The Indianapolis Zoo's attendance has increased 50 percent in the last decade, reaching record levels the last two years. More than 1.2 million people visited the downtown attraction last year.
Zoo officials credit an aggressive advertising and marketing campaign in 2003 and 2004 for the most recent attendance jumps.
The zoo hired Lodge Design Co. to help spread its message around central Indiana, but also asked the small, Indianapolisbased agency to help bring in more remote visitors, targeting those within a five-hour drive.
Several key exhibit improvements helped drive attendance gains, but zoo officials said without effective marketing, ticket sales-which account for 65 percent of operating revenue-would not have soared.
Set to open its most dramatic improvement in more than a decade-the $10 million dolphin pavilion upgrade-the zoo is ready to again launch an aggressive marketing effort and draw even bigger crowds.
"We think moving our attendance baselines up have been the consequence of some fairly significant engineered actions," said Michael Crowther, who became the zoo's president and CEO in June 2002. "We're being conservative in our projections, but we think 2005 will be another very good year."
The number of visitors outside Indianapolis is also hitting record numbers.
Just 10 percent of the zoo's visitors-about 95,000 people-were from outside central Indiana three years ago. In 2004, 30 percent of visitors-about 365,000 people-came from beyond central Indiana.
"Michael Crowther and his team understand tourism marketing and they've helped create a dynamic environment," said Bob Schultz, director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. "The zoo has changed from a local experience to a major destination itself. What excites us the most is that Mike and his team are consistently working on increasing the zoo's draw while maintaining its chore mission."
Last year, zoo officials launched advertising campaigns highlighting their improved rhinoceros and seahorse exhibits, both of which had significant challenges, Crowther said.
The rhinos are challenging because they can be seen as massive, gray, stoic creatures, Crowther said, and while seahorses are fascinating ocean dwellers, they're just a few inches tall.
Lodge principals, who jousted with more than 30 other advertising agencies to become the agency of record for the zoo in 2003, sought a way to put zoo exhibits in a new light.
Lodge tied into The Children's Museum of Indianapolis' new dinosaur exhibit to coin the word rhinosaur for the rhino exhibit. The ad campaign's tag line was "... you've seen the bones, now meet the beast." The campaign had a Jurassic Park feel, Crowther said, emphasizing the animal's prehistoric roots.
For the seahorse exhibit, Lodge designed a campaign that included thrusting a larger-than-life shadow of a seahorse on the downtown headquarters of IPALCO, the exhibit's primary sponsor. A number of billboards also helped magnify the tiny creature's image in Indianapolis and beyond.
The advertising campaign for the improved dolphin exhibit is still in development, but it will incorporate television commercials in this market and others. It's the first time in several years the zoo has used TV extensively in its ad campaigns.
The dolphin exhibit will feature the Marsh Dolphin Theater with a small-town, mid-Atlantic feel, an underwater viewing dome and a group meeting space for receptions, parties and corporate gatherings. The exhibit will also offer visitors an opportunity to swim with the dolphins, Crowther said, as trainers do.
"We have to keep feeding the beast to drive attendance," he said. "We think this new exhibit will be a significant attraction. This is a relatively mature market, so we often focus on new attractions."
The new dolphin facility, Crowther said, "will truly be a one-of-a-kind in the U.S." and will drive traffic from within and outside the central Indiana area.
Zoo executives "made it clear that they wanted to be hands-on with the agency and their main goal was to increase attendance," said Lodge co-founder Jarrett Hagy. "We took a good look at where the zoo's message was going, and it was decided it was time to put more emphasis outside central Indiana."
Cities such as Fort Wayne, South Bend and Evansville are prime target markets, Crowther said, but Cincinnati, Louisville and Chicago also are a focus.
Zoo officials partnered with the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association to reach out to the regional area and launched advertising in most of those markets. Billboards in outlying Indiana areas and along the state's borders are critical components.
Lodge was able to keep production of TV ads simple and to the point to keep costs down, said Eric Kass, Lodge principal.
"We used digital video, came up with good concepts, and kept our message consistent and were still able to keep costs down," Kass said.
"TV is one of those things, the more money you have, the more people you'll reach," Hagy said. "Our buys were very focused. We had to be smarter."
The Indianapolis Zoo is the largest in the United States not supported by tax dollars. It has a $17 million annual budget, but Crowther would not divulge his advertising budget for competitive reasons. Advertising industry sources estimated it near or slightly less than $1 million.
"We consider everything that vies for a person's leisure time competition," Crowther said.
But he added the growing number of local attractions has drawn more visitors to the city from farther away, likely helping the zoo's attendance.
As attendance climbs, zoo officials have an interesting dilemma developing. There are roughly a dozen days per year on which the zoo has to turn away visitors because the facility is essentially full.
"We have to be careful," Crowther said. "I wouldn't want to put 2 million people in this facility this year. We have to grow into that attendance. We have to take care of a lot of visitor service issues first."