Longleat Safari and Adventure Park has hired global entertainment design company, FORREC Ltd, to develop a ten-year master plan to build on the park’s popularity and success, and facilitate growth over the next decade.

Blooloop spoke with Bob Montgomery, Longleat’s CEO, and Matt Dawson, FORREC’s senior director of visitor attractions, about the challenging and exciting project to revitalise one of the UK’s favourite visitor attractions.

Longleat: England’s Largest Safari Parklongleat logo

Longleat is England’s largest safari park and the first of its kind outside Africa. It has a seven-mile drive through the animal park.  Longleat is the seat of the Marquesses of Bath. It is set in a thousand acre Capability Brown landscape, Longleat House, designed by Robert Smythson for Sir John Thynne. It is regarded as one of England’s finest examples of Elizabethan architecture.

The grounds contain an adventure park and a maze, but it is the safari park, where tundra wolves, camels, giraffes, elephants, monkeys, and the iconic Lions of Longleat roam, that draws visitors in increasing numbers year after year.

longleat ceo bob montgomery with penguins

Bob Mongomery: CEO, Longleat

Bob Montgomery (above) has been Longleat’s CEO since October 2013.  A Canadian, he began in the attractions business straight after university with Canada Wonderland, the country’s first theme park. He came to the UK for the first time when Lego was building the Legoland park in Windsor, staying throughout construction and the first two years of operation, before moving on to head the operation in California and then in Germany. He remained with the Lego Group for ten years, then moved to Herschend Family Entertainment and from there to his own operational consultancy business.

In 2013 he had a call from an old Windsor colleague now working at Longleat.

“He said I was going to get a call from Viscount Weymouth, whom I had met at IAAPA several years ago. He asked me to come out and help – they were going through a transition having lost their CEO, and the business was struggling.

“I came initially as a favour and gradually, a couple of trips later, was convinced to take the job.

Realising our Potential

“I’ve been here now for two and a half years, and we’ve had two terrific record years in ’14 and ’15, so it’s turned out to be a good move.

“With the growth we’ve had just in the two years, we’ve done well, and have a terrific team helping that growth. Essentially, though, what we’ve done is to put in place some of the best practices that should have been in place before, and are starting to realise our potential. This is creating a strain on the existing infrastructure, which is no longer adequate for the kind of attendance levels we’ve got.

“We need to come up with plans in a way that’s organised and spreads the investment over a manageable number of years where we can attack the infrastructure elements, but still be able to create marketing hooks and new experiences that keep people coming back.”

Longleat: 10 Year Plan

Mongomery says that at Longleat, “We have a very complicated situation here; we’ve got a lot of animal viewing, and it’s the kind of thing where you can’t necessarily move people along at a pace: it’s self-directed.”

In a nutshell, the aim is to figure out how to add more capacity to the safari park, how to move people more efficiently through the space, and how to get more out of the adventure park in the area that surrounds the house.longleat house

The ten-year master plan looks at optimising development areas. These have already been defined by the heritage management plan in place, improving the entertainment components in the amusement area, and looking at strategies for improving throughput in the safari park, allowing for higher levels of attendance.

Pushing the Boundaries

“We’re looking at, over the ten-year period, a further 25% growth in our attendance. So it’s imperative to size the property to be able to handle that.

“One of the things that has been so successful here is increasing the amount of contact that we can give our guests with the animals.

“Everything that we’re talking about is really pushing the boundaries of what is possible. I think we’ve learned that while the house and the grounds are really part of the whole package, guests are, at the moment, most interested in the exhibits and the experiences that they have with the animals.  So we’re focusing on that.”

aerial view of maze at longleat

Managing Volume

While the safari park is the biggest single attraction, the adventure park is, at present, a collection of a lot of small things: “We want to develop something here that creates the demand that would be similar to what the safari park does so that we can redistribute that flow of attendance and more effectively manage the volumes that we’ve got.

“We have a big castle area at the back of the grounds; it takes up a tremendous amount of space, but it’s not really a huge contributor to the experience. It’s in a good location, and would give us the most liberty to create a new experience because of its position and outside the views of the house, to create something big.”

He adds,  “We’re just at that preliminary stage now where we’ve looked at the candidates to redevelop, and have bigger ideas for new exhibits – I can’t share too much about those, but we want some exhibits that showcase the animals interacting.

A Unique Personal Experience

“Right now we have a VIP programme where people can pay a little extra and they get to do something specific. They might be a keeper for a day, or feed the penguins. They might feed the lions or have a back-of house experience to get as close to the animals as possible. That represents, for us, almost three million pounds a year in revenue.

“Our capacity is now limited by how much animals can eat – because everybody wants to do that. It’s really evidence that people want to have that kind of unique personal experience, and so we want to try to push that as far as we can.”

two children playing on a model rhinoceros at longleat

FORREC: Natural Partners

Montgomery had known FORREC for a number of years, having collaborated on projects with Herschend and Legoland Germany.  They were natural partners for the Longleat brief.

“I think FORREC is one of the best at developing a master plan and working through some of the really tricky operational things that we’ll have to look at over the ten-year horizon that we’re talking to them about.

“They have a background as landscape architects. This is particularly relevant here on a grade 1 listed property. They have recently worked on a master plan for the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard here in England. This was a challenge with similarly sensitive areas. Being familiar with FORREC and knowing how good they are at understanding operations like this, it made sense for us to work together.”

Creature Comforts and Engagement

On graduating from Princeton University, Matt Dawson (below) trained as an architect. He moved from a traditional architectural career when he developed an interest in museums, science centres and other visitor attractions. He joined FORREC in April 2012.matt dawson designer forrec

One of FORREC’s core strengths lies in its diversity. It has the ability to work within different sectors and with a wide variety of clients.

“We don’t specialise in any particular theme or any particular type of experience.  FORREC knows a lot about how to design for visitors. We know how to engage them at all levels, including keeping their basic needs satisfied. Believe it or not, just knowing where to put the washrooms and where to provide food – just the creature comforts – is a big part of our business.  Higher up the pyramid of needs, we know quite a bit about how to keep visitors engaged and entertained.”

A Very English Visitor Attraction

Longleat is an idiosyncratic, very English visitor attraction with an organic, unique charm.

“It’s fantastic to work on, ” says Dawson.  “It’s so much fun. And yes, it does feel very English and very eccentric – and it’s very successful.

“FORREC is known for big theme park works. We do a lot of projects with the major players, Universal Studios, Legoland and so forth. We’re absolutely thrilled to be working on something as unique and full of character as Longleat.”

people feeding a giraffe at longleat

Stitching Together the Safari Park and the House

At Longleat, the safari park is the star of the show, and, Dawson says, “it always will be. Our work is twofold. First, stitching together the safari park and the house itself.  It’s an amazing piece of architecture, and there’s the wealth of history and art. But it does feel a bit disconnected. It’s kind of this historic house with lions out back. And it’s the lions out back that have always been the draw.”

Combining the disparate elements that make up the Longleat experience has been key to looking at how to take the attraction forward.  FORREC has come up with something quite new in terms of safari park narrative, enhancing Longleat’s individual character and charm and bringing the safari park element of the experience into the whole.

Bringing the house and the safari park together comes down to storytelling says Dawson.  “What is the message, what is the overall story that stitches these together? Part of our work is about that.”

A New Narrative

FORREC’s game-changing proposal is to rethink the role of the safari park as part of a tradition of collecting for Longleat.

Montgomery explains, “Longleat House is 600 years old, and this is our 50th anniversary for the safari park.  In preparing for that we came to the realisation that the family, over that 600 years, have always had exotic animals. It was very much in the tradition of aristocrats [since the Tudor period] to give exotic animals as gifts when they came to visit.”

Animals have been entwined with the Longleat history of collection for much longer than just the life of the safari park – not only the collection of animals, but of antiquities, curios and artwork.

Story is the Missing Link

“Through this work, and through really exploring the storytelling aspects for Longleat, we are saying: this is the park, and from an architectural point of view, from a storytelling point of view, this is all part of 600 years of collecting. Rather than going for worldly or African themes, I think the big breakthrough for us is to say, let’s really rationalise the safari park and the animal areas we have to be more in harmony with the house. For us, that was a really significant change in thinking. It’s also a way of highlighting the family that has been intrinsic to the development of the whole place over the centuries. It is a family home.”

He adds, “We think that is really the missing link. In terms of being able to tell the story in a way that is unique to Longleat. It’s a bit radical, and it’s a little scary to think about that. But over the period of ten years or however long it takes, I think it’s a big idea that is much more distinctive and more us.”

It is an idea that re-imagines the safari park concept. It retains and plays on Longleat’s individuality. it also provides a story-thread binding the separate elements of the destination into a pleasing whole. Montgomery concludes, “…I wish I’d thought of it!”

ring tailed lemur mother with twin babies at longleat

Visitor Flow

As well as providing a reworked narrative for the attraction, FORREC has been tasked with introducing elements to streamline operations and increase attendance.

Dawson says, “With a master plan study like this, one of the key parameters is to set a target for the growing attendance. And then start planning for that growth.  With growing attendance comes pinch-points. You start running out of parking spaces. You start running out of washroom stalls and food service tables.”

The fact that the vast majority of people arrive within a very narrow time band. They want to see the animals is the biggest single challenge to be overcome.

“Generally speaking, at the moment most people arrive around 10 am. They want to go straight to the safari park because it’s the star of the show. So cars back up and the visitor experience degrades. Building more and bolstering the offer of the area behind the house with the other attractions is one of the long-term strategies. That connects to how it all hangs together from a storyline perspective.

tiger in field with yellow flowers

Orientation Experience

“It is a challenge, but this is a unique and charming place. We absolutely love working on projects like this.

“For us to to sort out that traffic flow issue, we would like to have some kind of entry and orientation experience. This would get people out of their cars on arrival and stitch the story together for people. It would also make sense of the landscape of what’s on offer – the house, the attractions and the safari park.”

On a practical level, this would address the issue of vast numbers of people trying to go through the safari park at once.

“The challenge of that is it is different from what has been happening. It would require people to park and leave their cars first. So that’s one of the challenges that we’re working on. We know that it’s a good idea, from our experience in the attractions business.”

longleat house

Working with Existing Assets

“Longleat did not start as a visitor attraction. It is a historic family home that has grown organically over time. We have to work with the existing assets as they are.”

“This is a Capability Brown-designed landscape, which gives so much character to the place. But, compared to designing a new theme park where we can essentially do whatever we want, here, our hands are tied in terms of what we can do physically. We have to be very aware of sight lines to and from the house. Also of not obscuring views, and the original intention of the Brown landscape plan, and to work within those parameters.”

Many constraints are about keeping the experiences tightly organised in one area right behind the house. This, Dawson says, is not all bad.

“There are benefits to clustering the experiences. Even small things, like how far a walk is – is it 100m or 200m – can make an enormous difference with the quality of an experience. It forces our hand, but it also forces a kind of efficiency and creativity about what we have to do.

“If I was writing the headlines that we’d all want, five years from now, they would say: ‘Longleat – better than it ever was.’

pitkin great hall longleat house

The English Rain

“They would express that it is still the place that we all love. But that it has improved. It has got new exciting exhibits. It’s easier, and there are places to go if it starts raining.”

Of course the English climate demands that the plans for enhancing the guest experience include provision for rainy weather.

“We have a huge problem when it rains. Right now, people can crowd into the restaurant, which soon overflows. Or into the historic house, which is not ideal. It shouldn’t be crowded with wet raincoats from a conservation standpoint.”

Dawson adds, “It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We need to take a close look at the food service. In the attractions industry this is a revenue source. But it’s also a key visitor amenity. Similarly, on a practical level, we look closely at retail. Right now, Longleat has one large retail shop, and numerous smaller ones. We’re looking at whether that large shop should be broken up into smaller retail outlets. These would be distributed around the site and closer to the exit. ‘Exit through the gift shop’ is a cliché, but still true. People don’t want to carry a shopping bag around the whole day. They want the convenience of picking up a souvenir on the way to the car.”

saloon at longleat house

A Sense of Authenticity

An overarching shift in location-based design and development is the move towards more authentic experiences.  A trend that should favour historic attractions like Longleat.

“There is this trend where people want something that feels more bespoke, more unique, more authentic. And with Longleat there is an authenticity – it’s a historic house. The safari park, although it’s a 20th century construct, is around 50 years old. It is, in its way, also historic. Part of our work, is trying to build on the storyline and strand that gives that sense of authenticity.”

Of course, any changes to Longleat have to been made, “without losing what makes it so charming and unique and special, ” says Dawson. “Because it doesn’t feel like you’re going to a Legoland or a Disney park.

“Longleat has a very unique character. We’re hoping not only to preserve but actually to enhance through some of the work we’re doing.”

Images: all images kind courtesy Longleat except Matt Dawson kind courtesy Forrec.