The Problem In-Depth

A little over two years ago, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden realized that the buying habits and profile of the typical visitor to its zoo was changing. “We were looking at some interesting business trends in our attendance patterns and some of our other businesses,” says John Lucas, the zoo’s director of operations. Around the same time, the global recession was going into full-swing, although Lucas notes that zoos are typically quite resilient to the effects of economic downturns.

“One of the trends we started seeing even before the recession came in this last time was we started seeing a pretty marked increase in membership, membership attendance, things of that nature,” Lucas says. “You may say, ‘That’s a good thing, what were you concerned about?’ Well, members of a zoo, members of an attraction, do not spend money inside the park during their visits as much as non-members do.”

In other words, even though more people were coming to the zoo, they were spending less money while they were there. That meant fewer funds from the zoo’s concession business. “When you aggregated all those things together, it was starting to sit on a trend-line that was… I wouldn’t say alarming, but a little concerning to us,” says Lucas.

Although the zoo was still doing well, Lucas says that they began questioning what the situation would look like in three years if they did not adapt things like marketing, staffing, and stocking to reflect the new trends. Adapting would mean a great deal of data collection and analysis to get a good idea of the specifics of the trends-a task that the zoo’s existing system just wasn’t up to. Lucas notes that four entirely separate systems were responsible for admission sales, membership sales, the zoo’s retail operations, and cash register operations for food sales.

“We had all these disparate systems and little or no ability to see even basic information. Something as basic as, ‘What was yesterday’s food sales?’ might take four or five days to find out, let alone getting into some analytics behind those numbers,” says Lucas. A new system was needed to let the zoo fine-tune its business decisions and strategy.

The Solution

The zoo quickly realized that what it needed was a suite of business analytics software that would be able to do the heavy lifting of analysis and prediction. Lucas notes that they examined a variety of different suites and packages before deciding to go with IBM and its Cognos business intelligence platform.

Cognos is a business intelligence platform that forms one aspect of IBM’s overall analytics package, which also includes facets such as predictive analytics through IBM SPSS. It has the ability to pull in a remarkably wide variety of factors and data that could impact a business, from sales data to weather to geographic information, and target trends and predictions that can help businesses make more informed decisions about how to go forward.

According to Leah MacMillan, director of market strategy for business analytics for IBM, business intelligence of the sort IBM provided to the zoo is one of the foundational elements of analytics as a whole. “[It] really gives you insight into how your business is doing, and you can drill down and understand why, and then understand what decisions you want to make as a result of that,” says MacMillan.

MacMillan notes that although the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens wound up using Cognos to analyze the operations of a zoo, it could just as easily have been used for nearly any business. “Analytics is really going mainstream,” she says. “It gets used in all sorts of different examples, from policing environments where it’s being used to analyze crime data… all the way through to a more typical financial services company, who’s looking at their operational information. There’s no one, single, typical deployment.”

IBM and its partner BrightStar Partners, Inc. worked with the zoo to combine its multiple systems into one single integrated system, coupled with the Cognos platform. That allowed the zoo to get what MacMillan calls an “at-a-glance view” of the entire operation across facets such as ticketing, retail, and concession sales from a single location.

The Outcome

Lucas describes the zoo industry as a typically “data starved” arena. The shift from needing several days just to find out basic information to having real-time analytics at their finger-tips was a massive change for the zoo, one that Lucas describes as going from one end of the spectrum to the other. Even data that the zoo had previously gathered took on a new life with the new system in place.

“When you would come to the zoo and buy a ticket, we would ask you for your zip code. And we’ve been doing that for years,” says Lucas. “At least twice a year, I would review that zip code list, we would send it to our ad agency, and do all the things you would expect from it.”

However, because the list of zip codes was stored in a 29-page Excel spreadsheet, only the most rudimentary analysis was possible. Lucas notes that he was often only familiar with the two or three zip codes nearest to the zoo, so anything outside of that area required manual look-ups of the zip code’s location to gain any useful insight-a very labor-intensive process.

“One of the first things that we did is we started mapping some of our information in through Cognos using the mapping software that we bought,” says Lucas. This allowed the zoo to take the formerly unwieldy spreadsheet and conduct analysis on some of the zoo’s promotional and marketing programs. Thanks to the new analysis they quickly discovered that a major marketing effort, which was designed to pull in out-of-market patrons through discounted admission and cost the zoo as much as $100,000 a year in revenue as a result of the discounts, was really only drawing in local patrons. The zoo quickly decided to cancel the program.

“Us and others in my industry were completely blind to things like that. We would never have connected the dots on something like that,” notes Lucas.

The Cognos installation has also helped the zoo save money on inventory purchasing. “The solution we have in place with IBM analytics enables us to report on, for example, how many bottled waters will sell this Saturday when the temperature is between 86 and 89,” says Lucas. “Prior to that, to be honest with you, we would just guess.” By accurately predicting demand based on a variety of metrics, the zoo can make more precise purchasing decisions and save money that would otherwise go towards unneeded inventory.

On top of the added insight into business processes and trends, IBM’s systems are also helping people like Lucas use data more directly and with less fuss. “In the past, a lot of times when we would find a report that couldn’t give me the information that I would need, I would need to call one of our database administrators,” says Lucas. “And they would need to get into the SQL tables and run a custom script and then regurgitate back to me what would usually be an Excel spreadsheet with the information that I asked for. And that could take anywhere from an hour to a week, depending on what it was.”

Thanks to IBM Cognos, though, the data is all in one place and readily accessible to Lucas whenever he needs it. “Now, I get all of the information. I don’t call IT anymore. As a manager of the business, I’m able to pull the information I want from my desktop, which is really cool. We’re really enjoying that-and I think our IT department is, too,” he says.