.”
According to Blachere, “Sleepovers at the Smithsonian” have attracted Cub Scout troops and school groups as well as a segment of the population the museum never guessed it would draw—vacationers. “Some people have returned to experience [the sleepovers] more than once, in some cases coming here instead of going somewhere else on vacation [because] they think the Smithsonian is cool,” she says.
Taylor also believes overnight programs have expanded the aquarium’s reach. “We have a lot of groups who wouldn’t be able to make it to the aquarium for a day trip because it’s too far,” he explains. “By offering overnight programs, they are able to come and experience the aquarium without having to travel [to Chattanooga] and back in the same day.”
Invest in Success
Before each “Sleepovers at the Smithsonian” event, The National Museum of Natural History has overnight guests sign waivers and insists that all pint-sized participants have adult supervision. “There are a huge number of logistics involved in doing a sleepover,” Blachere admits.
For outdoor adventures, zoos and aquariums need to purchase equipment for overnight guests. In 2012, The UK’s Whipsnade Zoo opened eight cabins in the heart of the 600-acre zoo. Investing in cabins for the sleepover program, which runs from April through October, allowed the London zoo to accommodate up to 32 guests per night.
Construction of Lookout Lodge required a significant investment that will also generate additional revenue; guests pay £115 (US$181) to £189 (US$298) per person for a program that includes a torch-lit guided safari, behind-the-scenes tours, meals and accommodations (the accommodations.
The costs of operating an overnight program at the Tennessee Aquarium are minimal. Guests sleep on the floor in one of the exhibit halls and provide their own pillows and sleeping bags. “The biggest cost to us is staff,” Taylor says.
Overcome the Challenges
While the overnight programs at the Toronto Zoo add to the bottom line, purchasing and maintaining safari tents, cots, and other equipment used to accommodate guests has taken a bite out of the budget. “One of our biggest challenges over the years has been in the equipment withstanding the elements and heavy use,” House explains. “There is a lot of maintenance and annual expenses to replace or repair tents, cots, and chairs that don’t tend to last very long, particularly with thousands of kids using them.”
To ensure the equipment is in top shape, the zoo developed a checklist of items for staff before each sleepover and initiated a maintenance plan for the annual cleaning, care, and storage of the equipment.
Staffing is also an ongoing challenge. The Toronto Zoo started running its Serengeti Bush Camp with two staff but demand for the sleepovers exceeded the capacity of the staff; the camps now operate with six staff members. “Sleepovers at the Smithsonian” relies on a team of 30 volunteers to orchestrate the overnight experiences.
The Tennessee Aquarium doesn’t have dedicated staff to oversee the sleepover programs. Instead, staff members from the education and animal husbandry departments take turns spending the night. Not everyone is eager to spend the night on the floor, according to Taylor. “As hard as [the sleepovers] can be on the staff, it is a really good time,” he says. “Some of the most fun I have in my job is at the overnight programs.”
Reap the Rewards
The extra effort required to implement after hours programming is worth the effort. In addition to providing guests with unique opportunities to explore zoos, aquariums, and museums, creative programs like sleepovers allow organizations to promote their missions.
The fees paid by “Sleep in the Deep” participants help the Tennessee Aquarium expand its impact on the community by funding educational visits for students at low-income local schools. The overnight programs also boost revenue for the aquarium. “It takes a lot of resources to keep everything running so it makes sense to use the building as much as possible,” says Taylor.
The Toronto Zoo benefits from the fees it charges guests for Serengeti Bush Camp and from the sale of T-shirts and other products marketed to guests as keepsakes of their “One Wild Night.”
As the sleepovers became more popular, the Toronto Zoo realized inviting guests to spend the night in the manmade savannah and rainforests had a significant impact on its bottom line: “Serengeti Bush Camp is one of our core revenue-generating programs at the zoo,” House says.
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Learn more about her work at www.jodihelmer.com.