How the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden Approaches the Visitor Experience

Quite a few of the CX leaders I’ve spoken to on the podcast have shared that previous experiences in sales, retail, and hospitality helped create a foundation for the skills required to be a successful CX champion in their organization. In today’s episode, I chat with Rhiannon Hoeweler, the Vice President of Visitor Experience, Strategy, and Fun at The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Rhiannon shared that her stint as a cocktail waitress gave her some of the human-interaction skills needed in order to lead this work.

This conversation reminds me that we can’t forget about the importance of the customer experience when it comes to cultural institutions. In fact, one of my most popular podcasts is How the Smithsonian Built Their Journey Map, with Samir Bitar, former director of the institution in Washington D.C. So, I hope you enjoy this episode, as Rhiannon and I chat about planning the zoo’s visitor experience.  


When Rhiannon first stepped into her role as the vice president of visitor experience, she tells us that one of her goals was to ensure that employees remember to always have fun. Rhiannon says that she firmly believes that the more fun you have, the more excited you’ll be about the work you need to do, therefore, your work will have a stronger impact because it’s something you’re excited about.

With the phrase, “have fun” written on all of her goal sheets, she eventually coined her department, the Department of Fun. Rhiannon says that she was adamant about presenting this idea to the board and maintaining it because she really wanted to shift the mentality of the operational component of the CX work, and insists that it’s been working for her team.

Ensure that employees remember to always have fun. The more fun you have, the more excited you’ll be about the work you need to do. #EmployeeExperience Click To Tweet


Similar to many other cultural centers or institutions, the visitor experience starts with the website: you check for hours, what exhibits are available, ticket price, etc. Focusing on the digital experience for visitors meant looking at processes for buying tickets and memberships. Essentially determining, what’s the best software to use to make the end to end experience as smooth as possible.  Therefore, Rhiannon tells us that she stressed the importance of working with her PR and Marketing, and IT teams to collaborate and create the best online experience.

Much of Rhiannon’s work also takes into consideration the weather, school schedules, and special events and learning how to accommodate these various aspects. This means understanding when to have more staff on board, learning how to “flip a parking lot,” and putting in place special incentives. For instance, Rhiannon’s team has worked on encouraging attendees to come early—so they can essentially leave early, thus getting more people into the zoo.


We’ve all been somewhere in which we’ve waited in line for a ride or experience. At the Cincinnati Zoo, Rhiannon explains that during peak times, there are long lines for the trains. She tells us that, although they can’t put another train on the track or make the trains go faster (because of safety issues), they figured out how to make waiting in line fun for the visitors.

How do they keep visitors engaged while waiting in line? If it’s someone’s birthday, staff will sing “Happy Birthday” to them. Sometimes they play games with visitors; sometimes the team will lead a dance. It’s the little things that add up to the bigger picture of creating a pleasant experience.


Rhiannon says:

“I don’t think you can ever fully understand where your career is going to take you and to be open. I have been open to opportunities as they’ve come my way. I’ve had to really rethink and change the way I think about things. When I first took on this job, I was pretty emotional about it, to be honest with you. I had moved much more from the mission-centric side of what we do here at the zoo to very much more the financial side and the business side of the equation, and figuring that piece out. Emotionally, it was a little bit hard for me in the beginning, to be completely honest. It took me some time and some tears, and some sleepless nights.

But I’m so glad that I got the opportunity, even though it can be so daunting. But have confidence in yourself through some of the struggles, and never be afraid to ask for help because other people want to help you. We all want to succeed together and we’re better together. So, being able to open up and ask for help is just so crucial.”

About Rhiannon Hoeweler

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Asheville (BS) and Miami University (MS), Rhiannon Hoeweler has been a part of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden family for over 10 years. Rhiannon was previously the Project Coordinator for the Visitor Experience before moving into her role as vice president.



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