A Case for Benchmarking Customer Service Quality in Tourism and Leisure Services

Article excerpt

This article reports on a study at an Australian zoological property to provide a baseline profile of adult customers, their perceptions of service quality at the zoo and of implications for management. This study discusses options to secure information that can be used by staff to review existing customer service quality, as well as to stimulate initiatives designed to build customer loyalty, increase repeat visitation and to best use resources towards a sustainable customer focus at the zoo. Additionally, this article provides comparable results of a set of indicators of customer-driven service quality for benchmarking with three similar tourism and leisure service operations.

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A recent article has once again raised concerns for the zoo as '... a strange and unwieldy marriage between the lofty aims of conservation and science, and compelling commercial imperatives' (Powell, 2003, p. 29). Powell reported a variety of views, for example, the role of zoos in biodiversity conservation: it was not in the Australian top 20, according to Hugh Possingham. The role of zoos did, however, receive a more positive rank in educational value according to Quentin Bloxam from Jersey Zoo, who claimed that visitor satisfaction and conservation values could be achieved simultaneously (Powell, 2003). A primary focus of zoos has been in the areas of conservation and education; however, the reality is that most zoos in Australia rely on a mix of visitor and public funds to operate (ABS, 2003; Woods, 1998). It is therefore appropriate for more strategic research to be completed in the area of customer service quality (CSQ), including visitors' overall satisfaction with their visit, and learning outcomes as an influence on people's level of understanding about and engagement with conservation messages and the natural world. The learning outcomes should be considered to incorporate values-development and clarification, and outcomes that effect subsequent learning and behaviour. Given these issues, it is surprising that a major conclusion of two recent studies is that visitors to zoos may not be motivated to learn very much about wildlife or conservation (Ryan & Saward, 2003; Tomas, Crompton, & Scott, 2003). In the Australasian context, it is therefore appropriate to assess the state of CSQ at a major zoological property. Furthermore, as zoos are dependent on a large volume of visitors, including domestic tourists, it may be of value to make selective comparison of the visitors' perceptions of service quality with similar leisure service organisations.

As of 1997, there were 53 zoological gardens in Australia (ABS, 2003). These zoos admitted almost eight million paying customers, who generated close to $65 million of total income (or 49%), representing $29,700 per employee (of which there are nearly 2000). The largest contributor to the average zoo income is the paying customer and the largest expense is staff labour. Many zoo staff are aware of the need to retain this public support from the paying customer, and similar support from the informed taxpayer. The problem in Australia remains that the greatest financial contribution to most zoos comes from the paying customer, and this income base is not growing at the same rate of operational expenses.

So, what light has research shed on the problem of declining visitation? Research into the area of zoos as education and interpretation centres has tended to focus on environmental and tourism-related issues. According to Woods (1998), the zoo setting and atmosphere can provide both formal and informal learning opportunities. Interpretation encompasses the animal and its exhibit as well as the relevant graphics, signs, booklets, keeper/guide talks (Woods, 1998). Research into the area of education and interpretation in zoos is often overlooked as it is difficult to measure. Churchman (1985, 1987) and Churchman and Bossier (1990) have contributed studies on the role of zoos that argued that when in their role as educators, zoo staff need to accept that learning is both cognitive and affective. …