If you visit the Chattanooga Zoo on a Friday or Saturday during the summer months, there’s a good chance you’ll come across a group of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students near the entry gates.
The students aren’t there to see the animals, although an occasional peacock wanders into their vicinity. They are there to survey why you’re visiting the zoo and learn about your purchasing habits at Chattanooga attractions.
Rising seniors Luke Beaty, Tyler Fly, Annaka Hall, Austin Hamblin and Shelby Rector are Sport, Outdoor Recreation and Tourism majors—also known as SORT—in the UTC Department of Health and Human Performance. Under the guidance of Associate Professor Eric Hungenberg, the five are working on a zoo funded-project entitled “Chattanooga Zoo Impact Analysis.”
The overall project funding, which also covers research conducted by fellow HHP faculty members Dongoh Joo and Drew Bailey, was solidified in February.
“Part of this project is an economic impact study. We’re asking all attendees if they’re local or nonlocal, and—if they’re coming from outside of the Hamilton County area—we’re asking them to give us some information about their expenditures while they’re in town,” Hungenberg said.
“The second part is an improvement performance analysis. Simply put, we’re asking every attendee to cite what aspects of the zoo are important to their experience—from restrooms to vendors to walkability to places to sit down to interactive opportunities with the animals to the cleanliness of the site.”
While the combination of an academic program like Health and Human Performance and the Chattanooga Zoo might seem unusual, the tourism management component of the SORT program is “a way to tap into our community’s blending of sport, outdoor recreation and tourism services,” Hungenberg explained. “This is very relevant to our program as a leisure service that stimulates tourism in our city.”
He said students are involved in data collection to analysis, all the way to the presentation of findings to community partners to better understand how data informs strategic management.
The students began collecting data in early April and will continue through the beginning of August. They are hard to miss, stationed at a table adorned with a blue UTC Tourism Center tablecloth.
After visitors enter the facility, the students ask if they are open to participating in a survey. Those who say “yes” spend a few minutes answering questions.
Before they depart the zoo grounds, those patrons are reinterviewed to gauge how the zoo is performing based on what those visitors deem important.
“Some people are very friendly and want to know what’s going on and some are on a time crunch,” said Fly, who attended East Hamilton High School in Ooltewah, Tennessee. “We respect whatever they want to do. If they want to help us out, that’s great, and if not, we tell them to have a great day.”
Hamblin, a native of Hendersonville, Tennessee, said an essential component of the experience has been getting comfortable with the soft skill of conversing with strangers.
“I’ve never really been a person that’s been great with public speaking and presentations in class and stuff like that,” he said, “but coming out here and doing this has made me more comfortable in front of groups—just approaching strangers and having conversations. It’s been cool meeting all these interesting people.”
Rector, a 2019 graduate of Hixson (Tennessee) High School, said she had been to the zoo several times growing up but never thought of it as a tourist attraction.
“It’s very interesting surveying people,” Rector said. “We’ve met people from Oregon, Washington and Indiana; a lot of people from the north have visited. I didn’t realize that Chattanooga had that many out-of-town visitors.
“Heading into summer, there’s going to be a lot more traffic and a lot more folks willing to talk to us, so I’m excited.”
Hall, a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, was a frequent visitor to Chattanooga before coming to UTC; her mother is from the area and her grandparents still live here.
While she was acquainted with coming to town to do touristy things, “I had no clue how big of an impact tourism dollars bring to Hamilton County,” Hall said. “Being in Dr. H’s class and Dr. Joo’s class, we’ve learned a lot about economic impact and how tourism dollars are important—especially for the zoo because it is government-funded.
“The importance of the performance analysis is that it will gauge different attributes of the zoo that either need help or they’re excelling in. I’m learning a lot of great stuff by doing this project.”
Beaty said the students anticipate having approximately 1,200 surveys to analyze by the time they finish their on-site visits.
“We’ve already started inputting some of this data into the software we’re using,” he said, “and we’ll be learning how to interpret the data.”
A native of Nashville, Beaty said learning about the economics of tourism and how it trickles down throughout different levels of the city and its surrounding areas has transformed his way of thinking.
“I’ll be honest. Before this started, if I was one of those people coming (to the zoo) and you asked me to take this survey, I’d have said, ‘I don’t know; not today,’” Beaty said. “But understanding the good that comes out of this analysis for the groups you’re doing it for has definitely changed my narrative.”