museums&MORE Fall 2016
Peer Perspective: Bill Lucey, RainForest Adventures By Zeke Jennings

Bill Lucey started RainForest Adventures Discovery Zoo 16 years ago. The learning curve was steep early. However, the biggest thing he’s learned in the long haul is not to let preconceived notions hinder his decision-making.

Is there anything you do differently now than when you started?

I think that learning curve is relatively steep on the front end. When you get into merchandising, whatever it may be, your first year or two you’re wishing you knew more about the products and how to merchandise. However, over time, it does become more stable, you tend to understand more of what the guest is looking for. So, there haven’t been fundamental shifts in who or what we’ve purchased in the last eight years, but we have certainly streamlined certain categories. For example, we reluctantly passed on Pucker Powder for a number of years because we were worried we would be dealing with a sugary mess on the floor, mice and all that good stuff. We resisted that even knowing it had a higher profit margin that some of the prepackaged candy. So we resisted that against our own prejudices. We’re doing things that would have been much smarter to try several years earlier.

How do you deal with space constraints?

Asking me that question after going through those three major gift shows — Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville — it’s like going to the Golden Corral buffet. You see more than you can eat. You do have to be careful not to overcrowd the store. … If you throw 10 pounds into a five-pound sack, it has the opposite effect — it does not increase sales, it decreases sales. You store becomes less appealing, less shoppable, and certainly less merchandisable if you’ve thrown too much in there. Restraint … It’s very important to keep (space) in perspective because that physical footprint has to be appealing to the parents.

Being in the Smoky Mountains, you see a lot of tourists. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?

I think it presents more advantages to us than challenges. A family on vacation almost expects to purchase something. … When you have the cuteness of this product in the gift shop tied in with the animal they’ve seen, I think we have a distinct advantage, and our per-caps typically show that. Take a large public zoo, like Brookfield (in Chicago), for example, that has a very high number of season pass holders that visit the zoo repeatedly. They may have a significantly higher attendance number than we do, but that presents a challenge in that the family doesn’t purchase something for the child every time they come. With us, on the other hand, it may be the first time they’ve been here in five years.

Zeke Jennings

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