What You Can Learn from One Zoo’s Marketing & Business Challenges

351A9380Tampa Bay’s Lowry Park Zoo is the most highly attended zoo in the southeast and was voted the #1 family friendly zoo in America by Parents Magazine. And we sat down with the man at the head of this amazing organization, Craig Pugh, to get his insights into what it takes to market a large non-profit business – and what advice he would give to aspiring non-profits and private businesses alike! Check it out!


First, we asked Craig to give us a little background on the Lowry Park Zoo and how it stacks up against other zoos and fits into the Tampa Bay community. He painted us a picture of the “modern zoo…”

“Modern zoos are not living museums. They are truly centers for conservation. It’s about making a difference,” he said, while at the same time adding, “More people will attend zoos than all professional sporting events put together.”

Wait, what? Crazy!

So what we have in the Lowry Park Zoo is a huge non-profit operation ($20 million operating budget, 360 employees) that relies largely on earned income to keep afloat (80% earned income compared to 20% charitable giving). On top of all that, the Lowry Park Zoo gets far less municipal support than its in-state brethren — Zoo Miami gets $9 million in support from Miami/Dade while Lowry Park doesn’t crack $1 million from Tampa/Hillsborough.

So how do they do so much more with so much less?


The non-profit world is generally wary of marketing, thanks to the profit-focused connotation of the word. This is apparent even when Craig refers to Lowry Park’s marketing messages as “public information,” which is a useful euphemism… But we’re all talking about the same thing! Marketing is nothing more sinister than getting your message out there, and the Lowry Park Zoo is racing to the head of the class with that knowledge.

“Direct marketing becomes a very important part of what we do, because we are trying to drive very specific calls-to-action to get people to come to the zoo,” said Craig. In fact, he maintains that a meeting with our own CEO, Joy Gendusa, helped him get a clearer grasp on his marketing needs.

Our meeting with Joy was profoundly inspiring,” he started, “In that she helped me understand what we needed to do at the zoo in terms of marketing. And since that time, we have spent lots of time and resources reorganizing to make sure we could be better aligned with our marketing goals … When we make our public information budget allocations, we have to look at sources that give us the best ROI. What gives us the widest reach in the most tangible way? What is trackable? What lets us easily see costs vs. results? Those are the questions we are asking, and that’s why PostcardMania’s [direct mail] product is so great. The ability to track and improve on campaign results — that’s the unique set of skills that PostcardMania offers. You are not a cheap offshore way to print postcards. It is quite more than that.”

Craig says the zoo has also recently put an emphasis on connecting with local businesses, to show them how the zoo can help them achieve their own goals. But this new pathway hasn’t been the easiest hike for the Zoo…


When asked about what his greatest challenges have been at the helm of Lowry Park Zoo, Craig reflected, “I think sometimes we’ve spent so much time doing the work of education and conservation that we have not had time to tell our story in ways that make sense to our area businesses. The toughest challenge for me is to tell the story of the zoo — that we are a center for education and conservation as well as a fun place to visit.”

Does that sound familiar, fellow non-profiters? It should, because Craig hit the nail on the head when it comes to the marketing struggles of non-profits and even for-profit businesses. Simply: You get caught up being awesome – and forget to let others in on the party!

Whether you call it “marketing,” “public information” or some other phrase, it all comes down to the same truth: you need to have a clear, consistent message that you are actively putting out in the community. Otherwise, the perception of what your business is doing, or what you stand for, or why you exist, will be left up to those who don’t really know. And you won’t like the results.

We know a zoo is a fun place to visit, so when we asked Craig to give us a little insight into the education and conservation aspect of the organization, he immediately gave us a couple little nuggets that knocked our collective socks off!

  1. Recently, the Lowry Park Zoo partnered with the San Diego Zoo to airlift 11 endangered elephants from Swaziland in Africa. The elephants were going to be shot, and the zoos came together in Operation Dumbo Drop to get them to safety! Now, four of the elephants (and their little babies!) live in Tampa, while the others enjoy the Pacific breeze in their trunks.351A9394
  2. The Lowry Park Zoo has the only manatee hospital in the world for Florida manatees. They have set up what is essentially an ER for the endangered species, picking them up, preforming critical care, and releasing them back into the wild whenever possible! Craig estimates that the hospital has treated nearly 10% of the total manatees left on the planet!

These are the kinds of incredible things that don’t get out if you aren’t intentional with your marketing messaging!


When we asked Craig what advice he would give to other non-profits and businesses, he gave us a gem of a response:

Do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. I don’t know what else there is that should guide your daily decisions. You must be customer-centric. For each customer, think about what he or she need specifically and how you can meet that need. Focus on customers, not products and services.”


If you’re already itching to visit your nearest zoo, we’re with you. That’s why we asked what Craig sees on the horizon for the Lowry Park Zoo.

Tampa Bay is truly the gateway to the Americas. We showcase the animals of Asia, Africa, and Australia, but we really have a lot more in common with the Caribbean and Central America. Going forward, one of our goals is to really showcase the animals of the Caribbean and central South America.”

So there you have it. If you’re in the area, be sure to stop by the Lowry Park Zoo. You’re not only having a blast — you’re saving manatees! J

Find out more about Tampa Bay’s Lowry Park Zoo: www.lowryparkzoo.com!


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