Zoo adopts variable-pricing strategy for tickets

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The Indianapolis Zoo last month dumped its old model of set ticket prices and installed a variable model—a first for the industry and one with mostly higher prices—to correspond with the opening of its orangutan exhibit.

Consumers who book hotels or purchase airfare will be familiar with the ticketing approach, called dynamic pricing, whereby prices fluctuate with demand, timing and other conditions.

Just as an Indiana Pacers fan can expect to pay a higher price to watch a matchup with the Miami Heat, a zoo visitor can now expect to pay more to go on the most popular days, like Saturday.

zoo-screenshot-15col.jpg The Indianapolis Zoo is encouraging visitors to save money by ordering tickets online. Typically, weekdays are cheapest because of lower attendance.

The zoo expects the move to generate more revenue as well as keep peak-day crowds to a more manageable level, improving the visitor experience. Officials are projecting 2014 attendance of 1.28 million, a 24-percent jump over 2013 and the highest count in years.

“The significant advantage this model offers to visitors is to save money by purchasing further in advance and [visiting] during the week,” said Karen Burns, the zoo’s senior vice president of external relations. “Prices are dynamic, which means that people need to lock in their lowest price by buying online as the prices are subject to increase.”

Two weeks ago, the zoo opened the $26 million Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center with eight orangutans, an exhibit eight years in the making and funded by donor dollars.

The exhibit is “the whole reason we got into this pricing,” Burns said, explaining that once daily attendance tops 9,000, the zoo is too crowded for an optimum guest experience. The new pricing model is designed to flatten attendance numbers.

The zoo’s website displays a color-coded calendar with attendance projections. Days highlighted in green render the cheapest prices; the red sections, typically Saturdays, are most costly.

At press time, tickets for Wednesday, July 30, carried a roughly $12 price tag for a child and $16 for an adult, but tickets for Saturday, June 14, cost about $18 for a child and $24 for an adult.

Under the old pricing model, youth tickets were $11.95 and adult tickets were $16.95 from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Off-season youth tickets were $8 and adult tickets were $10.

Ticket prices will never fall below $8, Burns said, but the zoo hasn’t set a ceiling price, instead letting demand rule. Buying a ticket at the zoo will never cost less than paying online.

zoo-fever.gifThe Indianapolis Zoo is the only member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums using dynamic pricing, said Rob Vernon, an AZA spokesman.

“Museums, zoos and other cultural attractions have been talking about this for a while,” said Michael Montgomery, principal of Michigan-based Montgomery Consulting, which advises not-for-profits. “Zoos and museums are first and foremost educational enterprises. I’d hate to see people with fewer resources feeling excluded from any educational resource just because dynamic pricing leads that institution to be charging a premium when they try to go.”

For families who might only be able to take their kids to the zoo on weekends when prices are highest, Burns said consumers can still save by planning their visit in advance.

“The zoo went through an extensive strategic planning process,” she said. “All of these decisions, including the International Orangutan Center, were based on the execution of our mission to empower people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation. In order to achieve our mission, the zoo must be economically sustainable.”

The dynamic-pricing model is nothing new; it’s just new to zoos, Burns said. “This is something we’ve been looking at for several years, evaluating how we could implement it here.”

Since the Indianapolis Zoo is the largest in the country to receive no tax revenue, the new pricing system should not be a surprise, she said. “We’re very focused on meeting the needs of our customers.”

“The biggest argument for it is evening out the peaks and valleys in attendance,” Montgomery said. “I think it can be a very good thing, but before people become familiar with it, they could be put off.”

Dynamic pricing has its critics. Steve Faktor, a former executive at American Express and a Forbes contributor, wrote in February that he was fascinated with dynamic pricing and its potential for increasing profits. But he said he viewed it as a disservice to consumers because of the price uncertainty.

“Airlines are the oracles of dynamic pricing,” he wrote. “Saddam Hussein had better approval ratings than most airlines.”

Ultimately, the zoo needed to rein in the crowds on busy days without turning visitors away, said Indianapolis Zoo CEO Michael Crowther, in an email reply to IBJ’s questions.

“That meant we needed to find a way to limit the number of people visiting the zoo before they even leave their homes,” Crowther said. “We looked at a lot of options, and dynamic pricing was clearly the best solution.”•


  • It worked
    Their ridiculously high prices kept me and my family from making a spontaneous trip to the zoo this past Saturday. I can't justify spending $70-$80 just to get into the zoo...
  • Cincy Zoo looking better and better
    I like the Indy Zoo - it's not very large, but it's nice for what it is. We tend to go 1 or 2 times a year. But checking the new rates on their site is giving me a bit of sticker shock. Around $23 for adults on weekends and $16 for kids. Ouch. Even the new prices for the middle of the week is kind of high compared to where it was last year. When you compare to nearby Cincinnati Zoo, they have adult tickets for $15 and kids for $11. And their zoo is a couple of times larger than the Indy zoo (seriously, if you've never been, you should - it's really nice). I don't mind the Indy Zoo trying to make back it's costs, but it feels like they're going to price themselves out of the market.
  • Ft. Wayne
    Ft. Wayne, Louisville, Cincinnati . . . day trips that will cost less than this Indy option
    • Heading North
      You can buy a family membership for an entire season, including entry into 125 other zoos nationwide (excluding the Indy Zoo), for the new "busy" day rate. Orangutans have been there since 2007 without doubling visitor pricing.
      • and the Dinosaur
        Remember the children's book "Danny and the Dinosaur". The man says "Go away Danny because people aren't looking at the zoo animals!" Well, sounds like they want people to go away. I predict disaster because the general Indy consumer will decide the weekend price is too high. Hopefully there are enough visitors. Other posters made good points though about change in weather. Could the ticket price be somehow applicable to another visit? The zoo historically has done a lot of dumb things... starting with the train that goes nowhere and a footprint that is landlocked. When I've attended there's usually something closed - even food and drink stations. I do think that for the Indy area resident, the membership is a good deal. Commit to going several times, enjoy the time there without rushing and make it a regular outing through the year. But for the one-time visitor - Yikes....not worth the money. Thirdly, the zoo closes too early (5p weekdays, 7p weekend) Do they notice it is light until 9pm or after?
      • Taxes
        I know this has be explained by the zoo before but the Indianapolis Zoo gets no direct tax support from the city or the state. Above both St. Louis and Lincoln Park zoos were mentioned as free alternatives and they are free to you because you are not paying taxes in those communities. Both of those zoos receive significant amounts of tax revenue. If there is a problem here it is that the zoo is trying to do too much for the support base it has. And that might be its downfall.
      • yes
        all you pay for in st louis zoo is parking and you can even avoid that if you get there early enough for street parking and feel like walking
      • As long as zoo memberships dont go up...
        As long as Zoo memberships don't go up!!
      • What about weather?
        Okay, I get the business concept and it makes sense to me. However, the concept of scheduling ahead for the zoo is a bit faulty for the consumer as weather is unpredictable and plays a big role in enjoyment. No one wants to be out in the rain and intense heat may drive many animals seek shelter out of sight. From what I can tell on the zoo website, the tickets are non-refundable. Visit Indy offers a $2 ticket voucher online that you can use at the gate only. I'll just take that to the gate the day of.
      • Parking
        Don't forget the cost of parking; I think it was something like $10 last time I went, for the privilege of parking in the only available parking lot within a reasonable walking distance. You could literally drive to Chicago, go to the Lincoln Park Zoo (which is free) and drive back for less in gas money than it costs to visit the Indianapolis Zoo.
      • Wow
        For an enterprise that is designed for families in and out of town, this smacks of the "for profit" world. Comparing the zoo experience to an airline is incredible. So bringing my small (1 child) family to the zoo on the weekend (since I work full-time during the week) will cost me $70 to walk in the door and then pay for overpriced and unhealthy food. No way that my sister, who is a single parent to 3 and also works full time, can afford to spend $85 to bring her kids on the weekend. Way to go Indy Zoo. Who were the persons who did the market studgy BEFORE $28MM was spent on this exhibit??
        • AAA
          Don't worry about their new dynamic pricing strategy. Just go to AAA to buy the tickets whereby they are usable on any day at a lower fixed price.
        • Doesn't seem fair!
          Although my family have a membership to the zoo we just renewed a couple of months ago, I don't think the Zoo's decision to go to a dynamic pricing structure is fair, especially to families who already have a hard time with finances. Most parents work during the week and the only time they can take their children to the zoo is on the weekends. If they had a hard time justifying purchase of tickets for their family before, this dynamic pricing structure will only make it more difficult for these families to do this now. I personally think it is a bad decision ... another decision made by higher ups aimed to hurt those that are already struggling financially ... the children are the ones who are going to suffer due to this decision :(
        • Consider an annual membership.
          We renewed our annual membership. The pkg we chise costs $184. Includes 2 passes for 2 adults sharing a household. Includes all dependent children age 21 & under. Includes 2 adult guests. We think this is a great value for the year.
        • You can always buy a membership
          I agree with the Zoo's approach and hope that it does improve the guest experience on the weekends. As an alternative, the zoo offers the membership option which is a great value and pays for itself in 2 visits. Then you can visit the zoo whenever you want and not feel pressured to maximize your time.
        • Drive for Better Zoo
          At this rate, you could probably drive to St. Louis, stay in a hotel, and go to their superior zoo for free. The cost of the hotel and gas will likely be less, and you will have a better experience.
          • Unfortunate
            While I understand the need to increase revenue to pay for the new exhibit as well as the ongoing operating costs of the zoo, it's unfortunate that this is the way they chose to do that. As a working parent my only option is to take my children to the zoo on the weekend. This pricing structure makes that nearly impossible. In the past I had a very hard time justifying the expense for a family of four, now with the new pricing structure it's completely not worth it.
          • It's working
            Their plan to keep crowds in check will work with me. The only time I can go is the weekend and weekend prices are too high. Yes, this is typical with airlines and no one likes that either. I will find other entertainment.

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