Guest Blog: Promoting an Off-Season Attraction

For an organization that is most popular in the summer but is open year-round, maintaining a strong attendance through the winter can be as difficult as it is vital. Such is the case for many zoos that might see snow before Thanksgiving, including the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Yet despite the weather, the Columbus Zoo manages to pull a winter attendance that reaches several thousand visitors a day. This is the result of applying flexible marketing efforts to Wildlights, the Zoo’s largest event.

Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo started in 1988 as a much simpler holiday gesture compared to what it is today. Back then, all of the Zoo employees would chip in to drape about 200,000 lights around the walkways; now full-time and seasonal staff dedicate three months to dressing the park in nearly 3,000,000 LED lights. Several years ago, the Zoo ramped up its holiday spirit and added a light show around the lake, which featured a dazzling rainbow of lights sparkling in sync with festive music.

This special holiday attraction, as well as the way it is promoted, has been evolving ever since.

“Before Wildlights, during the same six-week period, the Zoo was lucky to have 20,000 visitors,” said Pete Fingerhut, vice president of marketing and sales at the Columbus Zoo. “Now, depending on the weather, the Wildlights season might see up to 400,000 visitors.”

The following are some considerations that the Zoo makes every year to enhance Wildlights attendance:

Making it New

“The first challenge of Wildlights is figuring out how to deliver something new to make it fresh every year,” Fingerhut said. “Wildlights has been the most successful over the last five years because we’ve enhanced what Wildlights is, with more lights and more attractions.”

Collaborative brainstorming efforts among several departments at the Zoo – including maintenance, planning and design, and experiential marketing groups – begin in the spring. With three million lights in the mix, it can take up to nine months to get all the supplies needed, so teams need to know what lights will be making it to Wildlights by the beginning of summer.

The early Wildlights experiences included light shows around the lake, Santa meet-and-greets and a diving Claus. Later, Character Ambassador Shows became a mainstay of Wildlights, with the themes of the shows changing over the years. Various special events – from the Stuff-the-Truck food drive to live shows with Columbus Zoo Director Emeritus and television personality Jack Hanna – have also added to the appeal of the Wildlights season.

This year, Wildlights features not two but three animated light shows, a new gingerbread theme at Santa’s Holiday Home, two animatronic talking reindeer added to the Oak Ridge Bear Band, and an all-new Tinseltown display in Asia Quest. The Glice skating rink also returned, and was in a more accessible location this year.

Listening to the Audience

Attractions within Wildlights have evolved in response to visitor participation. For example, the Stuff-the-Truck event, sponsored by Kroger and Mid-Ohio Foodbank, was originally held the day after Christmas. The event promised free admission for guests who donated five cans of food, and it was a roaring success. Consequently, the next year, the Zoo planned to have the food drive on opening night to raise media awareness and set the momentum for the rest of the season. The awareness this move generated outweighed the loss of first-day attendance revenue; opening night attendance jumped from 5,000 people to 15,000 people.

This time of year is not only great for charity events, but also for the Zoo to show its appreciation for its loyal members, who make up more than half of the Wildlights attendance. Wildlights Member Preview night offers a chance for these members to see the light shows a day before the general public, and helps the Zoo split the crowd of opening night across two days.

Internationally beloved animal advocate Jack Hanna also contributes to Wildlights promotions by appearing in four shows during one Wildlights weekend. The shows included a special with 10TV as well as a taping of a “Home for the Holidays” show.

Other promotions aiming to reach other demographics included Dine with Santa, a Jewish Community Center Hanukkah Program, and WNCI’s Winter Break Bash.

Additionally, the Zoo will conduct surveys every few years and constantly monitors social media platforms to gauge what is popular and what needs to be improved.

Establishing Partnerships

“The Zoo is always coming up with new and inventive ways to reach out,” Fingerhut said.

Twenty percent of the marketing budget goes toward Wildlights, which brings in more people to the Zoo than any other event. That budget is devoted to raising awareness through, in order of importance, television, radio, digital and print advertising. The Zoo team works with an agency to strategize what demographics to address.

Partnerships stretch the budget even further. The Zoo’s partnership with Kroger, for example, is mutually beneficial when the Zoo provides tickets that Kroger can sell at a discounted price. Additionally, buy-one-get-one promotions with reader rewards are offered through The Columbus Dispatch, and the Zoo’s partnership with Pepsi allows Wildlights discounts to be available on soda cans. The television and radio ads complete the package by mentioning the Zoo’s partners and how to find these discounts.

Creating Contingency Plans

At the Zoo, even the most popular attractions can be undone by one element that, in Ohio, could strike at any moment: the weather.

“In 2007 we had a colder and snowier year than usual,” Fingerhut said. “We had reacted by offering deeper discounts and targeting radio station promotions, although every situation is addressed on a case-by-case basis. That year, we held on to 250,000 visitors, which was very good considering the weather.”

There are benefits to visiting Wildlights during poor weather, and these can play into promotion efforts. If it’s raining, for example, visitors can enjoy a less crowded park. Those who brave the snow get to experience a more breathtaking winter wonderland.

Understanding the True Meaning of the Event

“The key to a successful marketing campaign is knowing what Wildlights means to the community and what it means to the Zoo,” said Jeff Glorioso, experiential marketing director at the Columbus Zoo. “Most would consider this an off-season event, but, after taking surveys, we found that people consider this a tradition. We’ve played off that.”

At its core, Wildlights is a visual event, so creating the imagery of the event is at the heart of any advertisement or promotion.

Glorioso said the key to a successful promotion of an event was being able to articulate what the event aimed to achieve.

“Look at what you have to offer – pick one or two things to be your signature feature, and have that be your ‘Wow’ factor,” Glorioso said. “You can always add to that event, but you can’t make an impression if you start out with a rinky-dink feature attraction.”

Wildlights, efficiently powered by AEP, is held Nov. 20, 2015-Jan. 3, 2016 with Wildlights festivities taking place from 5-9 p.m. on Sundays-Thursdays and 5-10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. More information can be accessed at under the Calendar tab. You can also follow the Zoo on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

About the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium:

Home to more than 11,000 animals representing nearly 600 species from around the globe, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium leads and inspires by connecting people and wildlife. The Zoo complex is a recreational and education destination that includes the 22-acre Zoombezi Bay water park and 18-hole Safari Golf Course. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium also operates the Wilds, a 10,000-acre conservation center and safari park located in southeastern Ohio. The Zoo is a regional attraction with global impact; annually contributing more than $5 million of privately raised funds to support conservation projects worldwide. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Columbus Zoo has earned Charity Navigator’s prestigious 4-star rating.

Kate Liebers
Communications Coordinator
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

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