March 1, 2016

Are Word Nerds Part of a Secret Spider Cabal?

As you probably know, here at Zoo Advisors we’re big fans of big data. We’ve made a habit of vacuuming up huge amounts of information. Much of it is directly related to the zoo and aquarium industry—things like who is visiting zoos and from where, how economic and demographic profiles influence attendance, what the daily weather has been over the past decade, and lots more.

But sometimes to find the signal, you have to dig through a cloud of noise, and there sure is a lot of noise out there. Within that noise we’ve come to learn about some striking statistical correlations. And one of those correlations in particular may indicate that a dangerous conspiracy is afoot!

Ladies and gentleman, I think the data speaks for itself. While the details are murky, the correlation is crystal clear: the Scripps National Spelling Bee overlords are building a massive army of deadly spiders as part of their hostile global takeover.

Ok, by now you’ve probably realized that we’re having a bit of a laugh, but it’s not for nothing. As our industry moves towards more data-centric decision making (which is a fantastic trend), it’s important to recall a fundamental truism of analysis: correlation does not necessarily imply causation. It’s likely (but not impossible!) that the fine folks at Scripps have nothing to do with the number of deaths by venomous spiders. The details are always murky and it’s important that we don’t abandon critical thinking in pursuit of data-bliss.

Let’s look at a specific example. As part of a recent project, we took a look at historical zoo admissions price increases and their relationship to attendance changes. Contrary to what you might expect, we found that price increases did not lead to decreases in attendance. In fact, it was quite the opposite: price increases almost always resulted in increased attendance. And the bigger the price increase, the bigger the attendance jump! So are we to believe that raising prices alone will increase attendance? Of course not—but wouldn’t that be wonderful? As is typically the case, there was an unaccounted-for variable in place. The largest price increases were typically timed to coincide with new exhibit openings, which as we know from our research and experience, are the real drivers of attendance. The price increase itself is a red herring.

But what exactly is the effect of capital investment on attendance? To begin answering that question, we took a look at a set of 20 major exhibit improvements ranging between $1 million and $60 million in cost that have taken place over the past 10 years. The outcome was not-at-all surprising:

  • Attendance increased over the previous 3-year average in 17 out of 20 cases

  • In those cases, the average 2-year increase over the previous 3-years was 14%

While 20 projects is not a huge sample, the results confirm what we’ve seen in our experience: (1) if you build it, they will come, and (2) smaller zoos typically have more to gain through capital investment than larger ones.

The lesson here is that we can’t get lost in the details. In order to leverage your data so that it’s actually useful, you have to take in the big picture. Otherwise you might find yourself not just at a dead end, but on the entirely wrong road.

Zoo Advisors are the leading experts on zoo and aquarium data. We have spent years building a proprietary database of industry information that is unparalleled. Our goal is to put it to work for you and your organization. Drop us a line to learn about how we can help you grow attendance, raise revenue, and continue to fulfill your ambitious mission.

Check out Spurious Correlations for more fun with silly charts and data.

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