San Antonio Zoo CEO Sees More Than Just Animals

The zoo's CEO got inspiration from his career at SeaWorld Entertainment and Six Flags Fiesta Texas

When the San Antonio Zoo hired Tim Morrow as CEO in 2014, nearly every building on the 56-acre campus was some shade of brown.

"We had a color committee," Morrow said. "They always picked brown."

The San Antonio Express-News reports the color scheme reflected a long-running philosophy of zoos: design buildings that blend into the background, making animals the focal point. The animals' habitats -- their turf -- were stark and small.

Morrow wasn't having it. Repaint the buildings in blues and greens, he told staff, and make the habitats look more like the places the animals are from. Tear down the tall fencing that kids can't see over. Take down some of the signs clogging the greenery.

"The landscape sets the tone for everything else," he said.

The tweaks were just some of the smaller changes Morrow, 49, has made since taking over the zoo's operations five years ago.

Drawing on his career at two large entertainment companies -- nearly 20 years at SeaWorld Entertainment and about four at Six Flags Fiesta Texas -- he's sought to inject sizzle and excitement into the 105-year-old zoo to make it a bigger attraction in a city known for its myriad tourist draws.

In addition to redesigning habitats, that's meant adding new attractions at a faster pace, opening a nature-based preschool, putting on new events, moving the city's iconic Kiddie Park to the zoo's grounds, fiddling with business operations -- including adding alcohol sales -- and even writing love letters between hippos.

The aims are to give patrons a jolt of excitement, to create buzz and to draw more visitors to its ticket offices. With critics of animal captivity questioning the very existence of zoos -- and theme parks offering more thrilling alternatives --this is Morrow's plan to ensure the San Antonio Zoo's future.

Morrow brings nearly boundless energy to the job. The CEO and avid Twitter user -- who said he tries to get out into the zoo every day -- has an ever-growing list of projects and changes he wants to initiate. Giving a recent tour of the campus, he spent more than six hours talking about everything from new habitats to the zoo's history to how many pairs of animal socks he owns. He walked more than 5 miles around the zoo, only stopping to eat a few bites of a sandwich.

The zoo, a nonprofit, has spent millions refurbishing habitats and sprucing up the grounds over the last few years. That included expanding the stomping grounds of Lucky, an elderly female Asian elephant.

The zoo also adopted new elephants after activists and zoo-goers raised concerns about Lucky living alone in an unnatural habitat -- and after a wildlife preservation group sued, trying to force the zoo to move Lucky to an elephant preserve.

The moves quieted what had been a building wave of bad publicity for the zoo. At SeaWorld, Morrow had learned firsthand lessons from the controversy over the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which blasted the theme park's treatment of orcas.

That's defense.

Back on offense, Morrow and his team have crafted a $200 million expansion plan that includes creating more interactive habitats in current spaces or on unused land at the zoo.

The Will Smith Zoo School and an expanded rhino habitat are recent additions, and the organization is raising money to add an overhead cat walk to the jaguar habitat, its next project.

The habitats are intended to be more natural for the animals -- incorporating trees and flowers, adding space to roam and redoing facilities built like cages -- while giving visitors a chance to see them up close. People can feed giraffes romaine lettuce leaves at a station above their home and watch hippos play around underwater from a cool, glass-paneled area.

"We try to create unique guest views or experiences," Morrow said. "If you can get a personal experience with that animal, you care about it a lot more."

He's also scrutinized aspects of the zoo's financials, looking at top-selling items at gift stands and restaurants and cutting less successful offerings. Morrow examined the zoo's profit margins and "brought a new level of sophistication to our operations," said board member Frank Ruttenberg, an attorney.

Morrow's bigger, more commercial approach has resulted in a big improvement to the bottom line.

The organization turned a profit of $322,746 on revenue of $20.7 million in 2015. Last year, the zoo earned $5.6 million in profit on revenue of $33 million.

Attendance, however, hasn't changed much. Morrow took over in late 2014, a year in which 1.12 million people visited the zoo, according to figures provided by the organization. Around 1.14 million people came through last year.

Ticket sales -- $18.99 for people over age 12, $15.99 for kids ages three to 11 and free for children under three -- brought in more than $10 million in 2018.

Rides, zoo school tuition and concessions such as $11 bacon burgers and $8 frozen margaritas raked in a total of $5.1 million, and contributions and grants generated $11.6 million in 2018.

But Morrow has helped stir up excitement around an institution Ruttenberg described as somewhat stagnant before Morrow arrived and raised the profile of the zoo.

"There's been a new passion, a new energy he's brought to the zoo," Ruttenberg said.

That includes its conservation work.

Scientists and researchers at the zoo are working on projects involving an endangered salamander, horned lizards, subterranean catfish and other creatures. Morrow has supported their work and helped the team "cultivate" the zoo's involvement in conservation projects, Ruttenberg said.

The new features and aggressive marketing efforts are intended to make the zoo, which brought in $10 million from admissions in 2018, more competitive in a city where tourism is the third-largest industry. In the contest for visitors' wallets, the zoo is vying with the Alamo and the Spanish Missions, the River Walk, SeaWorld, Six Flags and numerous other entertainment venues and attractions.

"Here, we're not the biggest thing," Morrow said. "There's so much competition for time. You have to make yourself top of mind."

Similar to theme parks, zoos are trying to bring in more revenue by creating themed areas and introducing new attractions more frequently, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Ohio. Zoos are also introducing more hands-on programs.

Adding a mix of features is a long-running strategy of zoos around the world, said Martin Lewison, an associate business management professor at Farmingdale State College in New York and an expert on the theme park industry.

Long ago, zoos often presented exotic animals alongside rides. Nowadays, the organizations are adding or enhancing exhibits, bringing in new species, opening new rides or setting up in theme parks. Visitors want a mix of attractions, and it's "a strategic decision to add something that's missing," Lewison said.

Zoos are also making these investments after increasingly coming under fire from activists for keeping animals in captivity -- part of the fallout from "Blackfish."

"More and more, zoos have to justify their existence," Lewison said. "The attitude of `animals shouldn't be locked in a cage' is becoming more prevalent."

Morrow described the documentary as "all lies" but "good trickery." And he clearly saw SeaWorld's mistakes.

The company initially stayed quiet about the controversy and highlighted its animal rescues, a response Morrow saw as ineffective in the face of an "emotional attack."

"We totally missed the mark," he said.

The experience affected how he handled criticism of Lucky's habitat and lack of friends, which was escalating around when he arrived at the zoo in late 2014.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit the next year alleging the elephant's captivity and isolation hurt her physically and psychologically. Morrow and other zoo officials maintained Lucky was picky about her friends, and the elderly animal could be bullied in another environment.

The administration "can't just sit quiet about this elephant and ride it out until she passes away," Morrow said. The zoo started a "We Love Lucky" campaign, and Morrow said he personally met with some protesters.

Eventually, the nonprofit adopted two elephants, Karen and Nicole, and expanded the animals' habitat to include a bigger pool and yard and more foliage. The plaintiffs in the suit asked a judge to dismiss the case after the zoo made the changes.

Morrow never intended to work in the tourism industry. He planned on becoming an FBI agent like his father.

Born in Washington, D.C., Morrow moved with his family to Springfield, Illinois; San Antonio; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Dallas before eventually returning to the area, where he studied criminal justice at San Antonio College and later the University of Texas at San Antonio.

At the encouragement of his sister, he got a summer job as a lifeguard at Six Flags Fiesta Texas when it opened in 1992. Every year, Morrow told himself he wouldn't go back, even as he rose through the ranks to trainer and then supervisor. His annual concession: "Fine, I have nothing else to do."

When SeaWorld San Antonio asked him to run the attraction's water park in 1996, he initially said no, still intent on a career in the FBI. But the opportunity to revamp the park piqued his interest, and, after a tour, he agreed.

Morrow's responsibilities quickly ballooned beyond the water park to include the Sea Lion Stadium, Clydesdale horses, special events and other departments. Several years later, the company asked him to move to Orlando, Florida, to help build Discovery Cove, a dolphin swim resort, where he had a hand in more aspects of the attraction.

SeaWorld then sent him back to San Antonio to take over park operations, which meant he was responsible for rides, park quality, events, parking, merchandise and public relations.

"You name it, I got to do it there," he said.

Morrow also helped design Aquatica San Antonio and became vice president of the attraction, the largest capital project at SeaWorld's San Antonio park. When a head-hunting firm called about the zoo opening, he wasn't looking for a new job.

He thought the zoo was city-run -- it leases the property from the city of San Antonio and receives some city funding for marketing -- and didn't want to work for local government. But the recruiter followed up, and Morrow thought more about it. The zoo seemed stagnant, he said, and the position was a way to help the city in which he hopes to retire.

"I can do $100 million in projects at SeaWorld, but it's always corporate," Morrow said. "This is community."

The search firm whittled the pool from 145 to around a dozen. Chris Bathie, a board member at the zoo who helped with the search, said the nonprofit was looking for a CEO who understood marketing and technology. The zoo "was getting a little staid," he acknowledged. "We were lacking some excitement."

Morrow's resume stood out because he came from "a different world" -- that of big, for-profit entertainment companies, Bathie said. Morrow had experience handling lots of customers at theme parks and improving their experiences, and he was young. During an interview, he came across as passionate and energetic, and it impressed Bathie that afterward he got everyone's email and thanked them for their time.

Nearly five years later, Morrow's background running an attraction "that included both an appreciation for the animal ambassadors" and "an understanding of the connection we're trying to make between the animal collection and the public" has been a boon, Ruttenberg said.

"Tim is bringing all these new ideas and approaches," he said. "The city is excited."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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