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Riverbanks’ new CEO shares how his work in theme parks helped shape vision for the zoo

Riverbanks Zoo’s new CEO Tommy Stringfellow.
Riverbanks Zoo’s new CEO Tommy Stringfellow. tdominick@thestate.com

Tommy Stringfellow was named president and CEO of Riverbanks Zoo on Aug. 8, but he’s been preparing for the job for the past 16 years – and actually, some would say, even as far back as high school.

The Rock Hill native took a circuitous route to get to his new position, starting his theme park career by parking cars at Carowinds while at Rock Hill High School and going from there to upstate New York, Atlanta and finally back to his home state, where he was hired in 2001 by Satch Krantz to be the marketing director at Riverbanks Zoo.

Ten years later, Stringfellow was promoted to chief operating officer – and then finally selected to replace Krantz this month.

All the time, he was at Krantz’s side soaking in the details about running a zoo while also working to boost the attraction’s appeal and revenue.

“I did kind of make people nervous when I got here because I was from a theme park and they worried that I was going to add roller coasters and Ferris wheels,” said Stringfellow, who came to Riverbanks Zoo from Six Flags Over Georgia. “It really did make them nervous.”

But Stringfellow’s ideas worked and have been some of the zoo’s top revenue-generating components.

The man who brought Boo at the Zoo, giraffe feeding, Zip the Zoo and many of the park’s other best-loved amenities talked with The State about his new job, including learning how zoos actually get their animals and what’s coming next for Riverbanks.

What got you interested in zoo life?

“Living in Rock Hill, it was pretty much a requirement that you had to work at Carowinds at least one year. That’s what we all laughed about growing up in the Charlotte/Rock Hill area. That was the big summer employer. My first job in high school, my first real job, was parking cars at Carowinds. ... When I was at Winthrop I started in business, but I liked the marketing side. My goal was to finish at Winthrop with a business degree and kind of specialize in marketing. When I was working at Carowinds, I realized it was a business just like any business that manufactured widgets. They had an operations department, they had a finance department; and retail and food and beverage, its own little city maintenance, and it actually had its own marketing department. The job was to advertise and get people to come ride the rides and get people to come spend money at the theme park. That was kind of a foray into the industry that I have stayed in forever. When I was at Winthrop, fortunately a position in Carowinds’ marketing department opened up. It was kind of coordinating their advertising schedule, working a little bit with their ad agency at the time. So I got to stay in the field that I graduated in and working for the industry that for four or five years in high school and college that I loved.

“I followed that path from working at Carowinds and then Paramount Parks bought the park and all of a sudden we became a major theme park because of the Universal, Disney, Paramount way of doing business. From that park I went to Six Flags in New York and worked for them for quite a while. Six Flags at that time was starting to buy a lot of small parks like Carowinds used to be and converting them into a branded park. So going through the marketing side, I knew a lot about branding and watched Paramount kind of transform Carowinds into kind of a movie set. I loved that feeling of being able to get people to escape from their day-to-day worries and day-to-day routine and kind of immerse them into a really cool, themed environment. ... When I went to Six Flags they had me move around between upstate New York and Massachusetts, kind of helping open up these smaller theme parks that already existed and branding them. I started having kids and started longing for finding a place for the kids to grow up. I’d always said I wanted to move back to the Charlotte/Rock Hill area. My wife is from Columbia. She said, ‘Why not Columbia?’ and I liked Columbia. I said, ‘Yeah, Columbia is good, but they don’t have a theme park.’ She said, ‘Well, they have a great zoo.’ ...

“I did come to interview with Satch. I remember driving up and I wasn’t too impressed, because it looked like a little roadside zoo at the time. It looked kind of small, but Satch had done a great job on the inside. I just remember after the interview we went into the zoo and I was blown away about what was behind the gates. ... and that kind of changed my mind to, ‘Well, this place has a lot of opportunity and with some minor changes could be even bigger and better.’ I was offered the position of director of marketing, and even though my focus was on the operations and marketing side of it, I figured I could learn a lot more about the animals and the plants and the botanical gardens and kind of get my feet wet from that aspect of it. I told Satch that in theme parks, our marketing and research department would search what rides or particular shows or what theme would attract people. He asked me to take a look at that for the zoo in terms of what would we do differently in regard to non-animal themes that could drive attendance to the zoo. That’s kind of a long answer to how I got here.”

How did your prior role at Riverbanks prepare you for what you’re doing now?

“When I got here the zoo had just finished up their biggest expansion to that point. I think they called it Zoo 2002. It had started in 1998 when Satch said half the park had been torn up to rebuild the bird house. It was a great exhibit, but it had gotten old. It was one of the original ones, so they redid the bird house, redid the elephant exhibit, they added gorillas and they added a couple other more impactful animals.

“When I got here, all that was done. So I said, ‘What’s next that I will get the market?’ He said, ‘We just got through with this $22 million expansion,’ and everybody was exhausted from generating the money and building. They were all worn out, and I was just getting started going, ‘What’s the future look like?’ He said, ‘Well, we don’t have any plans for any major expansion for the next five years so it’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to market it.’ That’s when I said there are a lot of other things we used to do in the theme park world when we didn’t have enough capital to guy a major roller coaster. We would do a lot of little things. We would do festivals. We would do international days. In theme parks at that time Halloween got to be a really big thing. So I started looking at five years, from about 2002 to about 2007, we started implementing some festivals. Lights Before Christmas was already here. It was the only real festival they did at night so we introduced Boo at the Zoo. That was one of the first things I did when I got here. Then we started looking at some other festivals like wine tasting and Brew at the Zoo that would bring different demographics to the zoo. ... We knew that there was so much more that the property could sustain, but it would need to be a different-looking product, so we started looking at concerts, we started doing the movie nights, anything we could utilize the zoo after hours that could generate revenue that would help us build the zoo even more. So those five years were where Satch and I kind of learned from each other. I feel like I taught him a lot about how to sustain attendance and get people back every year when there really wasn’t anything new. The idea was, how can we generate revenue to pay for things?”

Did you bring the train and Zip the Zoo and other major attraction components into Riverbanks?

“Yes. I talked to a lot of other zoos, a lot of my counterparts. I didn’t want to just assume that we could put them in and they’d be successful. The knowledge that I had from the theme park background, I knew what they could do in the theme park, but I didn’t know what they could do in terms of a zoo. Theme parks are more teen-oriented and zoos are more mom-and-kid oriented. I knew a roller coaster would probably not go over well first of all with the animal folks, who would rather have an animal exhibit, but we looked at rides that would appeal to the smaller kids, (age) 3 to about 8, something that was really family-oriented that parents could ride as well. So pony rides and the train, the lorikeet feeding. I saw some zoos creating an aviary you could actually go into and pay for a cup of nectar and let the lorikeets land on your shoulder, and the excitement of the kids was amazing. With that exhibit we are generating revenue but we are also connecting it to the animals and educating the guests while they are being entertained.

“Of course the Disney claim to fame is Edutainment, which I thought was brilliant – education and entertainment put together. The animal keepers really were mission-focused for the zoo: ‘How do we teach people about the animals that are endangered and get them to want to do something about it?’ When they saw that some of these attractions not only generated money that allowed us to do more of our mission, fund more trips for our keepers to go to Africa or Asia to focus on some of the different conservation programs that we have, the more they started cheering me on, because we didn’t have that kind of spending in the past.”

What do you think is the most important thing you learned working with Satch?

“That’s a good question. Satch was always good about thinking through the future of exhibits that we would put here. What Satch did teach me was look at the future and think, ‘Can you sustain that program year after year after year?’ There are costs associated with it. The worst thing that can happen is we introduce an animal that we didn’t think through and realize the cost involved in feeding or mating them would be too much. It could be that we introduce a really cool animal and a few years later we don’t have it anymore and people ask questions and we say, ‘Well, we couldn’t sustain the population here for various reasons.’ That would do more harm than good. We might love to have that animal, but Satch taught me the value of making sure we are looking at the population, looking at other zoos as a whole, to make sure we can sustain those animals and species here.”

What is your favorite exhibit?

“One answer is, ‘The one I’m standing in front of.’ It’s like trying to say which of my children I like the best. That’s one thing Satch was good about – he would never tell his favorite exhibit because he didn’t want it to seem like he was playing favorites. I actually knew what his favorite animal was, but he would never say it in publicly because he loved all the animals. Politically, I’m going to stick with that answer (laughing).

What do you hope to see coming down the road?

“Right now, we don’t have a plan for what animal but we are in the planning stage of the process. Something I learned in the attractions industry was you need to do something new every year. Some years maybe you can’t afford a $15 million roller coaster. We cannot afford a $15 million orangutan exhibit every year, but what our plans are for the future is every year we will have something. We were so close to having a baby gorilla before we lost it. Having a baby gorilla I have learned is like building a new exhibit. New zoo babies would definitely draw attention and would sell a lot of tickets. We are looking in the next five years at what animals the staff would like to breed, and we can breed, and factoring that into what the next five years look like. But at least every third year we will have a medium-sized exhibit open and that’s what we’re trying to choose now. Then every five years our plans are to have a major exhibit open like we did with sea lions. That exhibit is in the $8 (million) to $10 million range. What Satch used to do is every eight or 10 years he would do a lot of things at once. I like to do a lot of things every year for the next five years. So you can count on a new exhibit – an animal that people would love to see – every third year and then every fifth year definitely a major exhibit that we can work on funding along the way. Each year we may have a new festival or a new baby that we get lucky and have, that will give us something new to talk about.”

What exhibit or attraction would you like to see added next?

“I’d love to see an orangutan exhibit and my animal staff, a very talented staff, says that’s doable. Now let’s start looking at the size of the exhibit and where we’re going to put it and what it will cost us to do. My biggest priority right now is guest experience. To get people to come back we want to make sure that when the guests have a hassle-free visit – they park easily, they get in, there’s lots of shade, restrooms are clean, food, things like that that are so critical to getting another visit and then engaging them however we can. I love our shows. We call them presentations. When we have a presentation at the sea lion exhibit, it’s always packed and we can do more of those – more exhibits that include a formal presentation. That’s an opportunity where we can educate more about how to support the zoo or support the animals.

“That to me is my biggest focus – engagement and guest experience.”

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