Back in 1994 a group of civic leaders focused the county on a bold, if not audacious vision: to build a unique, world class zoo on the Space Coast. With a generous donation of land from A. Duda and Sons right off I-95, fundraising efforts that raised $3.5 million and a literal army of volunteers, the Zoo was born. Ten years later, Keith Winsten stepped into the role of Executive Director, having served at nature centers in New York and Massachusetts and zoos in Rhode Island and Chicago. With a growing array of animals, interactive exhibits and exciting and innovative new attractions, Brevard Zoo continues to expand under his leadership.
SCB: How did you get from being a biology major at Yale, to receiving an MS in Public Health, to the director of a zoo?
KW: When I was six years old, my sister’s friend gave me a pair of garter snakes (needless to say my mother wasn’t so thrilled), which began my fascination with animals. I worked at a nature center throughout high school; then when I graduated from college I got a job writing mutual fund software, which lasted nine months before I went back to working in a nature center. During that time I got my degree in Public Health, which considers working with the environment a subset of Public Health.
SCB: And from there?
KW: My first zoo was the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, where I served nine years as the Director of Education; then I moved to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for seven years. By then I was ready to run my own show and the opportunity presented itself in Brevard. There are about 2,500 places that have a federal license to display animals, but only 10 percent are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Since there are only about 225 zoos, and we are a pretty tight-knit community, word gets around if there are opportunities.
When I came I found the governance of Brevard Zoo to be really simple; we are a completely private nonprofit entity, we own our facility and land, and I report to a Board of Directors. Some colleagues who applied to similar situations found that they only ran a certain part of the zoo. I got really lucky; I found a quality institution, in a great community and with lots of upsides.
SCB: So it was both an experiential and academic exposure that attracted you to the field? KW: Howard Gardner talks about “Multiple Intelligences,” the Logical/Math, the Linguistic, the Spatial thinker etc.; he has added to these intelligences, “Naturalistic.” The passion I think was always there, plus we have a whole generation of kids today who don’t play outside because, [quote] “there are no electrical outlets out there.” What happens when they have to make decisions about the environment and they have no connection to it? They don’t have a sense of place, because it is all virtual. We are lucky in Brevard County because the culture is geared towards outdoor activities, but that isn’t true everywhere and that is where institutions like the zoo come in.
SCB: Like a college president, you not only deal with day to day operations and professional staff but a host of volunteers and patrons. What are the greatest challenges and how do you maintain the balance?
KW: The other analogy that has been thrown out in the past is the mayor of a small city; restaurants, shops, hospitals and schools all exist within our facility. For a small institution with a $6 million budget, we have more lines of income than you can imagine. Plus the community looks to us for a number of things. First of all, they look to us as a great place to bring their families for recreation and leisure activities. They see us as educators of their children about the importance of nature. We are a tourism driver; after Kennedy Space Center we are the largest paid attraction in the county. Finally, we are a great source of community pride; we were envisioned, built and managed by the community. We have surpassed everyone’s expectations.
SCB: What makes Brevard Zoo unique?
KW: If you look at the trends and what people value in their leisure time there is a real push towards authenticity. There has been in the last twenty years a move towards “acquired experiences.” You used to go to a restaurant for a good dinner; now you go for the opportunity of being immersed in a dining experience, as seen in the rise of themed restaurants, malls and even airports. Now it is beyond theme, to the authentic experience; people want to go to the dude ranch and ride a horse and rope a cow. Unlike many zoos that are extremely artificial environments, we focus on providing authenticity – from the displays to the ability to interact with the wildlife. We want to create the unforgettable memory. In fact, all of Brevard County is positioned to provide this kind of opportunity whereas Orlando is completely geared towards the artificial experience.
We’re also unique because we aren’t supported by public dollars. We get the bed tax, but that is not for operations, only for improvements. Most zoos have a three-part support base of public dollars, philanthropy and earned revenue. We’re about 90 percent earned and 10 percent philanthropy. We don’t have a stable stream of huge donors, whereas in Chicago we had fourth generation donors. That has made us much more entrepreneurial than most; we have to earn our way. It makes us like a small business – to do it, it has to have a clear ROI. That makes us lean, hungry and innovative; we have to try new things.
SCB: How is a new attraction developed from concept to execution?
KW: If we were a typical large attraction, then a percentage of our income would always be put aside for new ideas and there would be a pipeline of new attractions, but we’re not. Our income pays for operations; for anything new, we need outside funding, be it investments, grants whatever. We’re constantly asking visitors what is missing in the portfolio of experience. We want to offer people unique, personal, special memories with nature. At Disney, they are serving several million people annually; we are serving about 350,000 people, which gives us the opportunity to offer things Disney or Bush Gardens can’t.
Also, we ask which audience are we going to serve and how do we serve that audience? We know individual revenue has dropped and the county is on a slight downward trend in terms of growth; also kids age out of zoos earlier. It isn’t that kids 12-17 don’t go to zoos, many do, but the average age is much younger; kids age out of the zoo around 8 or 9. Therefore we ask, ‘What is going to be exciting to a 9 to12-year-old?’ Our answer was ‘Treetop Trek;’ it’s very organic, takes advantage of the zoo’s unique setting, but is also exciting, challenging and uniquely Floridian. Other times it is people saying, “You don’t have enough cats,” so we added cheetahs. What you see is rather small, because they spend a lot of time sleeping and we want people to see them. Behind that is a much larger facility that will allow us to breed cheetahs, which is part of the conservation commitment we have. Kids can climb down and have that magic moment where your 3-year-old is separated from a cheetah by a pane of glass.
Our footprint is small compared to other zoos, like the Philadelphia Zoo, but we don’t bring an animal in unless we can provide a unique experience with that animal; we aren’t trying to be encyclopedic. One comment we have had is that we don’t have bears. Our next expansion will be a Wild Florida section, which will include black bears; that is a hole that we should fill.
SCB: How do you react to criticisms common to any business: why don’t you offer this, why don’t you do that?
KW: Well with social media you can track responses and experiences much easier than used to be possible. Trip advisors help us analyze along with surveys that we do, but you need several years of data to do that effectively. Most importantly, our board established seven goals for the Zoo that we are oriented around. Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great, the “Hedgehog Concept,” i.e. what are you really good at? We have used that as a model for our organization. We said “Yes” to Treetop Trek because it connects people with nature and a natural experience. We said “No” to carousels; they’re great for kids, but they are not us.
SCB: Sponsors are an important part of the success of an organization like yours. Harris, Pepsi, and Ron Jon, to name a few, have stepped up. How do you generate that kind of support?
KW: Any straight sponsorship is a business transaction. There has to be a value exchange, a win-win scenario. That is how we start the conversation. We can help you focus your message on a Saturday night; we see a lot of people and most of them are adults, therefore we are connecting your brand with our brand in a very positive way. There is also “Strategic Philanthropy,” i.e. businesses that want the community to know they are investing in the betterment of the community. Harris has been our greatest partner in modeling what a “Caring Company” should look like. The largest portion of philanthropy is individual and the majority of that goes to faith-based, education and health organizations; the conservation percentage is rather low.
SCB: You are competing against the greatest attractions in the world. How does that work against you and work for you?
KW: We have two competitive advantages. The first is being the right size. Most of the Orlando theme parks are multiple days, KSC is a full day, but we are positioned for the half-day experience. Secondly, we can provide the marker experience they can’t. One 13-year-old told his parents after doing the Treetop Trek, as a family, “I will remember this for the rest of my life.”
SCB: The Port is one of the largest cruise ship embarkation points and a growing cruise ship destination. How is Brevard Zoo tapping into that visitor stream?
KW: Until recently we weren’t expensive enough to be a viable shore excursion. Because they take a percentage of that cost it wasn’t cost effective for them. Now, with other offerings we are a more viable product, which we hope will cause that stream to grow. We’re working on it, but it hasn’t happened yet. We aren’t the reason, speaking of Brevard County, people come, but we can be the reason they stay or come back.
SCB: You have strong ties to the educational community in this area and have an obvious passion for conservation education. How do you see that developing in the future?
KW: On the conservation side, we are focusing on local projects. We used to do a lot of things in other countries, which we still do, but now we want charity and impact right at home. We fill the niche so that when Fish and Wildlife has a particular problem, like moving Scrub Jays and oyster restoration, we step in and provide that expertise.
In terms of education, we are lucky in Florida that there is one school system that covers the whole county. We serve the large audience in one level of depth and a smaller audience in great depth. With cutbacks, having the field trip opportunities are not as great. Our primary focus is on 4th and 5th graders, though we have programs that extend all the way through college. Lagoon Quest serves the whole 4th grade community and then we have programs that target Title One schools, the ‘at risk’ kids, who come and spend multiple weeks of the year doing school here at the Zoo. They become the kids that have this special experience. It can be a difference maker in these students’ lives; they are able to experience first-hand what they are studying.
In fact, though American schools lag behind some other nations in the classroom or ‘formal science’ experience, when it comes to ‘informal science,’ we are kicking everyone’s butt in giving our students real experience with the science they are studying. Because of this informal science experience our students often pull ahead.