Weather didn’t curb zoo’s crowd


    Even though the gates were locked in November and December, and much of last summer was rainy and chilly, attendance last year at John Ball Zoo nearly matched the previous year’s number — which was an all-time record.

    During 2009, 424,771 individuals visited the Kent County-owned zoo despite the two-month closing and the less-than-cooperative weather during its peak season. That attendance total was less than 3,000 visitors short of the 427,446 that set the all-time mark in 2008. Admission revenue last year was $1.31 million, just short of the $1.33 million in 2008.

    “The staff is doing an amazing job. They’ve had great success in attendance and customer service,” said Bert Vescolani, zoo director.

    Vescolani told the county’s Legislative Committee recently that the zoo’s leading business indicator for its success is attendance. “If they come back and back, you’re doing the right things,” he said. “In our case, we’re underpriced in the case of zoos and in the case of other attractions.”

    Vescolani also noted that the per-visitor cost to the county’s general fund dropped by nearly 4.5 percent, from $6.30 in 2008 to $6.02 in 2009. Financial support to the zoo from the fund fell from $1.57 million in 2008 to $1.49 million last year. “I’m extremely proud of the staff for the hard work they put in,” he said of the 49 full-time employees at the zoo.

    As for this year, the zoo was closed in January and February. Still, Vescolani has projected a 1 percent increase in attendance for this year from last year and he said the zoo’s reopening in March drew good crowds. “We had amazing weather in March. Our attendance was incredibly strong,” he said.

    Vescolani added that the weather in the fall is normally better than in the spring, and zoo attendance in October and November can often top that recorded in March and April.

    The zoo is now entering its peak revenue season; revenue from admissions has been forecast to reach nearly $1.34 million from a projected 429,818 visitors. However, Vescolani felt that both numbers could grow in the coming years.

    “I believe we have some room for growth. I would like to see us as a stronger destination for tourism and we’re working on that with the (Convention and Visitors Bureau),” said Vescolani. “Financial stability is the key issue. A stability of funding is necessary for our growth.”

    The zoo, located on the northwest side of Grand Rapids at the corner of Fulton Street and Valley Avenue, has a 2010 operating budget of $3.8 million — down from last year’s $4.4 million, and the reason the zoo was closed for two months this year. Vescolani had to make reductions in every expense category for the 2010 budget and is looking to trim more in future years.

    One idea Vescolani is investigating is adding a geothermal system to serve as the zoo’s largest energy source. He said a group of Michigan State University engineering students researched such a system for the zoo, and he is now looking into the cost of adding one and determining the energy savings. He said the aquarium is the zoo’s largest energy user at $200,000 a year.

    “I feel pretty confident that it’s worth investigating. There is more research to be done, but we’re moving fast on it,” he said.

    Vescolani also dismissed a recent report that the zoo was considering an expansion plan with a type of cable car that would take visitors throughout the property as being a bit hasty. “The story was real premature,” he said. “It’s just too early to tell whether it’s financially feasible.”

    Zoo numbers add up

    As John Ball Zoo has reduced its cost per visitor, attendance and revenue from admissions have grown over the past few years.

    Annual attendance
    Admission revenue
    Cost per visitor**









    *2010 figures are estimates.
    **Cost per visitor is to the Kent County general operating fund.

    Source: John Ball Zoo, May 2010

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