At the time of this writing I have a three year old. In a overly optimistic moment of parenting I came to the conclusion that I could and should spend one of my days off with her. I decided to take her to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro as I thought she was about the right age to go. The morning of the big outing we got in the car, picked up a family member who would go with us and headed off. Little did I know it would be an all-day lesson in the corporatization of non-profits.
When we arrived the first thing that hit me was the entrance price. It was over forty dollars for the three of us to get in. Mind you this is a state zoo. It wasn’t a Ripley’s zoo in some tourist town, or some other for profit entity. We can’t forget that the traditional point of a state zoo’s existence is to provide an educational and enriching experience to the general public with an eye towards providing that experience to those families with lower incomes. At a time when minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and most organizations pay around nine bucks an hour for full time entry level labor, a single mom with two kids on the bottom end of the income spectrum would have to spend about a half day’s salary to get the kids into the zoo. This isn’t including if they had a family member or family friend come along to help out, which is what I often do. I’m not trying to tug heart strings here. I’m not making this comment about the costs for a trip to the mega-multi-plex to see the latest animated extravaganza from one of Disney’s IP factories, i’m talking about the State Zoo. As I said, unless i’m much mistaken, the purpose of the Zoo is to bring all that furry and scaley goodness to the masses. These days there are statistically more members of said masses on the lower end of the scale than in the middle or higher end. That’s not editorial commentary, it’s fact of decades of shrinking middle classes.
Ok, Gorillas eat a lot and and we live in an age where we aren’t just caging them up in fences. For our Zoos we create natural habitats like climate controlled environments for polar bears that must be very expensive to operate. Inflation still exists and I guess that $11 a head is not so bad, especially when you consider that the Zoo offers annual passes that would provide many days of zoo visits assuming you live close enough to make it worth your while to go.
Next up was the expected overpriced gift shop. This didn’t bother me in the least as it’s par for the course when it comes to any educational non-profit. Ticket price, snack bar and gift shop are the trifecta of high cost areas for a trip to the Aquarium, the Historical Fort, and yes, even the Zoo. I did think they could have done a better job outfitting the place with stuff for the little ones. If Ikea can get as big as they are selling $5 stuffed animals bigger than most kindergarteners, why can’t the Zoo? But really that’s a little critique.
Ok, I thought they went a little heavy on the entry ticket, but as I said, I could just have unrealistic expectations. Things start really going off the rails with the food options. I expected the single vendor solution for snacks and food. I learned about this business model all the way back in College. I think of it as the Sysco model.
When I was a kid at UCF in Orlando, there was a single food vendor on campus, Sysco, that operated all the eating venues. No matter where you went the fries were all the same, too thick and too cold. It was the same with all the other offerings. UCF shared the same challenge with any public facing institution, be it a Government, a local University, or some sort of entertainment venue like a museum or a large park. The challenge is that they are not in the business of food service or vendor management. So rather than putting together a comprehensive solution that is completely out of the realm of their mission, they adopt a single vendor model and throw it out for bid every few years. This basically means that there is a food-service monopoly. You used to see this in the private sector with stadiums and other large venues before some of the organizations wised up and just started leasing space at a premium rather than have a single vendor manage a limited menu.
Back to the mini-monopoly at the Zoo. As everyone knows, when there is a monopoly, pricing goes through the roof. The institution in question isn’t really incentivized to make an effort to keep prices low other than to avoid the negative press from a potential outcry if things get too much out of hand. I’m pretty sure that the Zoo is on the precipice of this. The Pizza was over $20 a pie and ice cream from the little ice cream shop was three or four dollars. I probably should have taken a screenshot of the menu so I could go over more of it, but to keep this description brief, the prices were all definitely in the ‘beyond greedy’ zone. There was one thing that for whatever reason really irked me beyond everything else. To me the most vile implementation of the price gouging was the soda machines. They were charging $3.75 for a bottle of soda, or pop as the northerners still call it. I really like Diet Mountain Dew, but will never like it that much. Sadly i’m sure the prices are that high because some idiots out there will actually pay that much for a small bottle.
It Wasn’t Just The Trifecta
The thing that really brought it together for me was the addition of so many high end add-on’s. I don’t recall if the first time I went to the Zoo it had the non-animal entertainment stuff for an additional charge. I know some of them have been there for a long time. The hurricane booth, the ‘4D’ video ride, and the carousel have all been staples for generating additional revenue. For the most part this could fall into the ‘reasonable’ category of a few extra bucks per ride.
More recently in the last few years the extras have gone through the roof. One that was sort of aligned to the Zoo was the life sized outdoor Dinosaur exhibit. I want to say it was five or six dollars a head to walk through. FYI, if you don’t have children, life sized robotic dinosaurs are like crack to pre-adolescent boys. It’s hard to tell your kid no when they know they can see a four story tall T-Rex. That’s a temporary exhibit, but I got the sense it was a big experiment because of the more recent expansions. New for this trip was an elevated rope obstacle course at $11 per person and you can now rent boats for the big lake that’s part of the zoo. Between the traditional expenses like the food and gift shops, additional options like carousels and themed shows, and now the premium experiences of elevated obstacle courses and boat rentals, the North Carolina Zoo has become a minefield of ‘added costs’ that felt disgustingly like corporate herd mentality. I don’t mind environments where everything is an overpriced mess, but that’s what you expect in environments like corporate run destination vacations and events like festivals and fairs. Again, I want to remind my readers and listeners that i’m talking about the State Zoo.
I said ‘disgustingly corporate’ but that was a bit of hyperbole. In all honesty I don’t have a problem with the corporatization of our personal downtime options if we are well informed as to what we are going to get. Several corporate entities are very good at this. My favorite go-to is the early days of cruising where tickets used to be considered ‘all inclusive’ fares. Extras only included bingo and a casino. That’s changed to the point where one of the most important people in the company is VP of on-board revenue who oversees a litany of specialty onboard retailers, events, services, and eateries all with additional costs. The thing here is that the corporate entities have learned that they should eschew the ‘all inclusive’ moniker and move the traditional offerings to be labeled as ‘complementary’, they promote the hell out of the extra costs as desirable options.
Every theme park from Disney to Dollywood promotes their special events, shopping, dining and evening entertainment options. You don’t hear much about ‘what’s included’ unless you are buying one of their everything’s included packs. It’s assumed and communicated that if you want everything you are going to pay much more than the base ticket.
Speaking of Disney, there was a sense that the Zoo learned one lesson from Disney. If you recall, i’ve oft commented on how well designed Walt Disney World was for keeping competition distant enough to not be a threat. The dining areas outside the gates of the Zoo and policy against bringing in food all speak to a very corporate ‘keep competition out and revenue in’ mentality.
What can they do and what can you Do?
At least as far as the attractions go, the Zoo should have one golden rule. If you can’t include it in the price of admission, the Zoo shouldn’t include it as an offering. This will slow down and simplify the options available. It does cost extra to build and man the boats and aerial obstacle courses. Zoo themed playgrounds for the little ones aren’t nearly as expensive to build or operate. Ditto for live shows where the actors are regular members of staff. When it comes to food and the gift shops, competition is the rule of the day. We live in an age where there is a food truck for every single type of food imaginable. Why not just provide power and parking for a dozen or so different vendors? It would be inexpensive and flexible.
Granted this is all pie in the sky stuff. The Zoo isn’t going to change course. It’s already too big and there is too much money involved. On top of this there are too many people involved in this type of organizational decision making. It would take a complete overhaul of the Zoological Society culture and priorities to get the Zoo back to being just a nice Zoo that you can take the kids to for a day at a cost that is next to nothing.
So if it isn’t changing and if you want to go to the Zoo, at least the North Carolina Zoo, and you have kids then what should you do? I think that maybe the best option is to wait until the kids go on a field trip to the Zoo and then tag along as a chaperone. From what I can tell the Zoo doesn’t expect school kids to pay for crazy expensive food or extras and the tickets are discounted as well. It’s chaos, but it’s reasonable, and you don’t even have to drive if you don’t’ want.
Your only other option is to just give up the Zoo as a viable cost effective outing for a family or a date. You can still go, but like Disney or a Cruise, if you want the full experience with all of the conveniences then be prepared to pay through the nose. I can easily see where a family of four could creep to $200 for the day if you take advantage of all the extras and eat at the rest area.
When did the zoo become so corporate? I don’t know, but it is. Additional revenue generation while they got you in the Park is the name of the game now. I wrote this article because I expected this type of environment in Gatlinburg, I expected it out of Disney, and I expect it out of cruise operators, but the State Zoo?!? It really makes me wonder if it’s inevitable to any organization as they grow. I guess it doesn’t matter if your the Smithsonian, the State University, or the Zoo, the closer you get to corporate size, the more corporate think becomes the name of the game. Growth, revenue, and operational efficiencies are all as important as the patrons, students, or visitors. I guess this type of herd mentality from decision makers is inevitable. Nobody wants to stray from the herd, lest they become the Impala that gets eaten by the Lion.
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