The same thing Ursula in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” taught us in 1989 – “Don’t underestimate the importance of Body Language!”

I work at Utah’s Hogle Zoo as the Guest Engagement Supervisor. It is my job to teach our people (seasonal staff and volunteers of all ages) how to interact with guests. The goal is to give our people the tools needed to give our guests the best experience to encourage return visits and continued support.

Everyone reading this blog knows how 2020 has changed our day-to-day lives, and that doesn’t stop at the Zoo. Social distancing is paramount, and wearing a mask helps to stop the spread of COVID-19. Programs that draw large crowds, like live animal demos, have come to a stop.

Hogle Zoo employees have worked hard to come up with safe ways to engage our valued guests. One of these achievements being our ability to figure out new ways to facilitate our ever popular giraffe feeds and to have guests be able to view our exciting baby gorilla indoors.

With our faces mostly covered by life-saving masks, so many of our little communication cues are covered up too – smiling, frowning, softening of the eyes and pulling of the lips. To make up for muting this type of language, in 2020 we have to be “louder” with our body. We need to exaggerate what we do with our hands, walk taller and gesture more broadly.

These non-verbal skills that we learnt in our CREW training Guest Engagement Programs help us to communicate our meanings even with our muffled voices and covered faces. To greet someone we wave larger, since our smiles aren’t as noticeable.

Teaching teen volunteers how too properly use body language has been fun. It’s a language that they don’t know they already know, and when they start utilizing it correctly they are always amazed at how easily the guests understand what they’re trying to get across.

For example, our giraffe feeds are done on a terrace that juts out onto our Africa Savanna exhibit. There is an entrance and an exit to the terrace, and you don’t have to have a feeding ticket to be on the terrace. When we started giraffe feeds we immediately noticed that the entrance was a “choke point” – people stopping and crowding up because they weren’t sure they were allowed on the terrace.

We posted a teen volunteer at the entrance to help encourage people forward, but the guests couldn’t hear the quieter, masked teens. Once we showed them the power of body language and how they can use it to ‘up their volume’ the teens saw immediately how guests would move forward when asked, thus breaking up the “choke point”. With every new guest group, the Teen Volunteers got more confident and proficient in their body language skills and they started to move the guests as needed with ease.

In comparison to the often-loud giraffe feeds, inside of our Great Ape building we want to encourage calm, quiet behavior. We pull our body language in, making ourselves a little smaller and more humble. We make our hands into flat palms near our waist almost the entire time we are talking with the guests, easing them into quiet. Even the youngest of guests see our restrained body language and pull themselves in to mimic us, quieting down and listening as we tell them all about the first baby gorilla in the zoo’s history.

By teaching the staff and volunteers at Utah’s Hogle Zoo how to use their body language to communicate efficiently with guests we can still engage them in a safe, COVID-19 friendly way. A pandemic can’t stop our conservation and education efforts!

Tauni Crisp Guest Engagement Supervisor – Hogle Zoo