Monday 24 October 2016

Bums on seats was the bottom line at the zoo, but partnerships mean that's about to change

Dublin Zoo marketing manager Emma Kiernan tells John McGee how the 185-year-old institution is building on brand values

John McGee

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

Emma Kiernan, marketing manager at Dublin Zoo. Photo: David Conachy
Emma Kiernan, marketing manager at Dublin Zoo. Photo: David Conachy

The Guinness Storehouse may be Ireland's top fee-paying attraction for tourists - but when it comes to the domestic market Dublin Zoo tops the poll with a record 1.1m visitors last year, 85pc of which were Irish families.

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With summer officially in full swing, this is the busiest time of the year for Dublin Zoo and weather permitting, it is on course for another record-breaking year in 2016.

"It starts getting busy from Easter but once the school holidays start, right up until September, we get really busy," says Emma Kiernan, marketing manager for Dublin Zoo.

First opened in 1831 and sitting on 28 hectares, Dublin Zoo is home to over 500 animals representing 90 different species and is regarded as one of the top zoos in Europe.

Run by the Zoological Society of Ireland, Dublin Zoo generated revenues in the order of €14m in 2015 and employs 110 staff at peak times while it also relies on the help of 90 volunteers.

As a non-profit, however, it has to manage its coffers very carefully and every cent it makes by way of an annual surplus is ploughed back into the zoo.

"Everything we do is about education, conservation and providing a world-class visitor experience for families and we are fortunate that it makes a surplus. But it's also about running a lean and mean business so that we can reinvest any surplus into things like animal habitats and supporting conservation projects both locally and internationally," she says.

With as much of 80pc of its income derived from visitor gate-receipts, getting people through to visit is hugely important and a bad summer or winter can have a detrimental effect on the bottom line.

"We have worked really hard to ensure that we are driving footfall throughout the year. This is a key part of the overall marketing remit. While the summer months are important, we have created a calendar of events throughout the year," she adds.

Unlike other major tourist attractions, she says Dublin Zoo doesn't have a huge marketing budget to play around with.

"We have a very limited marketing budget and we do absolutely no traditional above-the-line advertising like TV, radio or press. We rely mainly on PR and social media. While we do run partnerships with the media, we don't actually fund them. A good example of this was when we launched our new Orangutan Forest recently, the Irish Independent published a special 20-page supplement while the other coverage we got throughout the media was also very supportive.

"With limited funds and a small team, we have to be a very creative, innovative and sometimes cheeky when it comes to getting support and thankfully it has worked," she says.

With over 250,000 followers on Facebook, social media also plays an important role in the day-to-day marketing activities and this was clearly evident when one of the oldest residents of Dublin Zoo - Harry, a silverback gorilla - passed away recently.

"Harry's death caused a complete outpouring of emotion throughout the media and when we posted it on Facebook, it reached 1.7m people. Some 46,000 of them actively engaged with it while 5,500 posted comments. That shows that people have developed strong bonds with our animals and there's a strong sense of ownership amongst Irish people," says Kiernan.

Another hugely beneficial promotional tool is the popular TV series The Zoo, which is produced by Moondance Pictures for RTE. Now in its seventh series, it has also been picked up by the Animal Channel and is shown on in-flight entertainment channels on Aer Lingus.

Although it doesn't fall within the realm of advertiser funded programming (AFP) - as Dublin Zoo doesn't pay for it - it does a pretty good job in promoting it.

"It's been phenomenally successful and we work very closely with Moondance to make it happen. We also have editorial control to ensure that we are delivering the right message and that it aligns with our brand values," she says.

While Dublin Zoo has also successfully reached out to the corporate world for sponsorship in recent years, over the coming months it will roll out a new tiered proposition for carefully selected brands that want to engage with the visitors.

"We have to be very careful with who we work with and they have to be aligned with our brand values and that they are delivering the same educational message as we are. But we've done some research in terms of sponsorship and what the market is looking for and best practice internationally and out of that we have created a new partnership model which we will be going to the market with over the coming weeks," says Kiernan.

"It builds on our existing brand values and will be of interest to anyone that has a sustainability message or wants to engage with young Irish families," she says.

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