Turn the zoo into a product that's worth promoting

The Baltimore Sun

This time, it's going to take more than a zany crane dance to solve the Maryland Zoo's problems. And if any pitchman tries to tell you otherwise, don't believe it. But before we talk about fixing the zoo, we need to answer a more basic question: Is a zoo something that we still want or need in Baltimore?

If the answer is no, the problem essentially solves itself. But suppose we do want to continue to have such a place in Baltimore, for parents to educate and entertain their young children or as a legitimate destination for regional tourists and scientists.

In that case, we will need a quality product to build a successful campaign around. The last award-winning ad campaign about the zoo featured birdkeeper James Balance mimicking the mating dance of the zoo's Stanley cranes. That was in 1996, and the zoo drew at least a half a million visitors in each of the two preceding years. Today, it's down to 349,813.

In the past 50 years, the zoo in Druid Hill Park and others like it around the world have seen a diminution of value to their communities. What do I mean?

Zoos used to provide something unusual and exciting. Outside of a visit by a traveling circus, an occasional rare film about Africa or Asia, or high-minded fare on public TV, for decades the general public generally did not experience exotic animals. Today, anyone can visit the creatures every day on cable TV's Animal Planet, the Internet, school science classes and such. They offer wonderful, explicit stories of wild creatures in their own habitat, not imprisoned in a compound, restlessly pacing. And, as a bonus, there are no odors or improperly kept animal or visitor facilities.

The continued survival of the zoo comes down to a question basic to all marketing: Is there value there?

For years, good Baltimore PR firms and advertising agencies have been lured to the task of trying, pro bono, to build lasting traffic to the zoo to enhance their reputations and businesses as great communicators. They invested time and talent for small, temporary gain. But this was like putting a Band-Aid over a festering wound.

To determine the value of the zoo to Baltimore and Maryland, basic marketing principles and tools must be employed. First, a market research study must be constructed and executed among the various interested parties, including children and politicians, to determine the values previously mentioned, to resolve the question: Does anyone care? If the answer is certifiably yes, how then do we make our product unique and obviously valuable to the public? After the research, or maybe before it, come more big questions:

How much money do we need, and where do we get it? How will we accomplish the many tasks required to transform our zoo into a world-class facility? They include paying off debts, rebuilding infrastructure, obtaining operating capital, designing new and unique sites, constructing a main visitors center where families pay to see an audio-visual presentation before visiting the exhibits, enhancing their experience with on-site computer tools, hiring qualified and enthusiastic people, supporting academic programs, meeting overhead expenses, and so on.

There is a need for a guaranteed, supervised money stream. The obvious candidates are federal, state and local government grant programs and foundations that are concerned about quality of life in a city. A one-time fix has not worked. Enough financing must be infused to determine the zoo's viability.

If the community decides it wants the zoo and the infrastructure necessary to its success is created, then a long-term, properly financed marketing plan - including PR and advertising programs - can be put in place.


Hal Donofrio, a retired advertising executive, is president and chief executive of the Campaign for Our Children Inc., a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization.

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