The Docent Animal Program (DAP) at the Memphis Zoo presents Education Department animals to zoo visitors and for zoo birthday parties and other private events. The private events are booked by the Special Events Department. The family or organization booking the event can select a specific animal encounter with a keeper or a selection of animals presented by Docents for an extra fee (currently $125). If the Docent presentations are chosen, then the Docents have an opportunity to engage in Conservation Conversations with a small, captive and somewhat attentive group as well as receive revenue for Docent programs.
Initial Booking Procedures
Up until 2008, any bookings for Docent presentations were done by the Special Events Department notifying the Education Department. The Education Department would then enter the date, time and other information for each event on a manual sign-up sheet. Docents checked the sign-up sheet, and signed up for events. The Docents would then present the animals at these events, and the Docents would receive revenue.
It sounds good on paper, but in reality, there are three possible outcomes, with two of them bad:
- The booking has sufficient advance notice, Docents sign up, the event occurs as scheduled and the Docents present the animals (good).
- The scheduled date or time changes close to the event, and either the Education Department is not notified, or is notified and does not change the manual sign-up sheet or it is changed and the Docents are not notified. The result is that the Docents show up at the wrong day and/or time (bad).
- There is a last-minute booking, and either the Education Department is not notified, or is notified and does not add it to the manual sign-up sheet or it is added but the Docents do not see it in time. A common example is a booking that comes in or a weekday for the following Saturday and the weekend Docents do not see it until they arrive on Saturday. The result is that there are no animals presented at the event (very bad).
The result was that the Special Events Department could not depend on the Docents and the Education staff got tired of Docents complaining about the problems with the program. The Docents still received some bookings, since the keepers did not have time to do too many specific animal encounters, but the number of bookings stayed about the same each year.
Changes needed to grow the program
In order to increase the number of bookings for Docent Animal Presentations, we needed to change some perceptions:
- The Special Events Department must view the Docent Animal Presentations as responsive,dependable and flexible.
- We needed to improve the relationship with the Education Staff.
The first step was to have the Special Events Department deal directly with a Docent Committee for bookings rather than through the Education Department. The next step was to come up with a system to handle the bookings and making sure that Docents showed up to present the animals at the correct date and time. The options for this system can be grouped as:
- Use a software program on a Zoo computer that Docents can check when they arrive at the Zoo and check for new Bookings and changes.
- Use e-mail to notify Docents about bookings and changes. Docents sign up for an event by replying to the e-mail.
- Use a web-based software program to enter bookings and changes. Docents sign up on the web page.
- Develop a web application to enter bookings and changes. Docents sign up on the web page.
The features of each option are:
|PC Software||Person to maintain booking date, reports||Limited to Docents at the Zoo.||Learning software|
|Person to handle all the e-mails.||Good, if all the Docent Animal Presenters have e-mail||Very little|
|Web page program||Admin to maintain Docent list, enter bookings||Good, if all Docent Animal Presenters have web access||Learning software|
|Develop Web signups||Person to enter the booking and changes||Good, if all Docent Animal Presenters have web access||Web programming|
Option 1 has the problem of weekend Docents not being aware of last minute changes. Option 2 requires a person who can actively monitor e-mails and act when more Docents reply to sign up for an event than are needed or conversely if not enough signed up, which can be time-consuming. Also, e-mails are sometimes deleted or “forgotten”. Option 3 allows visibility of bookings, but there is usually a fee based on the number of Docents, and part of the fee is based on software options that will not be used. Also, it may be difficult to add specific fields (e.g. Requested Animal). Option 4 is the
most flexible, but has high technology requirements. Later on, I will discuss how to minimize those requirements.
Web Page Option Chosen
We chose to implement Option 4 – Develop Web signups. A Docent Committee receives event request e-mails from the Special Events Administrative Assistant, and one Docent enters the event information on a web form. The same Docent also makes any changes to the signups and sends an e-mail to any Docents who have signed up notifying them of the changes. The Docent Animal Presenters know to check the web site often. If there is a late request, the Committee sends an e-mail to Docent Animal Presenters alerting them of the request, and asking them to sign up on the web.
This system was implemented in 2008, and almost immediately, we met the goals of being responsive and dependable. This resulted in the Docent Animal Presenters being included in a new events program where a company could “rent” the Zoo for an evening when the Zoo was not normally open.
We could present animals at several locations and have “Conservation Conversations” with most of the guests. The Docents received $400 revenue for each of these events, which along with increased birthday party bookings, doubled our annual revenue from events. Due to the lousy economy in the last few years, the revenue has fallen off, but it is still higher than before the web signups were implemented.
The web site is hosted by Verio, which has provided a very stable platform. Their cost is $60 per quarter.
It may sound impractical for you to have a customized web sign-up system if you do not have an IT geek in your group, but it may not be as bad as it seems. Once the web sign up pages and the administration pages for adding and changing events are created, anyone with web access can be trained to maintain the data – it is really just data entry on forms. If you do not have an IT Geek in your Docent group, try to find a web developer who will donate their time or do the work at a reduced cost (food usually is a good bribe). Again, the web developer is not needed after the initial set up and
testing, unless you want to add more features to the web site.
We have in fact added more features. One feature is signups for Zoo-wide events, such as Earth Day, Winter Lights and Halloween activities. We have developed a generic signup form that can be used for each event. This form allows for multiple touchcarts, station guides and Animal Presenters for different shifts for one or more days. Again, most of the programming has been done; we just need to add the details for each event
Getting Docents to Sign Up
When the number of events started to increase, we needed to encourage more Docent Animal Presenters to sign up. We increased the annual minimum hours requirement, and added an annual minimum number of scheduled events. The problem was how to keep up with the actual counts, as we could follow-up with Docents who had low numbers. Luckily, we had set up a Microsoft Access application to keep track of both animal and handler time for all animal usage, and a flag that the handler could check to note that it was a scheduled event. A report displays the total handler time and the number of parties for each handler by quarter.
In order to enter information in the MS Access application, a card was created for each animal, and a bar code label was attached to each card. The Docent scans the animal card, and the MS Access application then prompts for the Docent Name. At that point, the application knows the animal and the Docent. When the Docent returns the animal, he or she scans the animal card again, and the application knows that the animal is being checked back in and records the time.
By developing a web sign-up application and an animal usage database, we have an automated system
- Provides up-to-date information on events and signups.
- Is seen by the Special Events staff as dependable and flexible.
- Allows analysis of signups and animal usage