The turnstiles at the Oklahoma City Zoo received a workout over the last fiscal year as the zoo set an all-time attendance record.
Between July 1, 2011, and June 30 of this year, there were 989,622 visitors to the zoo. That's 6,901 more than the previous fiscal year, which was also a record.
But unlike the previous fiscal year, there were no new major exhibits or attractions added, zoo Executive Director Dwight Scott said.
“Typically in our industry when you have an attendance record, it's due to the opening of something new,” Scott said. “This year we didn't open one and we beat the previous record.”
Scott said the mild winter was a contributing factor, along with the arrival of several new residents. In April 2011, Malee the elephant was born and her first birthday party was a big draw in April of this year. The zoo also added Rex, a male Asian elephant, to its collection in late 2011 and opened a giraffe feeding experience for visitors in September.
There also are some residual benefits from the opening of the elephant exhibit in March 2011. That facility is the largest in the country for Asian elephants and has become popular.
“I think we might be still riding the wave from some of that,” Scott said. “We have a lot of momentum with the community. If you compare our attendance with the size of our metro area, we have a high saturation rate of visitors. I think we were 11th in the country in terms of saturation among zoos. That's an incredible fact.”
There has also been an increased emphasis on customer service. Put simply, Scott said, people who have a good experience tend to come back. He said the zoo's staff — from marketing to concessions — have played a large role in the attendance totals.
“If someone waits in a long line for a hamburger, they're not thinking about the cool animals we have here,” Scott said. “Good customer service is just good business.”
ZooFriends also plays a role. That organization has about 26,000 households on its membership rolls. ZooFriends is a nonprofit founded in 1954 to support and promote the zoo. Members receive unlimited admission and discounts on concessions, among other benefits.
Scott said the zoo is budgeting for 925,000 visitors this fiscal year, which began July 1, but there's no guarantee they will hit that number.
“We shouldn't expect to set annual records year after year but I don't think we've hit our ceiling at all,” Scott said.