Lions and tigers and bears … and lineworkers?

It may sound like an unlikely combination, but FreeState Electric Cooperative in Kansas has used the lure of exotic creatures and the kid-appeal of bucket trucks to attract families to an annual member-engagement event at the Topeka Zoo.

Now in its third year, “Crew at the Zoo" attracts about 1,500 people in August and has helped the co-op connect with younger members and their kids, who get the chance to don a toy hard hat, meet a lineworker, sit in a bucket truck and power a lightbulb with a hand crank. The co-op hands out free box lunches to more than 1,000 people and pays the $8-per-adult entry fee to the zoo for its members.

The event began in 2021, when FreeState was looking for a new way to reach its members in-person and outdoors after two years of online-only events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sarah Farlee, the co-op's director of public relations and marketing, came up with the idea for Crew at the Zoo while brainstorming ways to attract younger families who rarely show up at annual meetings.

“We have an excellent zoo in Topeka, and it's centrally located for our members," she says. “We reached out to the zoo and gave it a try. We had no idea what to expect."

The co-op had drawn about 250 members to past events, such as health fairs and energy fairs. Farlee says she planned for double that many to come to the zoo in 2021. Instead, about 1,000 people showed up, collecting free swag and information about co-op programs from FreeState booths spread throughout the zoo.

“We ran out of food; we ran out of tote bags; we ran out of everything," Farlee says. “But people still said, 'Thanks for just having something where we can be outside with our families.'"

The next year, FreeState planned for 1,000 visitors and 1,500 showed up.

“It exceeded our expectations really quickly and has taken on a life of its own," Farlee says. “Now, the challenge is to make it better every year."

The first year, the theme was an introduction to co-ops. The second year, FreeState focused on the seven co-op principles, with interactive activities at seven separate booths. This year, the co-op educated people about how electricity gets to their homes.

About 30 of the co-op's 79 employees come to the event to staff the booths, and board members turn out as well.

“After the first event, the zoo staff said, 'We haven't seen this many people on a Saturday for we don't know how long,'" she says.

The co-op uses its $30,000 member-engagement budget to pay for Crew at the Zoo and other events.

“Some co-ops go all out for their annual meetings and serve a big meal," Parr says. “We kind of scaled back on that. Crew at the Zoo is our major member-engagement event for the year."

The key to a successful event is planning, which should start eight months to a year ahead of time for the first event, Farlee says.

“Give yourself plenty of time to plan," she advises. “And really lean on your local zoo the first time you do it. They're the experts on their venue. Look at how you can help them."

FreeState begins promoting Crew at the Zoo to its members about three months before the event. The co-op spreads the word through bill stuffers, local TV commercials and social media, including Facebook Live events.

“Now that we've got a few events under our belt, we don't have to start from scratch anymore, so it's easier," Farlee says.

She also advises reaching out to other community groups to help. For Crew at the Zoo, the Kansas Energy Program sponsors a booth that lets people turn a hand crank to power a lightbulb. First State Bank & Trust hosts a booth where zoogoers can grab a free bag of popcorn. There also are representatives of local charity groups.

“Just dive in and see what happens," Farlee says. “Anytime you can partner with others in your community and talk to your members is a good thing."