Zoo sets record attendance day thanks to new bear exhibit

Aug. 9, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by the Great Plains Zoo.

“Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” laughs Elizabeth Whealy, president and CEO of the Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum of Natural History, as she quotes the old Woody Allen line.

But those who know her know that she takes building attendance for the zoo seriously. Giving people fun, exciting reasons to “show up” – or “driving attendance” as she calls it – is critical to the zoo’s success.

And drive attendance, the zoo has. Over the past 12 years, the zoo has built its attendance by more than 230 percent, from 137,000 guests in 2005 to more than 301,000 visitors last year.

“For a zoo to attract almost double its city population is considered outstanding in the zoo world, and it’s a great sign that people in Sioux Falls and throughout the region are showing up to check out what the zoo is offering,” Whealy said.

While the zoo relies on active fundraising and has enjoyed generous private investment, increased attendance is the gateway to all of the zoo’s earned revenue strategies to increase financial health and sustainability.

To maintain a healthy budget for animal care, feed, guest experiences and educational programming, increased attendance is critical.

More people coming through the gate means more memberships – which have tripled in the past decade – and more support for other revenue lines.

More happy kids riding the zoo’s train and carousel means the zoo can teach more kids in its education programs.

The more concessions people gobble up at the Maasai Market or from the coffee bar in the gift shop – yes, you can get espresso at the zoo –  the better care the zoo can provide to its more than 1,000 animals. And the more times kids get to feed a 17-foot-tall giraffe, go gold-panning for gems and fossils in the Hy-Vee Face-to-Face Farm’s mining sluice, buy feed to give to the hungry goats and sheep or get wind-blown in the hurricane machine, the better the zoo can support its mission of connecting kids with animals and saving species from extinction.

That mission has been served by the zoo’s increasing attendance and budget, but according to Whealy, it is about way more than the numbers for the steadily growing nonprofit zoo.

“Building attendance means we have the wherewithal to provide top-notch experiences for our guests and support important wildlife conservation projects both here and in the wild,” Whealy said.

She points to the 2017 arrival of the Koala Wilds exhibit, with animals on loan from San Diego Zoo Global.

Until now, the conservation loan program hadn’t been in reach of any other smaller or medium-sized zoo like the Great Plains Zoo. But after years of planning, the zoo proved its ability to provide outstanding veterinary care, create specific habitats for the finicky animals, provide dedicated zookeeper time and in-San Diego training and ensure the availability of fresh, flown-in eucalyptus twice each week – securing a coveted koala loan.

The Great Plains Zoo was one of only 10 zoos in North America in the summer of 2017 to host these amazing animals. And from an attendance standpoint, it paid off.

Exhibits like Koala Wilds help drive excitement and attendance for the zoo, and the koala exhibit drew guests from Minneapolis and Omaha – cities with much larger zoos that don’t have koalas.

While Koala Wilds helped propel a great leap forward in attendance last summer, the first months of the zoo’s new exhibit this year, Fortress of the Bears, has topped it dramatically. The new home for four rambunctious brown bear cubs, along with its fun playground and hands-on areas for kids, showed a 20 percent increase in attendance over last summer’s koala draw. And as of July, the zoo saw its highest attendance day in history with 6,547 visitors.

In addition to Fortress of the Bears, the zoo has created a line-up of other outstanding exhibits through an aggressive, strategically planned set of enhancements that began in 2008. And, now, the Great Plains Zoo is a national award-winning zoo. It is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, putting it in the top 10 percent  of animal institutions in the country, and its snow monkey exhibit won top honors in exhibit design from the AZA – one of the industry’s highest awards – in 2015.

Add that to exhibit additions like Asian Cats, Rare Rhinos of Africa, Kids’ Clinic, the KELOLAND Education Center, the new transparent entrance gateway and plazas and the Hy-Vee Face-to-Face Farm, and you see the fruits of a productive, strategic master plan to delight kids and bring more and more of them and their families to the zoo each year across the past decade.

“We want to seize every opportunity to bring families closer to animals and the natural world,” Whealy said. “Teaching kids, saving species, it all starts with getting them through the door.”

Great Plains Zoo announces largest gift ever toward lion exhibit

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Zoo sets record attendance day thanks to new bear exhibit

The Great Plains Zoo had been building up to it, and the new brown bears helped break it: A one-day attendance record caps off years of solid growth.

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