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For 1st time in 5 years, Maryland Zoo open during winter

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is finding success in keeping its doors open during the winter months for the first time in five years.

The zoo has faced financial obstacles and the threat of losing its accreditation over the past few years. But after board members and staff agreed to keep the attraction open in January and February, attendance — even at discounted prices — is giving it an extra bump in attendance and revenue.

Staying open year-round also helps the zoo keep its staff, instead of having to lay off and rehire workers seasonally, said Chief Financial Officer Nancy Noppenberger. By opening Fridays through Mondays, more than 20 permanent positions were created, she said.

“We want to be a good employer for the people of Baltimore,” Noppenberger said. “We looked at historic attendance and found there was some pretty good attendance in January and February. So we’re hopeful to generate that much additional revenue.”

The added costs of keeping the zoo open are $43,000 for maintaining the visitor center, fuel for the tram and ticketing personnel, Noppenberger said.

Each day, zookeepers assess weather conditions to decide whether particular animals will be safe and healthy outdoors. Among the winter staples are snowy owls, polar bears and arctic foxes. The idea of keeping the zoo open in the winter was an idea President Don Hutchinson considered since he took the post in January 2008, said spokeswoman Jane Ballentine.

Watch video from the Maryland Zoo in winter

“The fact of the matter is, the animals require care every day of the year, where there are people there or not,” said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “Incrementally, the zoo has to make sure visitor services staff is set at the appropriate level.”

Not even a chilly Monday morning deterred zoo fans and bird watchers from showing up for a bird-watching trek through zoo grounds.

Mary Brady, a member of Friends of Druid Hill, brought her binoculars and a thermos of tea to catch the sea gulls and woodpeckers.

“The zoo has so much potential,” Brady said. “It’s financially doing better, but it’d be great if they could maintain the old Victorian parts of the zoo, and I want to help it.”

Brady is one of the hundreds who have visited the zoo during its winter extension. New Year’s Day brought 522 visitors. The next day brought 157 visitors. As of Monday, the zoo has seen 890 visitors this year.

Attendance last year increased 5 percent from 2009’s numbers, which were down by the same amount from 2008 numbers. Visitor revenues also decreased by $276,359, or 13 percent, in 2009. The zoo had a slight setback in the beginning of 2010, after snowstorms caused $2.5 million in damages and salaries for staff working overtime.

But since starting its 2011 fiscal year in July, the zoo has taken a number of steps to bring in revenue and visitors.

To help boost membership, the zoo created a Groupon deal before Christmas that discounted memberships by 50 percent. The two-day sale pulled in 3,999 new members.

The offer was part of a plan to boost membership numbers and reach out to a younger demographic, said Steve Rosenfeld, zoo director of corporate and community relations.

Last year, the zoo collected $1 million through memberships, and this year officials are hoping to beat that number of 10 percent, Ballentine said.

The zoo had 10,000 household members before the Groupon deal. Buyers were able to purchase an individual membership for $30. A one-year family membership was discounted to $45. The deal created $100,000 in membership revenue, although the full year-long impact won’t be known until next year, Noppenberger said.

Zoo officials say they hoped many of the Groupon purchases would bring in visitors during the winter.

To give winter visitors something new, the zoo is also creating events. The first is a catered breakfast with the polar bears Jan. 22. More than 75 $60 non-member tickets and $45 member tickets have been sold for the event, which can accommodate 150 people, Ballentine said.

The zoo also is bringing back its popular “Sex at the Zoo” happy hour event on Feb. 10.  Tickets for the 21-and-over crowd are $80 per person or $130 per couple. Last year the event was postponed until March because of back-to-back snow storms before Valentine’s Day, but it still attracted 120 people, Ballentine said.

Admission during January and February is $8 for adults and $5.50 for children over the age of 2.

The zoo will resume normal operation and ticket prices on March 1. Weekday prices will be $14 for adults and $10 for children over 2 years; weekend prices will be $16 for adults and $11 for children.