museums&MORE Spring 2019
Manager’s Corner: Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden By Sam Ujvary

The Zoological Society of Cincinnati was founded in 1873, and in 1875 the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden opened, making it one of the oldest zoos in the United States, joining the ranks with the Central Park Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Philadelphia Zoo.

Lisa Banks, the establishment’s retail operations manager, looks after the four gift shops that are on the zoo and botanical garden’s grounds.

Each shop employs 40 to 50 people seasonally. These nearly 200 employees work as one unit, moving around from location to location, wherever there is a need.

“Plush is our number one seller,” said Banks. “We have had a lot of success with Fiona merchandise over the past two years.” Other top sellers include red pandas, giraffes, and fennec fox plush items.

Two years ago, the Cincinnati Zoo made headlines when baby hippopotamus, Fiona, was born six weeks prematurely. She’s a medical marvel in the animal world; at 29 pounds, she was the smallest hippo to ever survive. Since then, the zoo has found greatsuccess with this lovely little hippo who has been a viral sensation since birth.

With social media — Fiona has her own show on Facebook — fundraising events, and even a celebratory first birthday party, Fiona has continued to shine in feel-good moments (she recently photobombed a couple’s engagement photo). Because of this wondrous thousand-pound marvel, Banks has been noticing an increase in attendance, and said they’ve had back-to-back record years. The Fiona-themed items you can find at the gift shops include custom plush, custom artwork, apparel, hats, books, playing cards, figurines, calendars and towels, just to name a few.

Another focal point offered at the Cincinnati Zoo is a Cincinnati long-standing tradition; the six-weeks-long Festival of Lights that takes place over the winter holiday season. Voted number one zoo lights in the country by USA Today in 2018, the Festival of Lights takes a village to create each year. “It takes 5,000 hours — beginning in August — to install three million lights,” said Banks. “We decorate the shops in the two weeks between November 1stand opening day of the Festival of Lights.” After 36 years, this festive light show has become the best in the country. During this celebration, Banks and her crew at the gift shops stock the shelves with all kindsof items that will wow patrons. “We sell glowing toy items out in the park,” she said. Gifts that glow are best-selling during the Festival of Lights season.

“We open a special stand called the Northern Lights Glow Station where we sell glow items as well as spin cotton candy onto glowing swords all in front of the guest.  This is a hot seller and guests love that it’s interactive,” she added.

The zoo gift shops partner with local vendors as well as some larger companies to source its products, but no matter where it obtains its gift offerings, they all seem to do the trick of inspiring customers. Inspiration is one of the perks of working at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, at least for Banks. “It’s amazing to be a part of something where employees and guests alike are passionate about the wildlife around them. I have learned so much about my personal impact on conservation and feel lucky to be a part of this amazing institution.”


Sam Ujvary

Sam is the managing editor of Gift Shop Pets, Museums & More and Party & Halloween Retailer, and is a contributing editor for Gift Shop Magazine. She has a copywriting background and has been in publishing for six years.

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