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You can hear ZSL London Zoo before you see it. Arriving through the dedicated guest entrance at Prince Albert Gate, on the outer edge of Regent’s Park, a series of high, whooping calls carries through the air. They come from one of the zoo’s white-cheeked gibbons, a critically endangered species native to Southeast Asia.
‘They’re particularly lively in the mornings,’ says Pamela Palmer, the zoo’s senior sales and events executive. ‘The lion’s the same. He likes to stand on his rock and roar.’ It’s quite a greeting – but then, this is the venue’s particular charm. You’re in the heart of central London, just a few minutes’ walk from Camden Town tube, but it’s a jungle out there.
The zoo is a London institution. Originally founded in 1828 as a place of scientific study, it opened its doors to the public in 1847. Many famous animals have lived here, from Winnipeg, the American black bear which captivated AA Milne’s son Christopher Robin, to an elephant called Jumbo. He arrived from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in the 1860s – and his vast size is now commemorated in our word for everything from jets to paperclips.
The zoo attracts more than a million visitors a year and, at the last stock-take on 1 January, it was home to 17,519 animals, including four gorillas, two giraffes and a pair of fearsome Komodo dragons. As it receives no state funding, the zoo relies on donations and visitor income to support its conservation work – many species here are critically endangered, and some are even extinct in the wild.
Naturally, when it comes to events, the animals are a big part of the draw. Next year, the zoo will open a Sumatran tiger enclosure, but for now the newest attraction is Penguin Beach. Set around the biggest penguin pool in Europe, the beach has a glass wall which allows visitors to see the birds weave and arc through the water. Most of the zoo’s penguins come from South America, which means they can cope with the heat of a British summer – in fact, during the winter, they can get a bit chilly and like to huddle on their heated rocks. In front of Penguin Beach, raked seating creates an amphitheatre where up to 250 guests can have a barbecue and watch feeding time.
The zoo’s other large outdoor space is the Lion Terrace, overlooking the home of Lucifer, Abi and their cubs Pumpkin and Spook. The youngsters are the second set born to the pair, providing a huge boost for the Asian lion’s chances of survival: there are just 350 left in the wild, and 90 in captivity. The terrace holds 300 for a reception – 50 more than Penguin Beach – and together, these spaces are covered by the zoo’s ‘Waddle and Roar Package’, an inclusive price of £69pp for evening hire, two glasses of Pimm’s and a barbecue.
Seven of the animal houses are also available for hire: the Komodo Dragon House, B.U.G.S., Gorilla Kingdom, the Clore Rainforest Lookout, the Reptile House, the Blackburn Pavilion’s tropical bird enclosure and the child-friendly Animal Adventure zone. The enclosures wind around the animal exhibits, allowing guests to get within yards of some fairly fearsome creatures. The Komodo dragons, for example, are more than six feet long. They’re not particularly sociable: the zoo keeps the male and female apart, except in breeding season, and once hatched, the young quickly scurry up trees to escape being munched by their hungry parents.
B.U.G.S., meanwhile, is more than an insect house – its name stands for Biodiversity Underpinning Global Survival, and it aims to show the importance of the invertebrates which make up 98% of the planet’s animal species. It gets much of its energy supply from the heat produced by visitors. The animal houses have appeared in so many TV shows and films, from Primeval to Withnail & I, it’s impossible to name them all. Perhaps the zoo’s most famous appearance on screen was in the first Harry Potter film, where the Reptile House was used for the scene in which Harry accidentally releases a Burmese python. (Don’t worry, the cinematic snake’s real-life counterpart, 17ft Big Bertha, is safely kept behind thick glass.) There are new additions all the time. In the Reptile House, Palmer points out that the pancake tortoises have just hatched three eggs: ‘It’s a good sign. When animals breed, that means they’re happy.’
The zoo works hard to make sure that its inhabitants enjoy their encounters with humans as much as the other way round. Before opening Penguin Beach, for example, there were extensive trials to check that the presence of people did not cause the birds any stress. ‘Far from it,’ says Palmer. ‘They love the attention.’ (Ricky the Rockhopper is a particular show-off.) Similarly, Gorilla Kingdom is only open from May to September for evening events. ‘The gorillas like to wind down an hour before sunset – they’re like people in that way – and we don’t want to disturb them.’
The outdoor spaces and animal houses are complemented by the three indoor areas – the Prince Albert Suite, Mappin Pavilion and the Raffles Suite. The largest of these is the grand Prince Albert Suite, which holds up to 300 guests for a reception or 260 for dinner. Decorated in green and white, with a wooden dancefloor in the centre, the long rectangular room looks out over Gorilla Kingdom, the funfair and Penguin Beach, as well as its own private lawn and terrace, which are closed to the public. In the evenings, the outdoor spaces are often decorated with fairy lights, while in the daytime they make a perfect breakout space for a picnic lunch – or a game of croquet, with equipment provided by the zoo.
‘It’s just such a fun place to hold an event,’ says Emily Luff, process and development manager at New Look, who organised a group-wide ‘corporate cascade’ in this space recently. ‘Our day could have been a bit flat, but the Prince Albert Suite was a perfect room for us. In the afternoon, we held a scavenger hunt – the staff sent silly photos of themselves from around the zoo, which are now on the company intranet – and then in the evening we had drinks on Penguin Beach. The private penguin show left people buzzing and talking about our event.’
Further into the 36 acres of the zoo’s grounds is the Mappin Pavilion. It’s next to the Outback Zone, full of wallabies and emus. (A keeper skilfully evades a peck from one of the latter on his morning rounds as we walk past.) Built in 1920 and restored in 2003, the pavilion was once the zoo’s teahouse. Its unusual quarter-circle shape gives it 360-degree views of the enclosure and Regent’s Park.
The interior is decorated in cool whites, and this, combined with the abundance of natural light, make it popular for weddings. In 2009, it hosted the marriage of former mayor Ken ‘King Newt’ Livingstone, who had once applied (unsuccessfully) for a job here as a keeper. ‘The zoo has agreed to release a lion during the ceremony to keep the photographers away,’ he joked at the time.
While ZSL London Zoo has tradition in spades, if it’s something more modern you’re after, there’s also the Raffles Suite, which holds 90 for a dinner or reception. Decorated in green and purple, it has a private bar and outside seating. A short walk across the Outer Circle road lies the Huxley Lecture Theatre, with traditional fixed-tiered seating and wood-panelled walls.
The theatre, which holds 250, can be used alongside the adjacent Bartlett Room, while the building’s foyer is perfect for drinks or registration. Like the Mappin Pavilion and Prince Albert Suite, it has built-in AV facilities and disabled access.
The zoo’s final event space is empty when we visit, but will be one of the biggest draws at Christmas: Reindeer Lodge. The details are still being finalised, but the 2011 crew – Rudolph, Dancer, Prancer and Blitzen – were a sold-out success. Throughout the zoo, last year’s festive party theme was ‘Mistletoe Rocks’; for 2012 it’s ‘Black Tie With a Hint of Animal’. If hired exclusively, the zoo holds 2,000 people, spread between the animal houses and outdoor spaces. But even if you don’t hire the whole place, guests can still have access to it, as an hour’s entrance to the zoo is included with all the delegate packages.
Since 2004, the catering contract at the venue has been held by Ampersand, which also looks after the Historic Royal Palaces, Cutty Sark and the RIBA. In keeping with the zoo’s conservation ethos, all the fish is sustainably sourced, and the water is filtered and bottled on site. The caterers also avoid palm oil, because rainforests are chopped down to produce it. And it’s not just the food: all the publicity materials are printed on recycled paper, with vegetable inks, and there are no less than five different kinds of bins here. ‘It’s worth it, though,’ says Palmer. ‘The beliefs and values of the zoo, we’re putting them into practice.’
London Zoo (ZSL), Outer Circle, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4RY, tel: 020 7449 6562
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, summer 2012