What Big Data Means for Animal Attractions

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Friday, July 18th, 2014

Point Defiance Polar Bear

In many ways, animal-based attractions are some of the most complex venues to operate in the entertainment world. This is true for a wide variety of reasons. Complicated roller coasters require precision in engineering, mathematical formulas, and rigorous testing. But technology and mechanical attractions operate consistently and according to a specific kind of logic. There’s an X-factor at play when there are living beings at the center of your attractions. Running a zoo or aquarium is a 24/7 endeavor that comes with numerous challenges. But many zoos and other animal-based attractions are using big data to get an edge on their programmatic planning and operations.

Big data is a term that we’ve used before on Entertainment Designer, and it’s one that’s becoming ubiquitous across disciplines. The idea is simple. Every moment, we’re gathering a huge range of data from a wide variety of systems which creates a massive body of information that can be leveraged for insights into any topic. Zoos are using it to help predict the popularity of exhibits, to optimize aspects of animal management, and to understand guests’ needs to provide a better overall experience.

Point Defiance

One of the biggest opportunities for zoos using big data is to streamline operations. Small zoos especially are benefiting from the insights that data analytics can provide. Insights from these systems can help manage scheduling shifts, and optimizing staffing to ensure the best visitor experience possible during peak times.

In recent press coverage, the business manager of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Washington revealed that big data has played a major role in the facility’s growing success. Point Defiance sits on 29 acres in Tacoma, Washington and sees approximately 700,000 visitors each year. Their portfolio of attractions include a variety of regional and global animal exhibits and interactive experiences. Since integrating a big data program with their ticket selling system, attendance has grown a staggering 771%.

Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

The zoo used IBM big data analytics platform Cognos to connect ticket sales information to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data. As a result, the zoo has real-time insights into how to staff for a day where the weather might be raining in the morning but clear off in the afternoon. Data-based decisions like these help institutions cut costs, and provide a better visitor experience.

Big data has other implications for zoos and aquariums. Tracking attendance and learning more about the audience is helping institutions predict a reasonable radius for drawing an audience. As a result, organizations with limited marketing dollars know where to focus their outreach efforts. They’re also able to identify new opportunities to grow attendance when they are overexposed with a specific audience.

Zoos and aquariums often derive as much as half their annual revenue through attendance, so the ability to increase revenue while also cutting operational costs is a powerful combination. Point Defiance also experimented with a social media program that targeted millennials, by encouraging them to check in on Facebook. The analytics programs then tracked the impact of the program and is exploring how to turn younger visitors from passive guests into brand ambassadors or influencers for the organization. Big data systems also help zoos and aquariums track which exhibits are the most popular, which feeds into future programmatic decisions.

The Point Defiance case study illustrates an important trend. Integrating data collection and analysis systems at different points in the zoo and aquarium ecosystem open up the chance for small organizations to grow by optimizing operations, offering a better guest experience, and marketing more effectively.

But there’s a bigger potential impact as well: to the animals they care for and the public they educate and entertain. “Every dollar we’re able to save at the front gate, we’re able to reallocate to serve our mission and conservation,” said a zoo spokesperson in a promotional video produced by IBM (seen above). While it’s early days for applying this kind of technology to zoo and aquariums, we’re encouraged by this example and looking forward to learning more about the potential of big data applications to transform the space. Ultimately, the data may be used to help minimize stress on captive animals and provide them with the best quality of life possible, while enhancing guest experiences through increasingly effective programming and exhibit design.

Image and video sources: Asmarterplanet.com; Dazzlingplaces.com; YouTube; Crucialaxio

Leave a Reply

Must Read