Call of Leadership

The Call of Leadership

I can’t tell you the number of times we went to the Detroit Zoo when I was a kid.  Gerry VanAcker, the Chief Operating Officer of the Detroit Zoological Society, walks us through how the Detroit Zoo continues to impact the region as well as the great care they give the animals in their charge.  What are the new exhibits to be seen?  What are the upcoming events?  It’s all right here.

Show Notes:

Detroit Zoo Webpage

Follow the Detroit Zoo on Facebook


Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:00] Hello everyone. And welcome to the show show. I’m your host Cliff DuVernois. And today we are going to the zoo, the Detroit zoo. Now it seems like growing up every single year, I either had some kind of school field trip or my family would make that my migration down to the Detroit zoo.

And this is probably single-handedly the reason why I’m so terrified of spiders because it was the first time I saw a tarantula in. Real life. And today we have on the show with us, the Chief Operating Officer of the Detroit Zoological society. Gerry vanacker. Gerry, how are you

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:01:03] doing great. How are you doing today, Cliff?

Cliff Duvernois: [00:01:06] doing well, sir. Thank you so much for asking. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:01:11] Oh, okay. So I’m a Michigander, been here most of my life. I grew up in Lansing and, went to school, high school on the West side, the Waverley high school. And, eventually, went through college at Lansing community college and finished it. MSU go green, go white and, finished in, in accounting.

And hired on with a small hotel company by the name of Marriott at the time Marriott had 70 hotels and I was, transferred to Des Moines, Iowa, to be the assistant controller there. And as you probably well know, Maryanne grew into a really large corporate hotel business. They now have over 7,000 hotels.

But I spent most of my career with Marriott of 28 years in the Midwest. I worked in the Detroit market, South bend, Indiana, that Chicago market. And, worked my way up through the hotel business until I was running large hotels as a general manager. And at that point, I was contacted by actually my boss and he said, I’ve got a.

A great opportunity for you to Jerry. And I said, what’s that? And he said, well, the zoo is looking for a chief operating office, sir. And I think it’d be a really nice way for you to kind of round out your career. And, after, several interviews and conversations with people, I was hired on here at the zoo in June of 2011.

And, I’ve been here, going on 10 years. And have been able to do quite a bit of work here at the Detroit zoological society.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:46] Was there something about the travel and tourism industry that kind of, that, that pulled you into it? Cause I know you mentioned before that you, you got your degree in accounting and then you went and started working for Marriott and you stayed in Marriott rather than like, perhaps go out and opening your own, a consulting firm or some kind of auditing company or something like that.

Is there something about. The travel and tourism industry that just picked your interest.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:03:13] Well, it really is in my blood. I, you know, I know it’s sounds kind of cliche, but I really enjoy working with people and trying to help people solve problems. And that’s really what the hospitality and tourism business is about. And. And,  you know, really running the zoo fit fit in very, very well. And I was surprised at how my skill set and the things that I had learned with Marriott fit in.

So well here at the zoo, for instance, I did a lot of renovation were to hotels while I was with Marriott. I did a renovation at the Dearborn Inn. I did the transformation downtown of the Omni to the courtyard hotel and work with the owners from general motors to transform the Renaissance center hotel to a Marriott hotel.

And once I arrived here at the zoo, we were in the middle of quite a few capital improvement projects. In fact, in the last 10 years, we’ve done almost 90 million. improvement in improvements here at the zoo. So my skillset in, capital oversight,  human resources,  managing other people, really fit in.

Well, once I arrived here at the zoo,  peak, season of course, pre COVID, you kind of have to say pre and post COVID nowadays, but peak season pre COVID. we would employ up to 700 people. So there was really a need for, you know, a person that had that sort of experience and managing others and effectively managing, guests.

And, so my skill set has really worked out fabulous here.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:54] That’s excellent. The so going back, so you had a very long, distinguished career working with Marriott and your boss one day says, you know, I think. Yeah, I think you should go and work for the zoo. What was, what went through your mind when he first suggested that or when your boss suggested that.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:05:12] Well, of course first, I wonder if he was trying to get rid of me,

then I realized that he was really looking out for me. And in fact, His name’s Bob farmer in. I still keep in touch with him. He’s retired now in Palm Springs, but, it, it, he knew more than I did. Let’s just say, because, he knew the type of manager I was, and he knew what my skills were and, and my experiences and knew that.

I could really, be helpful here at the zoo.  he knew, the, the director here on Kagan really well. And, Bob and Ron, were both on the board of the Detroit convention and visitors Bureau, which actually I sit on now too. And, I guess, like I say, they all knew more than I did because. 10 years later, I’m still here and able to be effective.

And, it’s been, just a, a wonderful experience for me.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:05] Now you mentioned something before regarding a lot of, a lot of capital improvements that were being made to the, to the Detroit zoo. what I’d like to do is kind of like take a step back in time and talk to us a little bit before, talk to us a little bit about the founding of the Detroit SU for instance, you know, when did it open or at some just, let’s just go, let’s just talk about the history of the zoo.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:06:29] Sure. So actually the first Detroit zoo was established in 1883 on Michigan Avenue, right across from the old tiger stadium.  there was a circus that had come through town, a traveling circus, and they ended up going bankrupt here in Detroit. And they had all these animals and they didn’t know what to do with them.

So leading, yeah. I kind of a funny story, but at leading Detroit or Luther Beecher and ended up buying those animals and putting them up at the original zoo. Well, eventually that didn’t work out really great and it closed after about a year due to lack of funding. And the building was actually turned into a horse market and some of the, some of the zoo animals ended up over on Belle isle.

Then in 1911, the Detroit zoological society was formed and organized by several prominent to traders and they started to plan for a world-class too. And, eventually they bought, the 125 acres. We now sit on and, they hired a renowned designer, Henrik Hagenbeck of Hamburg, Germany. Who was doing, cageless environments for zoos.

And, he, he was able with his malt design to place animals in what looked like their natural habitats. So the zoo eventually opened here August 1st, 1928. And, it was somewhat timely. They did really well in the roaring twenties, but then the depression hit. So the, CCC and the federal emergency relief administration.

We’re able to bring people in and do quite a habitat building. And the shotcrete work that currently exists here at the zoo.  so that kind of brings us, you know, and then the, the zoo had several starts and fits and had some good years, some lean years. And then, in 2006,  when the city of Detroit was going through.

financial difficulties. the zoo was spun off and it was actually taken over, the management of the zoo by the society. And, the city still owns the assets, but the actual zoo is managed by the Detroit zoological society. And, that kind of brings you up to present day. but like I said, in the last 10 years, there’s been quite a bit of development and modernization that’s really helped our attendance and, the product that we’re able to offer here.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:58] It speaking of speaking of some of these renovations that you’ve been doing. What are, what are some of the share with us? Some of those renovations that have gone on that has really helped out as far as the zoo goes.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:09:12] Yeah, well, in 2014, we decided this, we started the design work for the Polk penguin conservation center that ultimately opened in 2016 at a cost of 32 million. So that was about a third event. It’s the largest penguin facility in the world. Well, that’s outside of Antarctica, of course.  but it’s a 33,000 square feet.

It houses about 80 penguins. And it’s just a fabulous, fabulous facility. And then, in 2006, 15, we opened the cotton family Wolf wilderness, and that was about a $2 million project. And then in 16, we expanded the draft habitat. Thanks. A generous gift from Cynthia and Edsel Ford. And, that was opened in 2016.

And then in, 2017, we opened an Amber anaerobic digester, which actually takes all of the waste, the food waste and the animal waste and converts it into compost that drives a generator and creates electricity. And, 2018, we opened a buddy’s restaurant, that was about a million and a half dollar project.

And, in 2019,  we opened the expanded Devereaux tiger for us. And the Holtzman wildlife foundation, red Panda for us. So the projects have been ongoing and funded really well with local philanthropy. And we’ve still got a few projects in the works.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:10:44] Now, with regards to the zoo. And I want to bring this up because in my research, whenever, whenever I Google. Google these terms, these things always pop up, but there, there seems to be some people out there that always talk about how the, you know, the animals and how they’re treated and you know, maybe the zoo isn’t the best place for it.

But on the same point in time, when I’m looking over your website, the, the Detroit zoological society has won numerous awards from different. conservation group. So why don’t you talk to us a little bit about, about the, the, the, the philosophy that you have with regards to, the, the animals and how they’re cared for.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:11:21] Yeah, well, Cliff, our mission is. Really based on four pillars and those pillars are animal conservation and animal welfare,  education. So educating the community and the people that visit here and, and now in a virtual environment, and then, sustainability and making sure that we’re taking care of the environments that we live in.

And we really feel that these four pillars.  can have the most impact on people that, either visit the zoo for, you know, kind of like, I guess I kind of split it now into two segments. You know, there’s people that visit the zoo for the old-fashioned kind of entertainment aspect. And then there’s people that visit the zoo because they’re interested in our mission and how they can help and how we can do that through educating them about animals in the environments that they live in.

So it’s, it’s not, I guess not your grandfather’s zoo. It’s, it’s really a new approach to houses exists. And we’re really doing a lot of work now to, to look at the futures is, if you talk to, you know, the 20 year olds or 30 year olds, or even teenagers now, They’re kind of losing interest in zoos, because of the things that you just mentioned, that they’re afraid of how the animals are treated.

And,  but, but really we belong to an organization called the association of zoos and aquariums, the ACA and the ACA has a, SOS program save our species. And they’ve designated about a hundred species now, that they’re really targeting too. Try and, and save and preserve, through the work that we do at the 225, accredited zoos across the nation.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:10] Nice. And I know before, when we were talking about, cause you made a comment about some of these new, the new habitats are expanding on these habitats, what is it that drives the decision? Like how do you sit down as, as a team and say, okay, so we need to, you know, we need to put in, you know, a, a penguin.

 you know, penguin facility or we need to expand this facility. What, what drives those? what drives those decisions?

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:13:38] well, a couple of things. the ACA, has, Certain, groups of people that have interest in certain species. So we know which species around, the zoos. There’s not a, there’s not a financial trade involved with zoo animals anymore. They come free of charge from other zoos and we really don’t take animals out of the wild anymore.

So it’s really, you know, where there’s an interest, from those,  different taxonomical groups and the people that manage those. And then of course, what comes into play is funding. So if there’s a, a donor that has, has an interest in a certain animal that could play into it as well. And then, The community and, different, political or, or community pressures, for instance, we hadn’t had, Gray Wolf’s at the zoo and quite a few years.

 but there’s, Mo movement in Michigan, for Wolf hunting and hunting in the UPP. I think they’ve increased the population of gray wolves in Michigan now to, almost 700 wolves. And, there was a lot of debate around, Should there be an open season on wolves or not. So we thought it was important that we educate people and tell people how a wolves are an apex predator.

And that will are really important to, the Michigan ecosystems and that they should really learn about, that wolves are really great animals and they’re not a big, bad Wolf that many of us learned about in the red riding hood stories.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:15:16] That definitely. When you talk about educating people about how, like, would you just as an example, the gray Wolf, when you’re talking about educating people, what are the different ways that you, that you go about?

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:15:27] Well, first of all, we find if you can, really work on the empathy of a person and develop that empathy that people have towards animals and, Well towards other humans for that matter, that that’s really the best way to try to get people, to, learn about them. Because if you feel, you know, close to an animal or, or, or a person, then you’re going to be a lot nicer towards them.

Right. I mean, you, you know, we find that. Just to tell people, you know, about how much they weigh and what they eat and where they come from. It doesn’t have as much of a positive effect as if you tell them the animal’s name and maybe a little story about where they came from. And maybe that animal was rescued from a bad situation,  that then they’ll have a connection with an animal and they’ll feel empathetic towards them.

And that they’ll become much more interested.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:16:23] I know before you mentioned about, visiting the zoo, doing it virtually. So is this, is this something that, that you have implemented since the start of this, this, this COVID 19 lockdown or is it something that you’ve always had?

 Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:16:38] we’ve always had it, but of course we it’s really been supercharged lately, especially around our educational programs. we’ve had over 2 million hits now on our educational programming online. many kids are stuck at home with, you know, in, in home learning and homeschooling and. They’re looking for how to learn about science and we really on our website and through our different classes and courses that you can take, you can really learn about science and the science behind, zoos and zoology.

And, we try to do it in a really fun way. And it’s, it’s kind of funny because our teachers. Well who the majority of the 20, some people we have in our education department have teaching certificates.  they’re really become kind of local celebrities where people tune in and, and, we have several new classes every week and they tune into those classes just because they’ve been really engaging.

And our education staff has done a wonderful job of, being creative in the ways that they present those. But it definitely has been much, much more busy in that area since the pandemic.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:17:54] Speaking of which, and I know with a lot of. Places that, you know, have opened. And I know that there’s different restrictions for everybody, for, you know, depending on your business, 50% capacity, or you have to remain close, like, you know, movie theaters, which are opening up soon. What, what are some of the, what are some of the precautions that you’re, that you and your staff have put in a place so that when, when people do come and visit you, they can, they can make sure that their family can not only enjoy the zoo, but at the same point in time, feel safe.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:18:25] Well, we’ve taken us, I guess, a super conservative approach. we really felt that first and foremost, the safety of our.  our staff and our guests and our volunteers was the most important thing.  so we completely shut down at March 17th and we didn’t reopen until June 8th. In fact, I sat on the, governor’s pure Michigan board on opening attractions and what our recommendations were.

And we initially reopened with attendance of a thousand people a day and no more than 500 people at any time, which may sound like large numbers. But when you spread that over 125 acres, It’s only about, I don’t know, four or five people per acre, so there was plenty of room to stretch out.  eventually we ramped up to, 3,500 people and, We ran that for a couple of weeks and felt it was still maybe a few too many.

So we dropped it down to 3,100 people a per day maximum. And then, we also sure that our members were able to get tickets and come in. We had 40% of the tickets available or for members and 60% general admission, but all guests had to have a reservation and pre ticketed. And you had to review the safety protocols when you’re getting those tickets.

 we require face masks, social distancing, and all the CDC recommended protocols. We have over a hundred hand sanitizing stations.  we closed the majority of our indoor buildings. Of course, the restrooms that are open and the reptile centers open and the free flight aviary. And a buddy’s pizza is open with limited seating.

And, but for the most part, all of our, or habitats and, attractions, the clothes, we cancelled all of our events, which was really actually more than 150 events that we had to cancel. and then as I said earlier, all of our education went totally online. We canceled all of our summer camps and then, with the staff.

we made sure we doing screening every day, skits with the staff and the vendors and doing temperature checks.  and then we ultimately, we asked our customers, Hey, what do you think? How, how did we do, you know? So we send out about 16,000 surveys in the summer, June, July, August. We got about 4,000 back, which was a really great almost twenty-five percent response rate.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:49] is unheard of.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:20:50] That’s really unbelievable. And I think it speaks to how, the zoo is really a beloved institution and people in this community want to make sure that they help support us and give us that feedback, our overall satisfaction. And this would be the top two boxes on a five point scale.  in 2019 was 66% and it just dropped to 60% in 20.  the value for price paid actually went up, went from 48 to 56%. And I think what that speaks to is people felt like it was maybe more of an exclusive experience where they kind of had the zoo to themselves. Our Flint friendliness scores went up from 69 to 78%.  being welcoming to all. And, we really have a focus on making sure that all audiences are welcome here.

people from all walks of life and all types of people and 80% of the people said they felt like the zoo is really a welcoming place for all the guests that come here and say for all. that dropped a bit to 71. And I think that maybe some of the COVID fears and how people feel about COVID nowadays.

but I think to score a 71 in these times is actually not too bad.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:07] I know you made a comment before, this is something that I’ve experienced with any. indoor facility that I’ve gone to. but most of the time, you know, in the past you could just have a ticket and go whenever you wanted to go. But now it’s not, it it’s a matter of having a ticket, but also a reservation as well.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:22:24] That’s correct. Yup. And that’s what we’re still requiring. And, you know, now that the falls here, there’s more tickets available. During the week, there’s no problem. Really finding a ticket, making a reservation. Some of the weekends are still pretty busy though.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:41] Oh, I bet. I bet now for somebody that’s coming down to the zoo, maybe they’re gonna, you know, make a day of it. Hanging out with their family or whatever it is, what would be perhaps maybe, you know, three things that you would recommend that they see, or maybe, you know, three things that they should know about, the zoo coming in.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:22:59] Well, a couple of the things, our Polk penguin conservation center, we had to close it for some repairs, but we’re going to open it back up in November. And you really don’t want to miss that. That’s a, it’s an award-winning facility. It was the best exhibit of the year, with ACA in 2016. So you really want to see that because it’s, quite a spectacle.

 what else? Well, we’re the largest paid attraction in Michigan, paid cultural attraction. So you’re really coming to a facility that’s very popular, popular with Michiganders. we’ll do on a typical pre COVID year about a million and a half visitors a year, which is more visitors than any other cultural attraction in the state.

 just little known facts, maybe. we’ve got a. Large sustainability efforts. So we quit selling bottled water, about six years ago. we eliminated plastic bags and our gift shop.  our restaurant was the first, green restaurant in the nation, and that was about 10 years ago. And we’ve been recognized for that with, the ACA green Ord in 2015.

We were also recognized in 2015 as the best managed nonprofit in Michigan. So that’s kind of a cool thing.  we have 1200 volunteers, so that’s really a large number for a volunteer Corps and 125,000 schools. Kids come to the zoo in any given year and another little known fact, kind of quirky, but, We sell the most hotdogs in Michigan behind tiger stadium. And that’s something that we’re really proud of.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:24:37] Nice. Nice. Excellent. so if someone wants to, if someone wants to follow what it is that you’re doing online or, or connect with you online, what’s, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:24:50] Well, there’s a couple of ways. Of course we’re on a Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and all the social medias.  but our website’s really helpful too. So if you just click on our website, it’s pretty easy to navigate around and, see what’s going on at the zoo currently.  one thing that we’ve got coming up that, I’d like to just tell your listeners about, Wildlight starts the, Friday before Thanksgiving.

In runs through the first part of January. So it’s 30 nights, 5 million lights,  COVID safe and, you will need reservations, but wildlife is the best holiday lights show in the Midwest. And you really don’t want to miss that.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:25:31] Can you give us a little bit of a description? What that, what the wild lights is or does it, is it, have you experienced?

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:25:38] Well, I can describe it to you, but probably not nearly as good as the actual experience. we’ll be wrapped over 400 trees. And, when I say rap, I don’t mean like I ran the trees in my front yard. they’re professionally wrapped and they really, they really look like that. And it’s, It’s really done by our professional crew that starts in the middle of August, about 15 people start in the middle of August and they’re they’re rapping.

And, and then, we have about 180 animal displays. So everything’s around animals and, and ology. And the animal displays are fabulous summer as much as 40 feet tall. And they’re things that, you don’t see anywhere else except here at the Detroit zoo. And then we have dancing lights and, light effects.

And. We work with blue water visual and get new light effects every season so that, it’s never the same as the year before everything’s new and intriguing and different. And then of course, hot chocolate and, other food items are available. hot dogs, of course. And, it’s, it’s really a great event in, in, Really, it’s a great date night or it’s a great family event.

And, last year we were able to, attract the 160,000 people. And it’s really become a family tradition in Southeastern Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:27:03] Nice. And you said it’s the weekend prior to Thanksgiving? All the way up until January.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:27:08] yep. That’s correct. And it’s Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights, four nights a week. And tickets are available online.  we are restricting tickets quite a bit this year and making sure that we’re doing it in a safe manner. so get your tickets early.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:27:24] Gerry. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today. I really appreciate it.

Gerry VanAcker, Detroit Zoo: [00:27:27] Oh, it’s been my pleasure Cliff.