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Chester Zoo’s New MD Barbara Smith on Why it’s All Happening at the Zoo.

Six months into her role as the new Managing Director at Chester Zoo, the UK’s biggest and most visited wildlife attraction , Barabara Smith (below left) took  time to talk to Blooloop about her own background and the Zoo’s ambitious development plans. 

barbara smith managing director at chester zoo uk

Opened in 1931 and  home to over 7, 000 animals and 400 species, Chester Zoo welcomes over 1.3 million visitors a year. Receiving no government funding and entirely self sufficient,   it is operated by the North of England Zoological Society ( a registered charity founded in 1934 shortly after the establishment of the zoo itself) and as such  its business operations must financially support the Zoo’s vital national and international conservation work  in over 50 countries.  Recognized as one of the world’s top zoos, it recently announced the “Islands” project, an ambitious £30 million development designed to highlight endangered species from the world’s islands and to showcase and support the zoo’s crucial conservation work .

Share with us us how you got started in the attractions industry.

I was very keen on sport and was a sprinter and so chose a degree in Sports Science at Liverpool as it was the best place at that time for the course.  My first visit to Lancashire was at 17 when I started at university.  Although the environment was a little bit different – I had come from Edinburgh with its beautiful architecture, pristine conditions in the centre and a place I knew well to a new city, parts of which were at that time experiencing serious social unrest, with riots and protests and the like. Once I’d settled in I did really love the place; the people, their humour and character. 27 years later, this was a big factor in my moving to Chester. I’d already lived in Lancashire and had great memories of my time there.

The role here in Chester is your third in the leisure sector in 20 years, having spent 10 years with each of your 2 previous employers.  Tell us about those roles and the key achievements in each.

After graduating, I went back to Edinburgh and was coaching aerobics when a maternity leave cover role came up in a community recreation centre in Dalkeith.  I was keen to get into recreation management so I thought it a good opportunity. The experience I gained there meant that my next role – assistant manager at Meadowbank stadium – was a natural progression for me.

Meadowbank is Scotland’s national athletic association stadium and was built in 1968 for the 1970 British Commonwealth Games.  It is a edinburgh castle scotlandhuge site with every sporting facility, however, back then it was viewed by many as something of a white elephant.  After the games it became an international stadium and event venue, and whilst primarily a sports-orientated venue with world class indoor sporting facilities, it also hosted a huge variety of non-sporting events from party political conferences to pop concerts and antique fairs.  It was here that I really began to work in event management.

One thing I loved about Meadowbank was that with over 50 different clubs and societies in place and facilities for 26 sports it really became the heart of the community. There were events and clubs for kids and toddlers, and it was a superb resource for promoting grass roots sports development and really encouraging people to get involved in sports and leisure.

I had first been to Meadowbank when I was 9, for the commonwealth games.If I reckon up the amount  of time I spent there training, and the long hours in my management role, I seem to have spent a lot of my life at Meadowbank!    

After ten great years, I felt it was time to diversify as the sports community was of a finite size in Edinburgh and I was keen to develop my career.  When I saw the job advertised at Edinburgh Castle it seemed they were looking for a person with just the skill set I had developed at Meadowbank.

Although the move would be from a sports stadium to a castle, I felt strongly at the time that the core skills involved were transferable -people management and working with large numbers of visitors.  I had gained solid experience in maintaining and running a strong visitor attraction/facility and making sure the visitors were given an excellent quality of service and experience at the facility.   

It was a good time to start at Edinburgh Castle as they had just set out a ten year development plan, so there was a journey into which I could enter. The plans revolved around a culture change.  The castle had been quite a regimented attraction, perhaps a trifle fusty and not as welcoming as it could be. We wanted to make it a world class visitor attraction.

We employed people who were welcoming and very customer friendly, with a focus on delivering a world class service to international and national visitors. There were also a lot of major projects, such as the creation of a new corporate function area right in the heart of crown square (the castle’s principal courtyard) a prisoners of war exhibition and an education centre.  These developments helped drive a huge growth in visitor numbers, and also a great change in the way we in which we engaged with schoolchildren. We also refreshed the catering and transformed the reception area – which had essentially been an old caravan/portocabin construction – into a state of the art visitor reception

We were careful that the building fitted in, so that whilst it was contemporary, a modern structure and not a pastiche, it nonetheless worked, was not strikingly visible and had no impact on the skyline. With the new visitor reception came a new ticketing system and brand new staff. We altered the entire culture of the attraction and the way in which it engaged with its visitors.  As a result our customer service was better, sales of memberships increased and african hunting or painted dogs at chester zoo in the ukpre-sales advanced ticket sales via the website increased. This transformation effected at the castle -coupled with the growth of Edinburgh international airport, which made the city more accessible to overseas visitors – helped to create a world class visitor attraction.

What attracted you to the role at Chester Zoo?

 I was very settled in Scotland.  I’d lived in a great place on the east coast for 13 years, the role at the castle was extremely rewarding and I was very happy. The ten year development plan had come to an end and I felt comfortable in the knowledge that we had realised our objectives and that I had achieved what I had set out to do.  The contact from Chester Zoo came out of the blue.  Once I had found out about the role and about the Zoo and its plans for the future, I saw that it was a fantastic opportunity.  I loved Chester straight away. In fact it is not dissimilar to Edinburgh, with its tremendous heritage, history and culture and I felt I’d be happy living there with my family.

I was really pleased to be offered the job and I gladly accepted.  It was hard to leave Edinburgh, it’s a wonderful city and I had many friends and family there, and also a great network of people in the attractions  industry who knew and respected me.  I didn’t really have any contacts in Chester so from that perspective it was a fresh challenge.  However, as my background shows, I am always determined to succeed, I am loyal and I’m willing to invest the time and energy  to see things through. The role at the Zoo attracted me for many reasons: the superb and dedicated  staff, the Zoo’s outstanding international reputation , its position as the UK’s leading wildlife attraction and the area itself. I  was also really excited to be involved in the “Natural Visions” project .

Each of my jobs has been a journey and has needed me to  plan for long term growth and development.  At the castle I had started at the outset with their  ten year plan, here at Chester there are ambitious development plans to transform the Zoo over the next 10/15 years and I am really looking forward to helping drive these forward. Getting my teeth into something as enormous as the Islands project is tremendously exciting.

What are your role and responsibilities?

My role is that of Managing Director, a newly created role.  The new Director General, Dr Mark Pilgrim deals with conservation and education. I’ve been giraffe at the uk's chester zoobrought in to look after the business operations and probably the culture change aspects too.

Do you think it a disadvantage that you do not have a Zoo or animal background ?

No.  Whilst there would doubtless be some advantages to my having worked in Zoos or wildlife attractions, equally I feel that there are strong benefits of my not having such a background. I can come to the role with an open mind and without preconceptions, I can look at the business objectively and bring in fresh ideas.  When I went to the castle, I knew sport but I didn’t know castles.  I think I am also well placed to look at the Zoo from a visitor’s perspective, as my experience is all about delivering quality of service, not by focusing primarily on sales, but by helping visitors feel relaxed and happy and giving them a great experience.  If we give them a rewarding visit, they will come back, they will tell their friends . When they are at the Zoo they will spend time in the shops and restaurants and there they will eat and drink and buy gifts. It’s more of a holistic approach as opposed to just hard nosed commercialism.

At Edinburgh castle, you commented that factors affecting increased visitor numbers were low cost flights from Europe (you saw a direct correlation in the origin of  visitors) and the growth of the cruise ship market, with more cruise groups visiting. Where do the Zoo’s visitors come from and how are you looking to develop/change this?

One great thing for me is that the Zoo has a great base and visitors are loyal. People come back every year and grow up with the Zoo. Our catchment area is a 1 or 2 hour drive.  We are building up our membership. We are linking with Virgin trains, there is a 2 hr fast train from London and we are already seeing the benefits. Transport links are crucial to us. Liverpool has a cruise terminal and we are close to both Liverpool and Manchester airports, each of which has regional and international terminals, so I really think our new developments will put us much higher on the international scale in terms of marketing.  We are a charity so conservation and welfare is our priority, the field programmes are second to none and we are extremely proud of our work.

The £30 million “Islands” development was announced recently as the first phase of the “Natural Vision” project. What can you tell us about Islands, and about further phases (see Chester Zoo unveils £30m “Islands”)

The original plans have been altered slightly as the North West Development Agency, which had been helping us fund the project, cannot do so anymore, so we are not in a position to carry through  the whole plan at once. The hotel, education centre and other components of the original plan are on hold for now. 

We’ve  brought one later phase of the project forward. The “Islands” project is a hugely significant development and will focus on the islands of Sumatra, Madagascar, Borneo, Mauritius and the Philippines, showcasing some really different and special animals and delivering an amazing, highly immersive experience to our visitors, with an exciting boat ride and really close up eye to eye contact with the animals. The project will align closely with a lot of the work we are doing in the field in our many international conservation initiatives. The Islands is expected to open in 2014 and alongside the animals and the boat adventure there will be cafes and retail outlets.

dinosaur t-rex at chester zoo ukThe Natural Vision project, the whole master plan, including the bio-dome is still very much alive : we are looking at 3 phases over a 15 yr period and so this really is an immensely exciting time in the Zoo’s history.

What have been the key differences between working with visitors to a castle and to a Zoo?  

There are differences and they are quite marked.  In Edinburgh, the visitors were very international; we had a lot of couples, more older people, a lot of education visits, mostly people were over 35.  We also had a lot of people who were in Edinburgh for a city break and so the castle was just one of the things they would do. They’d be looking for restaurants, culture, art and the castle was part of that whole experience. The Zoo is very much a family visitor attraction, a fun day out – there is a lot of laughter and joy, a lot of smiling faces. Here at the Zoo it is lovely to walk out and see the sheer amount of fun the children and families are having.

What key initiatives/changes have you introduced since starting?

One major refurbishment is the new June’s Pavilion. We started working with Heathcotes Outside  (set up in 1997 by Michelin-starred chef Paul Heathcote MBE) to change the whole catering delivery and ambience; we overhauled the  menus completely, looking at food and supplier chain provenance and opened the £1 million redevelopment in April.  Whilst maintaining value for money is still key – we are a family attraction –  we now have a food court offering , a deli with fresh meat and fish, lovely bread and true English fish ‘n’ chips and top quality meats. There is a wood burning stove for pizzas and fresh pasta.  

What new experiences will the Zoo offer visitors this year? 

We are particularly proud of our new painted dogs exhibit. It was opened recently by conservationist Tony Fitzjohn OBE, (Field Director of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, Tanzania and recently awarded the Zoo’s gold medal for his conservation work) and Dr Mark Pilgrim, the Zoo’s Director General.  The seven dogs came from Sweden and the females were given names after a competition on our Facebook page. The Facebook page is quite new yet already has over 18, 000 "likes", so we do see social networking as a big area of growth for us. 

We also have the new restaurant, and a fantastic dinosaur exhibit in the summer (see Animated dinosaurs to visit Chester Zoo).

I have found the last 6 months, since starting at the Zoo, wonderful. What‘s been truly overwhelming has been the dedication and drive of the staff;  it is so apparent that they are extremely  passionate about what they do.  For me it’s the people that make the job.

You’ve an hour to walk around the Zoo, which animals would you visit, any favourites?

The first animal I made friends with was one you might not expect. One of my first experiences at the Zoo was when I spent time with the vetinerary team, and observed one of our warty pigs having an operation.  It was amazing to see the passion and dedication of the team and the skills involved.  The elephants are of course overwhelming and what most people tend to gravitate to when they arrive at the Zoo – there have been 2 babies since I started.   I’d have to say that my all time favourites are the cheetahs.

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