Brevard Zoo Fits the Niche Market
On the surface, the growth and even the existence of Brevard Zoo seems to defy logic. Outside of the strength of our location, right off of I-95, not much about its early history would seem to position it for success. We were envisioned by a small group of local citizens, not by attraction professionals. It was built by a community of 16,000 strong who wanted a wonderful place to bring their families and introduce them to wildlife. But they didn’t want public tax dollars to pay the operating costs. We were placed in a relatively small community that is spread over 70 linear miles and we were birthed barely 20 years ago – very young by zoo standards.
But despite these obstacles, the Zoo has steadily grown since inception as one of a handful of accredited, nonprofit zoos that doesn’t rely on public operating dollars. In 2012, Brevard Zoo reached the 400,000 guest mark for the first time and was rated No. 8 in the country, according to Trip Advisor reviews. In 2013, we crossed the 200-employee threshold and reached a budget of over $8 million. And along the way, we have won multiple accolades and awards for our exhibits, education and conservation programs.
A lot of our success, as a regional attraction, comes from recognizing that our “weaknesses” are really our strengths. I first became aware of this when drafting a 10-year business plan for the Zoo. A consultant pointed out that our advantage is that we are the “anti-theme park;” we can do things that they can’t. Here is a list of those competitive advantages.
1. We Are Real
You can trace the evolution of leisure time desires in the country and see the fairly recent shift from people wanting to collect experiences, even if they are patently artificial, to wanting authentic adventures. They want to discover something real and unique and we fit the bill. We feel like old Florida, not like a saccharine-coated fantasyland. So many first-time guests feel like they’ve discovered something new and unique that they love to share. Local residents often tell me that they send guests to Kennedy Space Center but take their guests to the Zoo, so they can see their faces when they feed a giraffe or kayak past a rhino.
2. We Are Easy
Tourism changed post 9-11. Travelers are more protective of their time and their comforts. They don’t want hassles — getting through security is hassle enough. So, easy is good, and we’re as easy as it comes with no parking fees or shuttles, no giant crowds or lines, and no rush to see it all. The average guest spends 3.5 hours at the Zoo and in that time period can see and do almost everything. Being a half-day attraction is a competitive advantage since it leaves time to do other things – go to the beach, head back to the airport or just relax.
3. We Are Personal
Our relatively small size and number of guests allow us to provide intimate experiences that you simply can’t give to five million people. After a colleague from a major attraction spent a day at the Zoo with her team, she commented, “We would love to offer these kinds of personal animal experiences to our guests, but we can’t because of our volume of visitors.” Brevard Zoo is built around experience, not about having an encyclopedic collection of animals. We always ask the question, “What will this new exhibit or animal add to the guest experience?” And we engage guests with our conservation programs. These are marker experiences that families remember for decades.
4. We Haven’t Forgotten Our Roots
Of course, we are still dependent on the local community for a broad range of support and for 50 percent of our attendance. We offer low-cost attendance options throughout the year when the tourists aren’t around and special discounts for locals. And a few years ago, we realized that many of our families were outgrowing our Zoo when their youngest children turned 10 or 11. So, we built Treetop Trek, a back-to-nature exciting adventure that really intrigues pre-teens and beyond by literally getting them to hang-on-to-a-tree for dear life. This reenergized our brand and made us appealing across the ages.
And finally, living right outside of both Orlando and the Space Center means we can draw on veterans from both industries to serve on our boards and to keep us at the forefront of innovation.
Keith Winsten is the executive director of the Brevard Zoo, brevardzoo.org