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VOL. 126 | NO. 168 | Monday, August 29, 2011

Wildly Popular

Zoo improvements keep ratings high

By Sarah Baker

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Many Memphians are unaware that the Memphis Zoo they visited when they were children is a completely different zoo today, thanks to more than $90 million in renovations since the early 1990s.

Zookeeper Carolyn Horton feeds bananas to the giraffes at the Memphis Zoo. The zoo continues to be ranked high by various surveys. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The story of the zoo began in 1906 with a black bear named Natch, a retired baseball mascot. Today, the Memphis Zoo spans 70 acres and is home to more than 3,500 animals representing more than 500 species.

The Memphis Zoo in 2008 was ranked America’s No. 1 zoo by TripAdvisor.com. A year later, it was rated the top zoo in the country in a national survey by Morey Associates.

But the praise doesn’t stop there. A recent Morey Associates survey revealed the Memphis Zoo had the highest overall visitor satisfaction ratings of any prior summer survey period and significantly higher than the benchmark average.

The benchmark average was on surveys conducted at 11 zoos in 2010. The Memphis Zoo saw significant increases from its 2010 summer ratings. The zoo also exceeded the benchmark average in numerous categories, including overall satisfaction, admission value, entertainment and educational experience, employee courtesy and cleanliness.

Visitors from outside the Memphis area increased to 75 percent from 62 percent in 2010 and 36 percent in 2009. Thirty-seven percent were from parts of the U.S. outside Tennessee, Arkansas or Mississippi.

“Visitor rankings like these help us to spread the word that there is really something special in Midtown that many locals can rediscover,” said Abbey Dane, director of marketing and communications for the zoo. “We’re constantly working to improve the visitor experience at the zoo, and many changes have been made even in the last year to move the Memphis Zoo toward becoming a world-class zoo.”

Advertising awareness and word-of-mouth awareness also increased and exceeded the benchmark averages with the highest recall in billboards and brochures. Because the zoo is a nonprofit organization – meaning that 100 percent of its proceeds go toward the care of the animals and general operations – it’s paramount that it spends advertising money wisely, Dane said.

“Social media is an area that is wildly helpful for us,” she said. “We’re able to communicate our message to a generation that is or will soon become our strongest supporters, and we’re able to do so at minimal costs.”

Panda Ya Ya, part of the CHINA exhibit, enjoys a midmorning meal at the Memphis Zoo.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The zoo’s Facebook page recently surpassed 75,000 fans, and Twitter is now at more than 8,600 followers.

Advertising is also very event-driven.

About 26 percent of the zoo’s fundraising revenue is made in just one night. This will be the 28th year for Zoo Rendezvous, slated for Saturday, Sept. 10. The night allows zoo members to experience live music and an impressive spread from some of Memphis’ finest eateries.

Also upcoming is Zoo Brew, a beer-tasting fundraiser, Friday, Sept. 2.

While the zoo has great attendance numbers – serving 950,000 visitors each year – it also relies heavily on supporters. Because the zoo spends an annual $14 million on goods and services, donors make improvements on exhibits and the building of new exhibits possible.

“While we’re proud of the changes we’ve been able to make, we still have a long way to go,” Dane said. “Currently on the horizon is our Zambezi River Hippo Camp, which would give our hippos a new home and move them from the exhibit they have inhabited since the 1950s. The zoo is a place that is living and breathing and will continue to grow as long as we have the support of our donors and members.”

Kelly Truitt, president of CB Richard Ellis Memphis, is one of those donors. He serves as immediate past board chair of the Memphis Zoological Society – the zoo’s board.

“The zoo is such a wonderful success story of a public-private partnership, and such a great asset for our city,” Truitt said. “It has been ranked as the No. 1 zoo in the country for a number of years, and I really attribute that to the staff and to Chuck Brady, our CEO and president, as well as an active board.”

The Memphis Zoo is one of only four zoos in the country with giant pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le, who reside in the CHINA exhibit – a three-acre facility that opened in 2002 and features animals indigenous to China, as well as authentic Chinese architecture and gardens.

Dexter Muller, senior vice president for community development and logistics council director at the Greater Memphis Chamber, said assets like the zoo give the city a competitive edge when seeking new business.

“Memphis is the smallest city in the country that has a NBA team, an airline hub and a zoo with a panda exhibit,” Muller said. “If you compare us to our peers in terms of size, I think we’re much better because we’re always pushing the limit and trying to be bigger than we are, which that’s the kind of city that I want to live in, one that’s always pushing.”

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