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Q&A with Donna Powell, Business Administrative Services Manager, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Data uncaged

Analytics increases Point Defiance Zoo's visits and efficiency

Donna Powell

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, needed a way to quickly analyze weekend attendance and deliver a report to the board of directors in time for Monday meetings. So management installed a data analytics system—and got a lot more than they bargained for. For the first time in her career, veteran manager Donna Powell learned when the zoo's customers were buying their tickets and where they were coming from. Such information has allowed her to create more effective staffing and marketing plans. Now Powell is watching various departments transform before her eyes. Empowered by access to data, they’re becoming more analytical, more creative, and more collaborative. Her ideas about effective hiring and organization will never be the same. —Jeffrey O'Brien


How has Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium changed during your 14-year tenure?
It’s not the same zoo. The footprint is almost entirely different. We did upgrades throughout and changed the program to craft a very interactive experience. You’re getting closer to animals now where in the past viewing was typically in an exhibit, keeping the animal further from view. And the result is that we’re getting a lot more visitors. Back in 2000 we were seeing around 500,000 people a year and we’re now well over 700,000.

You’ve also been upgrading your IT systems to help serve those crowds. Can you talk about the role that data analytics is playing and how that came about?
It came from a friendship with John Lucas, my counterpart at the Cincinnati Zoo. I started hearing about the data analytics system he was deploying and the immediate improvements he was seeing in food and retail sales, which he could attribute to changing up products in particular locations. He knew, for example, the temperature when people stop buying ice cream and start buying soft drinks and beer. He was uncovering purchasing patterns about visitors and weather, which is hugely helpful in making staffing decisions. So that’s kind of where it was born.

What was your reaction to seeing that those kinds of results were possible?
Why aren’t we doing that?! We have more than 12 million records, with a new one added every time we sell a ticket. But my frustration was always about getting to the data. No one on my team had the ability to write SQL scripts and the IT people were busy supporting systems. So all the data was locked behind closed doors. After talking to John, I realized there was a way to get direct access to information.

We have more than 12 million records, with a new one added every time we sell a ticket.

It must have been helpful to have a case study like that to sell the idea internally.
You know, data analytics is a hot topic right now. But unfortunately most people don’t know what that means. So you need to provide an example of how it can drive sales and eventually pay for itself. So, yes, Cincinnati was invaluable. Now probably half a dozen zoos have followed in their footsteps.

What problems were you trying to solve?
First and foremost, we wanted a solution at the fingertips of our management staff so we could quickly run reports. There were so many times that the director would go to a board meeting on Monday evening and couldn’t even provide a number for weekend attendance. We wanted the director to be able to pull up a smartphone and say “Not only can I can give you attendance, but I can tell you the peaks.” Beyond that, we wanted to know where our visitors are coming from, how much time passed between buying a ticket online and walking through the gate. We wanted to know whether we’ve been successful turning visitors into members. Now we can do those things.

How is it helpful to know something like the time that someone bought a ticket?
Well, we actually learned something really interesting that has to do with timing. We learned that almost 32% of our online ticket sales happen in the middle of the night, which we assume are people working night shifts or people at one of the several military bases in the area. That information helps us make decisions around how to spend our marketing dollars. We started putting an expiration date on offers. Things like: Buy your tickets before eight a.m. and you’ll get 15% off. We’re seeing a much greater purchase rate as a result.

Does your staff run reports, or is this strictly a management tool?
Originally I felt that it would be a top-down process. Instead, the mid-level managers and the staff are actually doing the bulk of the reporting. So the information is being driven up instead of down, which is far better because it’s the staff that has the personal relationship with the customer. They can be a lot more creative with developing offers.

It must make the staff feel empowered to have a tool to test their instincts.
I like that word. It empowers them, yes. It also sparks their creativity and leads to interesting conversations, which drive innovation.

So, a first step toward innovation is conversation. What role does collaboration play?
That’s one of the most promising side effects of the system. At one point we had an IT person, someone from visitor services and another from marketing come together in one room. They were using Google Analytics, Facebook, and Cognos to try to solve a problem that they had all been dealing with from different perspectives. It was one of the most creative and unlikely things I’ve ever watched unfold in the organization. They were looking at things from their respective disciplines and started seeing the patterns, which they shared with each other. Those people would otherwise never have been in the same room working together on an issue like this.

So you’re seeing a growth in data literacy and, as a result, collaboration. Is that shaping your ideas about future hiring strategies?
This system will forever change the type of employee that we’ll hire. The employees that we have now will be the bar that everyone will need to clear. Proficiency in data analytics is now part of the criteria as we fill positions across the organization—not just at Point Defiance Zoo, but at Metro Parks Tacoma.

This system will forever change the type of employee that we hire. Proficiency in data analytics will become part of the criteria we look for

You may also end up reassessing the way you organize talent and resources.
When I look at the campus that we have here, we’re kind of a small city. There are creative people in the zoological field that could benefit from the data we’re collecting. We have creative people in operations that can benefit from data about how we use utilities. We’re starting to see a more overarching view of what the zoo does and how it interconnects. That’s something that can change the way we look at anything from visitor experiences to animal care. I mean, they use data analytics in healthcare now. Why not animal healthcare? Every dollar that we can save, whether at the front gate or on water consumption, those are dollars that support our mission of conservation. We don’t have a big budget and so we have to manage it wisely. It’s things like this that are going to help us manage smarter in the future.

Do you have any tactical advice for someone struggling to make sense of their data?
I went to a conference recently and went for a walk on the beach. It's something I like to do, walk along the beach looking for interesting rocks and shells. Heading in one direction, I found one shell that was worth picking up-there was virtually nothing on the beach. I turned around, walked back the same path and picked up a whole cupful of beautiful shells and rocks. It's a story I like to tell because it's the same thing with data. You can't look from just one direction. You need to turn data around and look from all angles.