The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium - Using Cloud Technology and Data Analytics to Better Understand and Improve the Customer Experience - comSpark Podcast
Gregg Oosterbaan - Columbus Tech Power Player Honoree
VP Technology Strategy
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Regional Director, Central Region
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VP of Technology Strategy for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Gregg Oosterbaan, discusses using cloud technology and data analytics to understand and improve the customer experience.
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PF: We're here today with Greg Oosterbaan, who is the vice president of Technology Strategy for Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is an organization based in Columbus, Ohio. It’s got hundreds of full-time and seasonal part-time employees, which brings on many challenges, I would imagine, in the IT environment. My name is Paul Fry. I'm with CBTS, and I'll be your guest moderator today. Let's get started with questions. Greg, we're here today to talk about what the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium can really deliver for its guests. Can you share for us a little bit about some of the more advanced guest experiences that you provide today?
GO: Yeah, absolutely. We try to think of our customers in a personal way. So, we want to try and connect our guests with our animals and our conservation message. That's always key and upfront with us as far as a business perspective goes. When we look at that and we try to do that through technology, we think of things like admissions. We have a very advanced cloud-based admission system which handles ticketing and our memberships and our donor information, and all of those types of systems, all the way down to things like queuing technologies, to prevent our guests from having to wait in lines for a long time. We have scheduling technologies to tell our guests what we're doing, what's going on at different times throughout the property. And those are more of the consumer-side products. We also have a lot of the core infrastructure that most companies would have, whether that's networking or server clusters or big data environments and those types of things.
PF: Well, that's great. Tell me a little bit about – you mentioned your network – tell me a little bit about your network and how you keep it running. Because from a day-to-day basis, I would imagine you have hundreds to tens of thousands of guests across all of the park and its areas.
GO: Yeah, if you look at the way our properties are structured, we could have anywhere from a few hundred to 30 or 40,000 guests at any given time, and maintaining a network to support that can be a little bit daunting sometimes. We do have a lot of fiber and a lot of traditional networking equipment, so switches, routers, fiber optics; we do a lot of Wi-Fi services throughout the property as well. And the other piece of that is that we have to layer on business services when you look at Wi-Fi. So, we have 50 to 100 carts which serve things like Dippin’ Dots – which, everybody loves Dippin’ Dots, right? So, when you think about how do we service the point of sale systems – hundreds of point of sale systems across the property – in a timely manner to provide a great service, the networking becomes pretty extensive. We use a lot of similar tools to what a corporation would use. We have network monitoring products, we have a constant alerting that goes off. We have dedicated network administrators very, very similar to a corporate, or maybe even like a college campus, environment.
PF: Well that's great. So, with a network like that, you have to be gathering millions and billions of bits of data. Tell me a little bit about how you're leveraging that data analytics approach to improving the experience of the guest as well as improving your bottom line so you can bring more and newer experiences to your customers.
GO: Sure. So, we try to look at things like where people move throughout the property. That's an interesting project that we've been playing with a little bit. We're not quite there yet, but we're getting there. When you think of technologies like cellular and Wi-Fi, we have the ability to understand traffic patterns. How much time are people spending at specific exhibits? How much time do they spend when we put a new exhibit out there, or a new animal species? If we have an elephant birth, does that attract people for a longer period of time, and does that detract from services on other parts of the property? So, we do a lot of analytics or we're working on a lot of analytics in that space to understand those traffic patterns and how we can affect those ultimately. If we have a lot of people who are going to one section of the property and it's a 30,000-person day, it might not create the greatest experience if they all show up at the same exhibit. So, how can we get them to move throughout the property to different places?
PF: That's great information as I think about that. As I look at social platforms and you talk about the different ages of the people that attend the zoo – I would be attracted by communications on Facebook. My kids would never go near that. So, what is your approach on these multiple social platforms and how fast can you adapt a new platform that you see the younger generations of kids using to your benefit?
GO: That's a great question. We deal with that one every day. The zoo is tremendously involved in social media platforms. It's one of our core communication mechanisms. We have a huge Facebook following. We have a very large and growing Instagram following. We have a huge Twitter following. And really, the key to that is good content and timeliness. We want those followings because those are our main channels to interact with our guests. We don't just do e-blasts anymore; that's just not an effective mechanism. People don't really read email anymore. So, we want to be on the most popular social media channels. It's an interesting challenge, though, because some of the generations coming up are migrating from channel to channel.
You have Snapchat – now super popular – and Facebook hits a certain demographic, particularly with our membership base. But we also have a lot of people who are in just different various platforms out there and we have to make some strategic decisions about which ones – because of the cost – that we're really going to focus on. We try to take some of the bigger ones as they come and, as that evolves, we’ll adjust down the road. But it's a fantastic mechanism. We do a program called Takeover Tuesdays. Takeover Tuesdays is a great program; we actually allow our zoo keepers to run the Facebook channel for the day, and we have a tremendous following for that particular product that we put out there, because people get to use our social media channels to see what's going on behind the scenes. You know, how do they interact with the animals in places where you don't normally get to see them when you're on our property. So, we found that using social media to tell our story and some of the things you might not get to see when you're on properties were effective mechanisms for us.
PF: That's great. So, as you talk about the social platforms, you had mentioned conservation earlier in the conversation, and then getting the experience to engage back in that. Tell us a little bit about the success of the growing conservation activities that the zoo has and how that network in that platform has gotten the guests to engage more in it.
GO: Yeah, we try to tell more stories through our social media platforms. So, you know, when you come to the zoo, it's you come, you can see the animals, you can be in front of them, but you don't always quite understand exactly how we're tied to, say, a conservation effort that's happening in Kenya or Rwanda, or a mountain guerrilla project or a giraffe project. So, a lot of times we use social media, web, other communications channels to try and tell those stories, to bring people in to understand if you make donations to us, if you become a partner of ours, if you're a member, this is how your money is being used to support directly these species, these conservation efforts. So, it really becomes a channel for us to get a little bit more in depth about our stories. Even the Takeover Tuesday thing I referenced before – we talk about specific species and how we're working with the species on the zoo property to grow or sustain those species in the wild, working with other populations.
PF: Well, that's great. And seeing the zoo grow like it has from a single area where you could go see the animals to now, the interactions with The Wilds and everything else is very exciting. But as you get into that and you grow from that, what type of investment are you making or what areas are you making on the cutting edge with new applications that are going to attract users and the guests get their attention?
GO: Oh, there's all kinds of things coming down the road. We're really looking at the next generation of customers coming in, and one of the things that we're targeting is a more immersive experience. Where we might have traditionally had things like print and email signage, even digital signage to some degree, it doesn't engage them at the level that we're looking for. So, we're starting to focus now toward technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality-type products. Everybody has a phone, some people have two or three or four phones – who knows – and the reality is, we can take those devices that every single person who’s coming through the gate has, and we can use that to create a very immersive experience. We can give you an exhibit that historically you would have walked up to, you would have seen some amazing creatures in that exhibit, and then we can layer a digital experience on top of that.
So, our goal is not to replace the animals. Some people have said, can you create virtual animals so we don't have to have exhibits? And that's not what we want to do. That's not who we are. What we want to do is take that animal experience, that conservation message, and bring it to life for you; tell you in a digital way, mixed with the reality that you're standing in, the message that we want you to get. And we want you to have fun doing it. It could look like making elephants and rhinos walk around on your table top. We just did a great project where we took our magazine cover, our quarterly magazine cover, and we added virtual reality giraffe to it. So, when you point your phone at it, giraffe walk out and they walk around on your table top. We’re testing that type of technology now to see if people will understand more about giraffe by interacting with it where they're sitting.
PF: That's fantastic. I can't wait to get my copy and get my phone and go do that. So, when you talk about this, you talked about the strategy and where you're going. It sounds like your IT organization is more of an enabler of technology. Give us a little bit of an idea of where you are in that transition, from running every bit and bite to managing and growing the business as an IT organization. Some people call it a managed service or consulting service. Where are you and your organization in that space?
GO: We're probably where everybody else is, which is somewhere in between. One of the things that we decided early on when putting this organization together was that it is a shared services organization for multiple properties, because the Columbus Zoo also is a part of Zoombezi Bay and The Wilds and Safari Golf and some of the other entities. With that in mind, we already started out in kind of a services- oriented model, but I think the bigger shift has been that we aren't necessarily focusing on core infrastructures. We do still have some server clusters, some virtualization, some of the traditional technologies. But we're really starting to shift our people and retrain our people and get our mindset and our mentality toward customer-facing, consumer-based products because we know that ultimately, as we shift to more cloud services, software as a service models, those types of things, we want to be in the front end of the business.
PF: That's great. It is about the client experience. So, I have one more question, which I think everybody gets asked in today's age of security. You would think, well, who would want to hack into the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, yet you hold a lot of information, I would imagine, on users and things like that. Where does security play its role, and how are you protecting the information and your business today?
GO: That's a great question too. Yeah, you'd be surprised at who wants to hack into theColumbus Zoo and Aquarium. I could probably name a few bad-acting countries out there right now that we've had some trouble with. But when you look at security practices, for us, point of sale is huge. So, we have a very, very large point of sale network, credit card handling, that kind of stuff. So, PCI compliance and certain regulations cover us. So, we do spend a lot of time working through compliance issues and just making sure that our networks are secure. So, a lot of the traditional stuff; we are also very sensitive about things like firewall services, external penetration testing. So, a lot of the base stuff that you would see. And the reality is, our data can be somewhat sensitive. We have membership databases, we have donor databases; a lot of those can be cloud services as well, so we have to work with our external partners on their security measures to make sure that they are in line with us. And then data encryption end-to-end is absolutely critical for us when it comes to our point of sale systems.
PF: It sounds like you've got a great plan in place for that. So, in closing, I want to thank you for your time today, Greg. This is Paul Fry and Greg Oosterbaan. To learn more, please visit us at comspark.tech. Goodbye, until next time.
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