Unsure. That was the one word Raja used to describe the atmosphere at Farm In The City (FITC) during the two MCOs.
The tourism manager of the outdoor petting zoo was aware of the risks involved in doing business. Avian flu, haze, and the rainy season were some well-known examples that usually turned visitors off. However, the team always knew that such crises would be over within 3 months.
He confessed, "But we just couldn't tell when it was going to end, we just couldn't plan this particular thing (MCO). We got to a level where we sat down and we said," Are we going to close? Will it end up? "
The charismatic Raja in his ranger uniform met us at the park entrance early in the morning and was ready to show us around to meet the animals. While introducing us to the farm's Dinosaur Turtle, he told Vulcan Post the story of what it was like to run a petting zoo that had no income from selling tickets.
It was a cool morning in the empty, quiet park with only ambient noise in the background when Raja showed us around
It shouldn't be like that
It was the beginning of a new year in which the school holidays at the end of 2019 had just ended. FITC staff didn't have much time to catch their breath, however, as the next wave of visitors would come over – the crowd taking advantage of their New Years promotions.
Raja stated that the proceeds from the sale would be used to fund the operation of the farm for the remainder of the year. However, they were canceled in January 2020 when the virus began to spread around the world.
Find one of the giant turtles in the empty park
When FITC was hit by the MCO in March, their cash reserves were left and it was estimated that they only had a runway of at least 6 months.
This cash reserve, added Raja, was not only for spending in FITC, but also for the other parks. These include the KL Tower Mini Zoo, the Phantasy Farm in Port Dickson, and another one in Bentong that is still in the works.
Fortunately, food and medication for the animals were already covered when they prepared for the expected amount in January. "It was enough to feed the animals initially, but it was still eating into our reserves," said Raja.
Drastic measures had to be taken to reduce costs. Since they did not want to lay off any employees, they were transferred to rotation shifts, albeit with a higher workload, as 15 employees now had to take care of a previous 40-man job. This served as a two-pronged approach as employees had the freedom to take on part-time jobs elsewhere in their spare time while maintaining business continuity in the event a group should get sick.
- Raja informs the staff about their tasks for the day
- Disinfection measures with animal-friendly solutions are carried out around the zoo every few hours
"Although the park could not be opened, we had to clean it daily to make sure that no bacteria or viruses infect the animals," said Raja.
In addition, they had to find ways to strategically source their pets' food. "We couldn't reduce the quality of the animal feed because they just wouldn't eat it," laughed the animal lover, joking that the animals were also picky eaters.
Personally, I made a new friend that day
With a developing park in Bentong, they found they had unused land, which prompted them to plant fruits and vegetables for the animals there. This helped cover at least 30% of food procurement costs while the other 70% came from other sources.
"Customers also called and offered to send in fruit and vegetables to feed the animals, which was extremely helpful with the food supply," Raja said gratefully to the Vulcan Post.
As we continued down the park path, we met some deer who, like dogs, clicked up their hooves to greet us as soon as we stepped on the pen. "Did the animals wait outside their gates, hoping to see customers during the lockdown?" I asked curiously while stroking the friendly deer.
Pets please? / Photo credit: Vulcan Post
"It was mostly mammals like these deer and alpacas as they got used to people who care for them. They actually waited at the gate every day because they are so used to the attention," explained the manager.
"As for birds and reptiles, they moved around freely in their own enclosures so they weren't as badly affected as the staff still came in to clean and feed them daily."
Beyond everything for customers
Since the farm as a business could not sell tickets or solicit donations, they focused on selling their souvenir shop's products through Facebook Lives and WhatsApp. One customer even called and asked his girlfriend for a special gift delivery at a specific time and day.
Touched by this client's intention, Raja went out of his way to achieve this. He even told his staff that if they couldn't outsource a delivery he would make the trip in person and risked roadblocks to send this alpaca plush to that customer's lover.
However, the farm's founder, Dato Allan Phoon, whom we met in his barn office, shared that the online sales couldn't bring in much revenue. On average, this would only bring in around 3-5% of the average RM7-8K they would make from ticket sales on a normal day. Although these revenues were small, they were used to buy more animal feed.
However, their e-commerce activities are still going on, even though visitors are welcome back after both MCOs.
A busy gift shop
Tragedy unites humanity
Following the 2020 CMCO, Raja announced that others in the tourism sector were walking hand in hand. He received calls from agencies and hotels offering to work together on package deals that both companies could benefit from.
He recalled, “We all got together and called each other like, 'Hey, what can we do? We die here too. How can we help? "
- Interactions here are very welcome
- Hand washing stations were part of the zoo from the start and were located outside of each enclosure
This, he told Vulcan Post, is not the same as downtime during haze, since indoor stores, hotels, and malls, for example, would not have similar adverse effects.
Conversely, when the economy was not doing well, people from the malls got lost to save money, but still went to FITC because it was affordable.
"We used to just take care of ourselves, but not everyone is doing so well now, even shopping malls. They asked us," Would you like to bring some animals to the mall? Maybe you can set up a stand here to buy some tickets sell? "he worked out." Everyone has actually spoken to each other about how we can overcome this together.
Additionally, FITC received calls from visitors and volunteers who were excited to show their support and start playing with the pets again. To manage the crowd, they would allow up to 900 people per 2 hour slot, with visitors following a one-way street path to mitigate crashes.
- Reminders to maintain social distancing were posted throughout the zoo
- The number of visitors in an enclosure would be limited
The workforce has grown to up to 40 employees per day, with a minimum of 3 employees in an enclosure to manage the crowd and keep track of visitors' interactions with their 280 species of animals in the park.
With international tourism still declining, the number of visitors consists of a large number of Malaysians. Allan told Vulcan Post that most of the locals didn't even know there was such an attraction in the country beforehand.
- The park quickly became livelier
- Families who enjoy spending time with animals while distancing themselves socially
For him, FITC plays an important role, not just in educating children and their young parents about how to respect, care for and treat animals.
He grew up in a near-natural Kampung and wanted to convey these experiences to the city dwellers. Whenever he sees grandparents sharing stories with their grandchildren about their own Kampung experiences about animals while attending FITC, his heart warms.
Dato Allan Phoon, Founder of Farm In The City
That was Allan's main goal: to create a place where family memories can emerge, where they can be enjoyed again year after year when the pictures posted on Facebook come up as memories.
Raja snaked through the crowd of school holidays early on a Thursday morning and led us back to our car. The sights we saw were hopeful, with busy queues at the ticket office and kids excitedly trying to grab buckets of seeds and vegetables to feed the pets. It looked like the place was healing.
We duly left the place and were immediately confronted with skyscrapers and cars spinning around us. The memories of a beautiful morning full of animals stayed in our minds. It really was a farm in town.
- You can find out more about Farm In The City here.
- You can read about other Malaysian startups we've covered here.
All picture credits: Vulcan Post