Our market analysis for Chester Zoo’s £40m attraction, Islands, found a surprising source of potential visitors and fuelled the Zoo’s hugely successful marketing strategy.

Chester Zoo used MHM’s market analysis and psychographic segmentation to fuel the marketing strategy for its £40m development, Islands. The result: a 32% increase in visits in the first year and big jumps in membership and visit satisfaction.  

In 2012, Chester Zoo was preparing to open its new, £40 million immersive development, Islands.

The project had ambitious visitor targets. To help achieve them, the Zoo asked MHM to assess the size of the market, carry out non-visitor research, inform pricing strategy and provide recommendations on how to maximise market penetration.

A key purpose of Islands was to promote a strong conservation message. The team were concerned with how this would sit with visitors who were primarily looking for a ‘good day out’. It was important to establish whether Islands would provide a variety of different benefits for visitors driven by diverse motivations. Finally, to make best use of marketing budgets, Chester Zoo wanted to embed a psychographic segmentation of the leisure market to identify who was most likely to visit Islands and how best to engage with them.

Identifying the market for Islands

The first step to helping the Zoo increase its market penetration was to ask non-visitors for their views on the Zoo’s current offer overall and the Islands project specifically.

We used an online population survey to collect a demographically representative sample of over 1000 people living less than two hours’ drive from the Zoo. We also interviewed individuals that lived three and a half hours away to understand Islands’ potential to attract visitors from further afield.  

Qualitative discussion groups (focus groups) enabled us to explore issues in depth with a range of potential visitor categories, recruited by segment, visit history, demographic profile, psychographic /attitudinal profile or a combination of these.

Surprising discoveries in the potential market

Our findings confirmed Chester Zoo had significant potential to grow its visitor base, but perhaps the greatest surprise was where that potential lay. Of the 6.2 million people in the potential market only a quarter were people with families. The rest – over 4.5 million – were independent adults.

The findings were significant and indicated that, to reach maximum market penetration, the Zoo must specifically engage non-visiting adults.  

Visitors wanted a multi-layered experience from the Zoo

Potential visitors were clearly looking for a fun, social day out but a visit to the Zoo offered a multiple-layered experience that could attract a varied audience.

For example, some looked forward to learning about the animals and conservation activities. Others enjoyed the prospect of emotional and spiritual experiences, of being in awe or inspired by what they saw. For many, the zoo held the promise of blowing away the cobwebs with a refreshing walk in the outdoors.

Our research showed that Chester Zoo needed to emphasise the full benefits from a day out at the Zoo, but also – to appeal to its adult market – to offer more opportunities for people to have intellectual, emotional or spiritual experiences. 

Islands had significant appeal

Our research found Islands made the Zoo a much more attractive proposition. Three in five of the potential market considered themselves more likely to visit once the new experience had opened.

This was great news for the Zoo and a good sign it would meet visitor targets when Islands opened. But our research also revealed that, despite a high level of interest in the Islands proposition, the potential market was still very price sensitive. Visitors would expect a combined ticket offer and would be put off if they had to purchase entry to Islands separately. This was a key finding for the team. 

Using psychographic segmentation to test the proposition

Psychographic segmentation offers a much richer and more accurate picture of visitors’ motivations than demographics alone. Chester Zoo used one of MHM’s psychographic segmentation systems to understand their likely visitors and what they would be seeking from their trip.

The two segments most interested in Islands were also the segments that tend to look for more intellectual, emotional or spiritual experiences. This insight enabled the Zoo to use more targeted marketing and messaging to reach the segments most likely to be attracted by the Islands proposition. 

This was an important finding for the Zoo. It meant they were confident Islands could carry its strong conservation message without risk of putting off its core audience.  

Islands: a success story

Islands opened in the Summer of 2015. That year the Zoo saw almost a quarter of a million extra visits, with further increases in 2016. Membership grew by 32% in 2015. Importantly for the Zoo, visitor growth was throughout the year, not just in the peak seasons.

To diversify its audience base to include independent adults as we had suggested, Chester Zoo designed a series of events called In Bloom, focusing on the Zoo’s gardens and offering more opportunity for intellectual experiences. The messaging for In Bloom and the marketing campaign for Islands focused primarily on attracting the two psychographic segments picked out from our research. 

Visits went up 32% during the Islands campaign, with the two segments responding particularly strongly. The success of the campaign led to Chester Zoo being awarded the tourism marketing campaign of the year award at the Visit Cheshire awards.

MHM continues to carry out rolling visitor research for Chester Zoo. It shows visitors are very positive about Islands and the resulting overall visitor experience. We’ve also found there has been an increase in Zoo visits driven by intellectual and emotional motivations, indicating that the Islands campaign successfully emphasised a fuller range of benefits for visiting.

Propensity to definitely recommend the Zoo went up by 11 percentage points to 90%. Finally, Chester Zoo took our recommendation about the pricing on board and offered one ticket for entry into the Zoo and Islands. They also introduced a 10% discount for those that book tickets online to appeal to those that are more price resistant. Online bookings have subsequently increased significantly, which has the added benefit that the Zoo is building up a comprehensive database of their visitors for CRM purposes.