Monday, July 21, 2008

Zoo economics (bestseller codename: Zookonomics!)

How do you take the fun out of a zoo?

Yesterday, Pete and I went to the Niabi Zoo, just outside of the Quad Cities on the Illinois side. Niabi is a fairly small zoo and clearly geared to attracting families with small children; in many ways, it is a version of the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines on a slightly smaller scale. In fact, our Blank Park membership got us into Niabi for free.

(Incidentally, I didn't have a good time at Niabi, but I imagine a Niobe zoo would have been much more depressing. So there's that.)

The similarities to Blank Park made the differences in our emotional experience all the more striking. Nearly everything about the layout of Niabi seemed calculated to make a three-year-old child ask for something that required payment beyond the admission price. The entrance and exit routes required passing oodles of animal toys. Upon entering, we were hit with the boarding station for the train and the snack bar. Crossing the train tracks took us through the lorikeet cage (a dollar for a cup of nectar to feed them?) and on to the petting zoo, where you could pay to feed the fish or pay for a pony ride, or exit and confront the carousel.

Many of these things are routine components of zoos. I understand the business model: get families to come by offering cheap memberships and fairly cheap admission, then see whether they will spend a little more on high-margin products one they've arrived. I knew roughly what I was getting into.

In this zoo, however, it became clear that by cranking up the intensity of the hawking two or three notches, the zoo fundamentally changed our experience. We seemed to have passed a tipping point at which incremental increases in available stuff caused a dramatic behavioral shift. Our Niabi visit became an unrelenting bargaining session. Every new situation required me to make a call: no to the train (let's see the place first), no to nectar, yes to fish food, no to donkey food, maybe to pony ride, no to carousel--but OK, yes to the pony ride, no to the toys next to the ticket booth for the pony ride. The details didn't matter; the spurs to negotiation turned a zoo trip--usually the very easiest way to spend a couple of outdoor hours with Pete--into a high-stress headache. This time, my animal-loving boy didn't even see most of the regular exhibits; after his pony ride, both of us needed a nap.

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