Regional Report Triad September 2010
You might consider the North Carolina Zoo the Family Dollar of Tar Heel tourist attractions. When the economy tanks, Matthews-based Family Dollar Stores Inc. thrives. Through three quarters of its 2010 fiscal year, the discount retail chain’s net income was $284.2 million, up 23% from the previous year, which in itself was a 25% increase over 2008. Those gains came at a time of high unemployment and tighter household budgets, which forced consumers to rein in spending.
Something similar has been happening at the state zoo, near Asheboro. Attendance increased by more than 20,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30 to 749,627, the most in 13 years and fourth-best since the zoo opened in 1974.
Asked about the increase, spokesman Rod Hackney notes the opening of two major exhibits — the Acacia Station giraffe-feeding program and the Lemur Island exhibit. He also mentions increased marketing with social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, and says staff has posted videos on YouTube to entice visitors.
But there’s something else, he says. “The economy is still having an impact on what people do. The ‘staycation’ is still in play, with people doing more day trips.” About 80% of the zoo’s visitors live in North Carolina, and its central location in the heavily populated Piedmont makes it an easy drive from most of the state. “We’re an attractive and reasonable-cost alternative for people who can’t go to the beach for a week. They can come here for a day.”
This isn’t the first time the zoo has thrived during hard times. The previous recession ran from March through November 2001, spanning the zoo’s 2000 and 2001 fiscal years. In the 2000 fiscal year, attendance increased 13% to 688,559. While it dipped a bit the following year, it was still 10.2% higher than in fiscal 1999-2000.
Lynn Minges, assistant secretary of commerce for tourism, marketing and global branding, says she wasn’t surprised by the zoo’s performance, given the economy, and she mentioned another factor. “When the cost of gas gets higher, as it did last year, people tend to travel shorter distances. That bodes well for our in-state attractions.” Also helping, she says, was a change in focus. The state has marketed the zoo museums, festivals and state parks as what it calls affordable indulgences. “North Carolina is a virtual playground, and we’ve worked hard to shape that message.”
Lower gas prices this year and improvements in the economy have helped stimulate the state’s tourism industry, which traditionally draws about two-thirds of its visitors from outside North Carolina, Minges says. “We’re doing pretty well statewide. Things aren’t quite where they were back in 2008, but hotel occupancy is up 5% and summer travel is increasing.”