Once in peril, Lehigh Valley Zoo has revenue, attendance success
Ten years ago, the fate of the Lehigh Valley Zoo was a source of speculation, with some thinking low attendance and indifference could send it into bankruptcy.
Today, with more than $4 million in 2018 revenues, and more than 250,000 visitors, the zoo, located in the 1,108-acre Trexler Nature Preserve, near Schnecksville in North Whitehall and Lowhill townships, is enjoying a renaissance and a host of enthusiastic fans.
Melissa Borland, President and Chief Executive Officer, Lehigh Valley Zoo, said the turnaround in the zoo’s fortunes during the previous decade can be attributed to a pervasive culture change in the way the zoo is run.
“Ten years ago, we were event-focused. Today, we have a new mission as a conservation advocate, with an emphasis on education and community outreach that promises a positive hands-on guest experience for the whole family,” Borland said.
The zoo property is owned by Lehigh County and leased for $1 per year to the Lehigh Valley Zoological Society, which has run the zoo since 2004.
The zoo has about 30 employees, but relies heavily on “docents,” college student interns, who provide animal care and tours during the busy summer season.
Elizabeth Keiser, Interim Marketing Director, Lehigh Valley Zoo, said the zoo offers an education and work experience for students interested in environmental and animal-care careers.
Matt Provence, Chief Operating Officer, Lehigh Valley Zoo, said outreach efforts include visits by staff accompanied by zoo animals to schools, senior citizen venues and other community groups.
“We want to engage youngsters in the animal care and conservation ethic at an early age,” Provence said. “We take penguins, parrots, egrets and our most popular ambassador, Bean, the two-toed sloth, into school environments to give them a taste of what awaits with a zoo visit.”
The zoo’s marketing efforts have evolved in the last 10 years. Keiser said the zoo’s advertising and marketing tools have become more sophisticated with the addition of an in-house graphic designer, and a widening of the geographic area from which the zoo hopes to draw visitors.
A growing emphasis on social media has made “quite the difference” in the zoo’s outreach efforts, Keiser said.
“From a very limited social platform, we have grown to 76,000 followers on Facebook alone,“ Keiser said. The zoo also has a presence on Twitter, Instagram and You Tube social networks.
The zoo features more than 300 animals, including 121 species, some of which are on the endangered species list, and some that are extinct in the wild.
A draw that is adding excitement to the zoo is the addition three years ago of giraffes to the animals on display.
“Bringing in Murphy, the African Masai giraffe, changed the complexion of the zoo,” Keiser said. “When he is out near the stand used to allow guests to feed him bits of lettuce, Murphy is the star of the show. People are lined up to get that close encounter with him.”
Since giraffes require warm temperatures to be outside, zoo attendants allow Murphy’s barn to be open to guests in the winter so he can be a year-around attraction.
Another off-season initiative that is bringing visitors to the zoo is the “Winter Lights” attraction, which sets the zoo aglow in holiday lights in November and December. Last year, the winter lights display brought some 55,000 off-season visitors to the zoo.
In addition to the public hours that the zoo is open, the grounds are available for rent for weddings, birthday parties, corporate and special events and private gatherings.
An “explore and snore” program allows groups affiliated with established organizations to spent the night at the zoo and observe the nocturnal habits of animals that are not that active during daylight hours.
“All in all, we are a different attraction than we were 10 years ago,” Provence said. “This year, we are on course to see more visitors than any previous year. That generates a sense of excitement that is evident throughout our whole organization.”
Upcoming events include: “Fall Wine Festival,” Sept. 21; “Keeper Krawl,” Sept. 22; “Sloth Meet And Greet,” Sept. 28; “Farmfest,” Oct. 5,6
Lehigh Valley Zoo, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. April 1-Oct. 31. Information about Lehigh Valley Zoo, including membership, events, admission rates: lvzoo.org