That's what makes finding of an executive who has embraced, promoted, and found dramatic value in analytics such a joy. I discovered that person in John Lucas, director of park operations at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
Lucas initiated the zoo's analytics strategy a couple of years ago and continues overseeing it today. He loves sharing stories of the zoo's successes, particularly with a goal of motivating others in the industry to pursue analytics programs of their own.
"What I tell other cultural attractions is this: The things that we're achieving with analytics are transforming us in a profound way," Lucas told AllAnalytics.com in a recent interview.
Prior to launching the analytics project, the zoo operations were fractured. Guest payments at the admissions booth and retail shops and for membership sales and food funneled into the organization via four disparate systems, for example.
"You could say we were blind because none of the systems talked to each other, and, in the case of food, where we were ringing up $4 million in sales on cash registers, we were even blinder because those were unplugged. We were using old-school, 1975-era cash registers like you'd buy at Staples," Lucas said.
Now, with the ability to do advanced analytics, the situation is worlds apart. "We can track how many times guests come to the park, what their retail spends are, how many times they rode the train or took in special evening events. We know their spending and loyalty."
He used ZIP-code collection at admissions points-of-sale as an example. Previously, if Lucas wanted to run a report out of the admissions system for 2011, the data would be presented in a CSV file format or Excel -- 25 to 30 pages filled with a couple thousand ZIP codes. "It was useless. We had no mapping ability."
Today, the zoo is doing a lot of geo-analytics around mapping. From an executive dashboard, Lucas can zoom in and out of a map, applying different numbers to look at attendance, food, and retail spending, for example. Right out of the gate, the zoo found predictable geographical spending patterns, he said.
"One specific thing we're doing right now is plotting our members on a map, presenting an overlay with socioeconomic data on top, and looking for pockets of affluence not represented in our membership base that we can target as new opportunities."
In another case, Lucas applied advanced geo-analytics to determine the effectiveness of a decades-old discount promotion partnership aimed at bringing visitors from areas 70 miles or beyond -- from places like Chicago; Lexington, Ky.; and Toledo, Ohio -- to the zoo. A national organization promoted the zoo in these outer markets; visitors who showed the membership card from the organization received $2 off the entry fee. With no way to dig into the ZIP code data in the redemption reports, the zoo assumed the promotion was working.
Once it had advanced analytics capability, a very different picture emerged. It discovered that 90 percent of the visitors taking advantage of the discount lived within a 15-mile radius of the zoo. In 2010, the discounted revenue reached nearly $100,000, and yet the outer-market advertising program had failed to deliver target visitors.
"With a more visual representation of our business, and mapping, within a couple of days we made a decision that saved the zoo $94,000 this year," Lucas said. That is, the zoo did not renew its longstanding contract with that partner.
In another example, analytics revealed this simple fact: People like to eat soft-serve ice cream between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. -- a time that the zoo traditionally shut down all food stands and let staff go for the day. But with this new data in hand, ice cream stands remain open, a decision that netted the zoo an additional $2,000 in food sales in 2010.
"It's not the sexiest story, but we had been blind to this before we began using analytics," Lucas told us.
And overall, he added, the story here for other businesses is that they, too, can see what they've been blind to and use analytics to draw their own conclusions.