Cincinnati Zoo Goes Ape Over Analytics

That many organizations struggle to achieve value from analytics should come as no surprise to anybody. The disconnection between IT and the business, lack of executive sponsorship, and restrictive tools are well-worn themes among the analytics and business intelligence community, after all.

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 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.

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: Your source of motivation?
  • 7/26/2011 9:47:48 PM


Also impressive that such ownership was taken on the part of management. I know the debate rages about who should drive BI implementation, but, for my money, the accessibility of the tool is also important.

Re: Your source of motivation?
  • 7/25/2011 7:54:12 PM

Great article to show that any and every busines needs good analystics. I like the analogy that they were 'blind' before with out it. 

Re: Your source of motivation?
  • 7/22/2011 6:49:22 PM


I guess the key in what you are talking about is that IT can no longer afford to be "support" alone. I mentioned this in an earlier comment but I think that business intelligence brings the business and technical side together like never before. These are technologies and disciplines that are more than tools. They will transform business as never before. And those who wield this technological power will be the leaders no matter what department they happen to come from.

Re: Promotion
  • 7/22/2011 3:52:04 PM

Generally speaking, most attractions including those you mentioned have not discovered the world of analytics yet.  I am presenting with Brookfield Zoo at the AZA Annual Conference in September on this project, and thru that will introduce our story to even more than we have already (40+ attractions).  The interest level is generall very high in being able to do the things that we are doing.  But in short, my industry is in the very early stages of learning what analytics has to offer them.

Yes, we have in essence reinvested the savings out of what we have derived from Analytics and the promotions savings either back into further development of our BI tool to extract even more information and/or investing that back in more successful promotions. 

For example - we used the savings from the failed promotion strategy to focus on a strategy to drive attendance from Dayton and Lexington.  Using Analytics, we recently realized that attendance from those markets is up 28.8% - which we are very pleased with (as there is a corresponding increase in revenue along with that attendance)

Re: Promotion
  • 7/22/2011 9:36:24 AM

John, thanks for sharing the insight in this thread into how cultural attractions operate (and Arielle for prompting him!). Makes me wonder that the local cultural attractions in my neck of the woods -- Lincoln Park Zoo, Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden -- are doing with analytics. You mention that you work collaboratively with other area attractions and the regional tourism network to drive up outer market attendance. You also noted saving $94,000 in canceling a promotional effort aimed at the same. Have you been able to reinvest that savings in a new or revised promo and, if so, what do your early measurements show regarding its success?

Re: Your source of motivation?
  • 7/21/2011 11:06:18 PM

Hi John    I apologize I am a little late to the discussion, but I am very happy to hear your success with Analytics. You are a prime example of how if companies are smart about the use of Analytics it can bring a wealth of added benefit to efficiencies of all kinds.


I also wanted to comment on your views of IT taking on more of an business analyst role within companies, I think this is a fantastic idea and should be the goal of IT departments moving forward, it is not enough to merely make sure the basics are provided, IT can be a major asset of a company and not just function in a support role. Mindsets need to change across the board, and with technologies such as virtualization and Cloud based computing becoming common place, lets hope IT takes advantage of this opportunity to reinvent itself.   

Re: Analytics in everything
  • 7/21/2011 11:00:14 PM

Shawn - This is deffinitly a story about just taking raw data and molding it to your purpose. So many times we're brute forcing our way to the end goal, when if we did some research we could have costed with little effort.

Re: Your source of motivation?
  • 7/21/2011 9:01:26 PM

John, my sense is that, for that transformation to take place within IT that you speak of, that IT needs to be decentralized. So that IT / analysts are dedicated within each business unit, and specialize in effect to work within certain business units and with certain business leaders. Gone are the days of the IT generalist. Any thoughts from the IT vets here? Am I speaking impractical rubbish?

Re: Promotion
  • 7/21/2011 6:42:46 PM

Oh, those are the other companies that we partner with on combo tickets and packages.  In short, we work collaboratively with area attractions, or Regional Tourism Network and the Convention and Visitor's Bureaus to form those partnerships.  They are all geared around trying to capture outer market attendance.

Re: Promotion
  • 7/21/2011 6:34:44 PM

Yes, the ones listed when you scroll down on I also like the Zebra ice cream idea .

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