The Cincinnati Zoo Goes Ape for Customers

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
The zoo and botanical gardens applies analytics to affect every aspect of the visitors' experience.

Delivering an optimal customer experience is no day at the zoo-unless it's the customer experience at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens. The venue intends to become an innovator among local, and even national, attractions by integrating and analyzing data to deliver better customer experiences. By leveraging analytics, the Ohio-based zoo is overhauling its customer experience across every touchpoint, from the moment visitors walk through the gates to its beer huts and gift shops to its promotions and offers. It's even using analytics to make decisions that affect other aspects of the business, such as streamlining inventory and controlling advertising spend.

The organization may seem forward-thinking in its approach to analytics, but according to John Lucas, director of park operations for the zoo, until recently no one at the zoo had ever heard of leveraging analytics to affect the customer experience; analytics was solely for use in accounting. "We didn't know what business analytics was," Lucas says. "As a result, we were looking at our business from a physical architecture standpoint."

Management wanted to maximize attendance of its more than 1.2 million yearly visitors and raise visitor spending. However, the lack of a 360-degree view into customer spending and behavior while at the zoo prevented management from reaching this goal. In fact, to get a sense of visitor satisfaction and spending, management had to walk the park, which diminished the effectiveness of the staff.

Additionally, the zoo used three separate systems to capture and collect sales and admission data: one for ticketing, one for retail, and one for food and beverage. The lack of integration prevented management from placing ordering based on items most frequently purchased, analyzing spending patterns, or drawing a correlation between guest behavior and fluctuations in attendance.

Management also lacked insight as to which products and services to feature in promotions and to display and was unable to track overall sales performance and cross-promote products. As a result, it took the staff about two weeks to determine the most popular products at concession stands and gift shops each month.

According to Lucas, the zoo wanted to conduct a range of projects, like recognize its loyal customers when they enter the zoo and identify them by name, introduce new ways to incite visitors to buy, market loyalty programs to non-members, and identify frequent visitors.

As a result executives started taking a more critical look at what was driving the customer experience-the best way to structure it, the level of detail involved in integrating it, and the possible business outcomes that spur sales. "We also looked at what we can do to drive visitation, loyalty, and money," Lucas says.

After months of planning and discussion, last July the zoo partnered with Gateway Ticketing Systems to install 51 new POS systems, Brightstar to implement an integrated data warehousing solution, and IBM for its business analytics software. The scope of the implementation lasted about four months, according to Lucas.

The technology and strategy implementation has since allowed the zoo to overlay geo-analytical data with visitation information, membership, and socioeconomic data to drill down more deeply into the customer information to make better informed decisions in real time at every touchpoint. Lucas says that now the zoo can determine a host of variables, such as low spenders versus high spenders and frequency of visits versus food spend.

But applying analytics to affect the customer experience isn't just about driving increased spending; it's also about creating loyal customers by offering better informed strategic offers in real time. "We want to recognize you, as well," he says. "We will evolve to a point where if you come on the fourth visit, we will text you a 'thank-you' with a promotion or a behind-the-scenes tour offer."

The zoo also gained a holistic view into its inventory and can now use past customer purchasing patterns to ensure that the most popular food, drinks, and souvenirs are always in stock.

Today, when the staff drills into the data and notices that, for example, a visitor has come to the zoo three times in two months, but hasn't purchased food, the zoo could then send a promotional offer for a discounted meal to the guest's mobile phone or via email.

By analyzing a combination of historical sales and weather data, the zoo can also determine, for instance, that it will experience a spike in bottled water sales on an upcoming Saturday. "People tend to think, if it's going to be 94 degrees on Saturday, then, duh, you will go through water. But a lot of times, you assume what will happen and it doesn't happen and then you're sitting on a bunch of inventory," Lucas says. "Being able to better manage our inventory and supply chain is vital for us."

Also, through smart phone notification and drill-down capabilities, management can be alerted to when a high-value donor swipes her member card to enter the zoo. That swipe triggers an email or text alert to management that she has arrived and a member of the senior team can meet her at the entry gate to simply greet her or to present a welcome offer like ensuring that her meals are paid for. "We can flag people in our system as significant donors so that they get the treatment they deserve," he says.

Next, the zoo will soon begin to offer the first points-based loyalty program of any zoo in the world, Lucas says. Visitors will earn points for coming to the zoo and spending money while there. "We're innovators, not followers," he says.

Out-of-the-gate results
Lucas and his team plans to take their more comprehensive reporting functionality to the zoo's advertising agency to better shape its 2011 marketing plan. The goal is to increase middle market attendance (people who earn between $50,000 and $75,000). So far, the zoo reduced marketing spend by $40,000 by conducting more targeted advertising. "Before implementing our world of analytics, [advertising] would involve highway billboards. Now we have the ability to be more surgical with that money," he says.

Right out of the gate, the zoo managed to increase in-park spending by 25 percent, which Lucas credits to acting on real-time data and seasonal weather patterns to make strategic offers. The zoo is also projecting a $350,000 increase in revenue in the first year and an additional $50,000 in new visits per year. "We're ambassadors to the natural world and we're doing more than collecting money at turn-styles," Lucas says. "We have a forward-thinking culture hereIt's not just about money; it's about ensuring that the [customer] experience is unforgettable."