At Woburn Safari Park, if you see big-game hunters stalking their prey, it won't be the lions or tigers they have in their sights, but people.
Last year, management at the Bedfordshire leisure attraction introduced a highly innovative approach to tracking the needs of their customers: an external consultant was brought in to tag visitors and follow them around the Safari Park from the moment they arrived until the moment they left.
The idea behind this research was to find out exactly how people spend their day at Woburn, and to identify ways in which the visit could be improved. Some 20 families were tagged - they agreed to be followed and were rewarded with free entry. 'We were able to see the responses of different groups to different areas of the Park,' says marketing manager Cheryl Williams. 'But it also showed us where there were bottlenecks in our capacity.'
Among the tangible improvements that resulted from this study were a review of the capacity of the restaurant and the miniature railway and an increase in live demonstrations given by keepers to entertain visitors while they queue.
Highly commended in this category last year, Woburn Safari Park has managed to improve its already excellent performance and is this year's winner in spite of facing some difficult setbacks in recent times. During 2001, the Safari Park was closed for 13 weeks because of foot-and-mouth disease, and it was also affected by the opening of a new rival attraction nearby.
But it came storming back with 417,000 visitors spending pounds 5.3 million, making 2002's performance the best in 21 years.
Woburn (www.woburnsafari.com) impressed the judges on several fronts: the depth of its customer research, the smooth running of its operation, the overall quality of the experience offered, and the results it has achieved.
The Safari Park finds out how much customers enjoy their visit, and how they rate individual attractions, via a gate survey, which visitors are invited to complete on the way out. But it also embraces a range of other methods to learn about customers, ranging from analysis of their postcodes and lifestyle mapping to focus groups and membership of its Safari Club.
It looks at the preferences of customers in different age groups, and models days at different visitor levels to see how well its own facilities will cope.
All these different intelligence sources feed into a constant process of innovation and development. In the past couple of years, for example, new attractions including Walking with Lemurs and Elephant Experience have been introduced; in marketing, special days such as Valentine's Day and Father's Day have been promoted through e-mail campaigns for the first time; and new products such as VIP tours and Keeper for the Day have been launched.
The results speak for themselves: membership of the Safari Club is up 30% year on year, group bookings are up 25%, and, significantly, Woburn was able to increase its price at peak entry times by pounds 1 with virtually no customer resistance.
Visitors may come to see the animals, but it is people who deliver everything that Woburn serves up. Many organisations with such a high proportion of seasonal staff would struggle to maintain motivation, but at Woburn, the staff clearly love their jobs, whether full-time or seasonal. In the past year, recruitment and induction processes have been improved by a new personnel director, with the aim of providing a higher standard of service throughout the season.
Recognition is encouraged through Employee of the Month and Heroes Hotline schemes, but it is the way in which employees interact with visitors that really demonstrates their commitment to their job.
At the end of last year, after a highly successful season, everybody in the company was rewarded with a 10% profit-related bonus. 'This is not the best-paid job in the world, so it was very welcome,' says chief executive Chris Webster. 'And it's one way of saying thank you.'