His Business Is A Zoo

June 19, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — When he took over the helm of the John Ball Zoological Gardens last year, Bert Vescolani walked into a situation that only a turnaround artist or public school official can truly appreciate.

The zoo had just lost a controversial millage campaign that nixed its vision of expansion and relocation. As a result of that effort, public officials, neighbors and a goodly part of the community regarded the century-old

Fulton Street
fixture with far more scrutiny.

"When I came in after that, there were a lot of fences to mend," Vescolani said. "Trust is critical. When we sit down and make a promise together, you need to know that's what we're going to do."

His is an unusual job, he explained: managing and marketing an eclectic group of businesses with components of educational outreach, a public school, conservation, entertainment and hospitality. The facility has over 100 employees, and with 3.5 million guests over the past decade, it is the best attended cultural attraction in West Michigan

"Most people don't realize that this is really a business we're running here," he said. "Like nonprofits in general, we have to run a responsible business."

A native of East Lansing, Vescolani was first introduced to the industry as a science teacher in the Chicago suburbs. Through a diving club, he became involved as a volunteer at Shedd Aquarium, eventually accepting a position with the now world famous venue. Fifteen years later, he left as senior vice president to pursue an opportunity in his home state.

"I wasn't looking to leave Shedd; I loved it there," he said. "I did want to come back to Michigan some day. … The zoo had gone some through some changes and challenges, and I was looking for a challenge."

After a six-month period investigating the zoo's finances and operations, and soliciting feedback from neighborhood and community stakeholders, Vescolani began to implement a series of subtle but significant changes.

He uniformed all zoo workers and significantly increased staff in the exhibit areas. The registration process for educators was streamlined. New signage was placed throughout the zoo, and cosmetic changes were made to make older exhibits look better in comparison to the "shining stars," such as the relatively new African Forest Edge exhibit, Living Shores Aquarium, Bald Eagle Aviary and chimpanzee exhibit.

"Most people have pleasant memories of the zoo, but the zoo is aging," Vescolani said. "We're trying to figure out how to take an old organization and repurpose it to be significantly more guest-focused, to think about it more like a business than ever before. And we have to create that change quickly."

The aging infrastructure creates a daily set of new challenges in keeping the facility operational, all of which must be juggled with his primary and most basic task: getting people to come to the zoo.

"There are a lot of choices people have with their leisure time," Vescolani said. "People have a natural attraction to animals, so once they're here, they have a great time. The hard part is getting people out here. When people spend their valuable time with their families, how do we become their first choice?"

In addition to the operational and cosmetic changes, the zoo has launched several experience-driven exhibits in the past year. Never before offered in West Michigan, the zoo experimented with interactive animal encounters, including a walk-through aviary of budgies (Australian parakeets) and a minimal-barrier yard of wallabies.

Those exhibits have been doubled in size as this summer's Australian Trail, featuring 200 budgies and a mob of seven wallabies and one infant joey. Trail walkers are invited to feed the budgies with seed-stick treats available for $1.

Another popular addition this summer is a temporary exhibit, Stingray Lagoon, which allows guests to touch the backs of sting rays.

"I think we're carving out what is going to be our niche in this business," Vescolani said.

The improvements are already showing significant dividends. Despite unpredictable weather, the zoo just capped its best May in six years, with attendance soaring to 55,000. In one week in June, attendance almost doubled: 18,000, compared to last year's 10,000.

Admissions revenues for the month of May were up $100,000, climbing to $190,000. A 30 percent increase in admission fees this year has had no affect on the admissions growth, he said.

Other revenue streams are equally healthy: The zoo is three months ahead of membership projections, and JohnBallPark has already surpassed last year's total reservations.

"I'm hoping this isn't a lark," Vescolani said. "This is supposed to be a lull for us right now. People don't usually think about going to the zoo this time of year."

He is especially impressed by the high percentage of return visitors, which he attributes to the new exhibits. Students often come in early spring with school groups, and if the experience is engaging enough, return with their families in the summer. Visitor surveys currently show the Australian Trail to be the zoo's most popular exhibit, nearly twice as popular as the second favorite, the chimpanzee exhibit.

He is also impressed with the significant number of visitors from outside KentCounty — 49 percent of admissions.

"We're not really KentCounty's zoo," Vescolani said. "We're operated by the county, but we're West Michigan's zoo."    

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