Data and the deep blue sea

Georgia Aquarium uses AI and predictive analytics to improve the guest experience.
By Christina D. Robinson, CPA, and Josh Cherfoli, as told to Ken Tysiac

Christina D. Robinson, CPA, and Josh Cherfoli say artificial intelligence and predictive analytics help enhance the visitor experience at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
Christina D. Robinson, CPA, and Josh Cherfoli say artificial intelligence and predictive analytics help enhance the visitor experience at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. (Photo by Matt Odom/AP Images)

Ever-present budget challenges make it difficult for not-for-profits to secure the funding necessary to make use of the latest technology. But Georgia Aquarium's long-standing commitment to investing in technology has led to implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics platforms to improve the guest experience in the name of preserving marine life. Christina D. Robinson, CPA, senior vice president, finance, and controller; and Josh Cherfoli, director of marketing and digital engagement, explain how the aquarium in Atlanta has taken advantage of new opportunities presented by technology.

Robinson: Our mission is to inspire awareness and preservation of our ocean and aquatic animals worldwide. It's all about the guest experience and having people build a connection and a love for those animals and creating that awareness. Hopefully, they become stewards and want to take on our cause. The overarching goal, outside of trying to raise funds and support our mission, is to make sure that people have a connection and a great experience when they get here. We want our guests to be able to experience things here that they can't experience other places, and I think a lot of that can be delivered through technology. We send our employees to various conferences and to visit other facilities where they are testing and utilizing new technology. We take that and turn it into something we can do here at Georgia Aquarium. Every year during the budget process we include funding for new technology-related projects.

Robinson: We are using AI tools to educate our guests. There are over 50 animals cataloged in our augmented reality guide in our mobile app. As you are touring the aquarium and exhibits, if you take a photo of an animal, the app recognizes it through its shape and spatial features. The guide tells you the species of the animal and gives you additional information about it. We used to have "nav cards" at the entrance to each gallery that showed a picture and listed the species of all of the animals in the gallery; however, the cards didn't give you much more information. Now with the augmented reality guide on our app, guests have access to so much more information that will enhance their visit and education on the animals.

Robinson: We use predictive analytics to anticipate the crowd at the aquarium. It is taking existing historical information and using that information to predict what's going to happen in the future (if all things were to remain the same). We report and analyze our guest attendance daily. To help us understand our attendance we look at the weather, events taking place in and around the city, school calendars for local and drive markets, promotion/pricing changes, day of the week, new exhibits or offerings, etc. We look at all these different factors to help us forecast what our attendance may be on a particular day. And then we say, "What can we do that could affect or change that forecast?" A lot of organizations do a similar exercise, I am sure, but I think we've done a really good job of looking at things a little differently in the past few years and taking different things into consideration. We ask what's going on in the city, what do we have to offer people, and how is that going to impact their decision to visit the aquarium.

We don't have a true dynamic pricing model where all throughout the day our ticket prices change based on sales and predicted attendance. We do have a pricing model where during busier times guests can receive a discount if they purchase in advance and come earlier in the day or later in the afternoon. We're trying to get guests to take some of that bell curve and flatten it out a little bit, pushing people to time slots that are earlier and later in the day. When you look at the number of people who are buying in advance on our website, it's a really large number, and it allows us to better prepare for their visit in terms of appropriate staffing, etc. It's all about moving people around, shifting times of day, shifting days of the week, and looking at all the data to structure our pricing strategy to support that.

Cherfoli: We use IBM Watson Marketing Insights primarily as an email communications tool. We use it to manage our customer database for outbound communications. We haven't really turned on their pure AI functionality. We did some exploratory work with their AI, examining tons of data, and honestly we didn't get any bright-line communication points out of them that would give us a benefit from the full AI functionality.

We've used the Watson Marketing Insights installation for our email communications tool for the past 10 years or so, and we continue to evolve and manage that over the course of time. We've done some pretty high-end database management work within the tool to give us the flexibility and ability to use the right data and communicate with our customers and our guests. We're seeing open rates from our email communications in the 10% range. As a function of the tool, we'll do copy testing to see which subject lines are working better than others. We continue to move to the subject lines that get better open rates. It's given us some pretty tremendous open rates and good customer conversions from our email.

Cherfoli: We also are launching an AI chatbot feature on our website. We recently launched our chatbot within our Facebook Messenger platform as well. The intent is to enable our frontline staff to focus only on answering higher-order questions from customers. The chatbot can deal with the basic questions — "When are you open?", "How much does a ticket cost?", "Can I bring the stroller?", "Where can I park?" — those kinds of things. We'll let the staff deal with the higher-order questions, like, "If I do the beluga experience, can I also do a swim with the whale sharks and manta rays on the same day?" The intent is to enhance the customer service as a result of that so that we can free our staff up to answer those more in-depth questions and provide a better experience for the guests.

Ken Tysiac is the JofA's editorial director. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at or 919-402-2112.

See Part 1 of the JofA's annual technology roundtable, "What's 'Critical' for CPAs to Learn in an AI-Powered World," as our panel of technology experts discusses the incredible potential of machine-learning technologies and how accounting firms need to adapt their thinking and update their skill sets to benefit from these advances.

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