• March 17, 2011
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Cincy’s Zoo Goes Ape for IBM

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The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden last year hosted 1.3 million visitors, who came to see more than 550 animal and 3,000 plant species. The 137-year-old, 71-acre park has a $26 million annual operating budget, but only about a quarter of the funding comes from government sources.

“Because we rely less on the government and more on our own to generate funds, we operate more as a for-profit organization. We’re driven to innovate because we have to,” says John Lucas, the park’s director of operations.

So it comes as no surprise that about two years ago, the park took a serious look at how its current systems were inhibiting revenue growth and customer service. What it found was a jumbled mess of multiple point-of-sales systems—one for ticketing, one for retail sales, and one for food and beverage sales—and a complete lack of insight into who came to the park, what they did while they were there, and where they spent their money.

“We knew we were doing a little more than $4 million in food sales, but it could take a week or two to run a sales report” because the staff had to sift through register tapes, Lucas explains.

In July, the Cincinnati Zoo turned to IBM and its business partner BrightStar to replace the siloed systems with one integrated solution powered by IBM’s Cognos business analytics software. All 54 POS terminals throughout the park were put onto the same system, Gateway Ticketing Systems’ Galaxy Point of Sales, and all revenue—every dollar spent by every guest—enters a central repository that can generate real-time reports.

Cognos allows park management to see real-time sales data to ensure inventory and staffing meet the demand.

Since installing the system, sales at the park’s 16 food and beverage concessions have increased by 25 percent, and retail sales have risen by 20 percent. Managers can also forecast precisely how much inventory to buy ahead of time; in the past, they just guessed. “We are able to make much smarter buying decisions,” Lucas says.

Another benefit of the system has been improved marketing. For example, the zoo can track the ZIP codes of every visitor and better direct its marketing and promotions message to areas where it will get the most for its dollars. Using the customer location data, the zoo was able to cut about $90,000 in discounts on park memberships and admissions that weren’t providing a high enough return. In addition, $40,000 was cut from the marketing budget. And, as a result of better marketing, the zoo expects to increase the number of visits by 50,000 during 2011.

Another cost-saver for the zoo comes from better allocating staff to the areas of the park drawing the most attention, and doing so in real time. That kind of labor optimization is important because the zoo spends about $1 million a year on part-time labor.

Beyond the sheer financial impact, though, the park has been able to improve the service it provides to guests before, during, and after visits. Cognos enables two key groups to be targeted for special promotions: season pass holders and non-pass holders. Promotions can be tailored to guests’ spending and marketing efforts readjusted along the way.

If, for example, a member shows a particular interest in the many wine tastings, movies, or special exhibits that the zoo offers, management can tailor his membership package with discounts and exclusives to premiere shows, exhibits, and other events. Or, if a customer always buys lunch at the zoo but never buys anything in the gift shop, the zoo can stock his membership package with food and drink discounts.

“Before, everyone got the same membership package. Now, we’re marketing to you in ways we know you’ll be most interested in,” Lucas says. “Now we can get a total picture of our members’ behavior at the zoo and break them into segments so that when they renew their memberships, we can tailor the member benefits for each person.”

Additional features in the IBM business analytics software include smartphone notifications and mature drill-through capabilities that give the Cincinnati Zoo quick access to key information in real time. Through smartphone alerts, management can notify staff when VIP guests arrive at the zoo, or automatically send customized notifications to zoo members to make them aware of special promotions and events, and even map activities throughout the park. The upshot is a smarter operation and a more enjoyable experience for visitors.

“I’m blown away by our ability to get at the information that we never knew was available or that we knew was available but didn’t know how to get,” Lucas says.

For Lucas, the difference between now and prior to the Cognos implementation is like night and day. Cognos “literally changed our business in almost every way,” he says. “We couldn’t have been any more archaic three years ago. We were light years behind where we are now.”

Based on the results the Cincinnati Zoo has seen with Cognos, this year the park will integrate its payroll and labor scheduling into the system. The zoo also hopes to initiate a loyalty program. “We see this growing. Every time we look for one opportunity, we find two more,” Lucas says.

News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.

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