Closing a visitor attraction and the opportunities that brings

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Mike Coe, Commercial Director, Bristol Zoological Society.

“If we want to save wildlife, and our vision at Bristol Zoological Society is to save wildlife together, we realise that we can’t do that in isolation on our own. It has to be together, it has to be changing behaviours of the people that come onto the site.”


Mike Coe (MBA) has over 20 years’ experience working in commercial and leadership roles within both charity and the private sector. Mike joined the Society in December 2021 and is responsible for the commercial and public engagement strategy.

Previous to joining the Society he was CEO at the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum developing funding strategies and vision delivery in conservation, education and participation at the National Arboretum.  Before that Mike was also CEO of Arnos Vale, leading the successful restoration and sustainable financial transformation programme within the iconic heritage and wildlife estate.

Mike also led the relaunch of the Bristol Aquarium alongside leading successful consultancy projects supporting organisational change and delivery within the visitor economy.


What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The decision to close an attraction
  • The vision for Bristol Zoo Gardens and the Wild Place Project

Mike Coe Skip the Queue podcast blog


To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.


The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Mike Coe



Kelly Molson: Mike, thank you so much for coming on to Skip The Queue today. It’s lovely to see you. 

Mike Coe: Thanks, Kelly. 

Kelly Molson: We are recording on a very snowy March day, but Mike and I are inside in the warm, so we’re quite happy. 

Mike Coe: Yeah, well, still got a bit of snow outside at Wild Place. We had loads yesterday and had to try and shovel that all off and get the site open, ready for the visitors. Our visitor services team were out moving water around the site and shoveling snow, but it’s all pretty much melted away now, so it’s still quite wintry looking out there, but, yeah, not so slippery. 

Kelly Molson: There you go. The visitor experience team, they’re the heroes of the day. Right, Mike, we’re going to start off with some icebreakers, so I want to know if I could gift you a month off tomorrow and you could travel anywhere in the world. I know, right, please, let’s put that out of the universe. Where would you go? 

Mike Coe: So when I left university, I actually travelled around Southern Africa. So I spent some time in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa. Really enjoyed my time there. I was teaching there and working in a rhino sanctuary and did a number of things out there and always wished, always wanted to go back. I’ll be back all the time, but actually, I never got the opportunity to head back there and then had children. You need a length of time to get out there. So, yeah, if I had a month, I would definitely go back and sort of retrace those steps and just see how much things have changed over that time period, from sort of 2000, 2001 to sort of where we are now, sort of 20 odd years later. 

So, yeah, I think I’d love to be able to do that and take my time and travel those areas. I’m a massive fan of the culture over there, but also, as you’re probably not surprised, the wildlife over there, so it’d be a great chance to see how that’s changed and transformed. 

Kelly Molson: Amazing. Would you go on your own or would you take kids? 

Mike Coe: I think I’d probably go on my own. Kelly, boy, I think as much as I’d love it, my little boy loves an adventure. Charlie I just think, yeah, sometimes, you know what I mean? It’s having to think about them while you’re trying to discover the place. Might be getting away a bit. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I hear you. It’s funny because we’ve always said if we were lucky enough to have children, they would be part of our travel adventures as well. Now I’m like, yeah, maybe not. I changed my mind on that.

Mike Coe: Keep your eyes on them, as well as what’s going on. 

Kelly Molson: Great. Okay, if you were in a karaoke booth, what is your karaoke go to song? 

Mike Coe: Probably Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer. You can imagine that after a few drinks, microphone on hand, thinking you’re a Rock Gods, melting that one out. It’s a classic. Classic’s spud a goody.

Kelly Molson: I feel like if you’re going to do karaoke, you’ve got to do a crowd pleaser that everyone knows the words too and then they carry you along, Mike. 

Mike Coe: Absolutely, you can’t go into karaoke singing a song that you can sing. It has to be something that you literally can’t hit any note on. And that’s definitely one of those for me. 

Kelly Molson: We could do karaoke together. We’re on the same level of karaoke skill here. Right, last one. Can you share with me one of your irrational fears? 

Mike Coe: Oh, cool. That’s a good one. Actually, mine is always I would say it’s about people letting people down. So I think when you sort of move up and you’re in leadership roles, you’re aware of what you can do. But it’s always that sense of or fear of, have I done something? Have I let other people down? I can let myself down, but it’s that letting other people down. So I do think I take great pride and passion in supporting teams, and if I feel I’ve let them down, I think that’s the thing that hits me the hardest, if I’m honest.

Kelly Molson: Would you say, because this is one of my biggest challenges, because I think I’m like a certified people pleaser. So one of the things that took at the beginning of this year was I need to be careful about things that I say yes to, because I put myself under a massive amount of pressure when I do that, because I don’t want to let people down all the time. So I’ve started to kind of just take a bit of a step back and go, “Can I do this? I really want to do this. But do I have the capacity for this? What pressure is this going to put on me this year?” But that is one of my biggest things, is a fear of letting people down because of that. 

Mike Coe: Yeah, and I’m the same. And you do have to end up setting boundaries, and it’s only you have to set those boundaries because by saying yes too much and doing too much, ultimately you are going to let people down. You just don’t have the capacity to do a good job. And I think we’re all guilty, everyone’s guilty of taking too much on because you just want to do a good job. But actually, it’s that setting those boundaries and actually understand that it’s okay to say no as long as there’s a reason for that. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. Boundary is the word of the year, I think. Thank you for sharing that. Right. What is your unpopular opinion that you’ve prepared for us? 

Mike Coe: I know, and I didn’t know where to go with this one, to be honest, because I’ve got quite a few. And this one, and I’m going to apologise now because I’ve got many Parisian friends. We work with some here as well. But I just think that Paris is a little bit overrated, Kelly. And I know, like I said, I’ve got so many friends from France and Parisians, and they’ve tried to convince me. I’ve been there a few times, but for me, it’s just expensive. I always seem to end up with bad service there. I had my wallet stolen there once. I suppose that set me off on a bad foot. 

And then seeing some of those sort of images, the sites that you’ve been expecting, and reading books when you’re younger, and then when you get there, they’re just not quite for me and for me, just wasn’t quite what I had expected. So, yeah, it’s going to be an unpopular decision and an popular thing to say, but I just don’t get Paris and the romanticism around Paris, and maybe I’ll be convinced as I go in later into life, and somebody will take me there and I’ll see it for what I should. But, yeah, Paris is overrated, Kelly.

Kelly Molson: Paris is overrated, statement. I really like this one. I don’t know how unpopular this is going to be. Interesting. I just got back from a conference, actually, where there was a Parisian speaker who was really funny. He does a comedy show in Paris about Parisians and their culture. And he said, “Yeah, we are rude. We are openly rude, and we celebrate in being rude.” And I thought, “Well, okay, yeah, at least own it.” 

Mike Coe: Yeah, maybe I don’t get that. Maybe I should just accept that they are rude and just live with that. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, go with that expectation. Again, that’s a very sweeping statement, and that may not be my opinion. Just putting that out there. That was what the comedian was telling me. 

Mike Coe: I will add to it to any Parisian friends of mine watching this, I love you all. 

Kelly Molson: Mirabelle from Conviuos will be listening to this, I’m sure. And I adore you. This is, again, not my unpopular opinion. Thank you. That was a good one. Well, let me know what you think, listeners. Let me know if you’re sharing Mike’s, how do we get Mike’s unsatisfactory opinion of Paris? 

Mike Coe: Yeah, my one star TripAdvisor review of Paris. 

Kelly Molson: Okay. Right. I’m really glad that you’ve come on the podcast today, Mike, because we are going to talk about something that we’ve never talked about on the podcast before and that’s about actually the decision to close an attraction. Sometimes we’re talking about attractions opening and all of the amazing things that they’re doing, but this time we’re going to talk about an attraction closing. So tell us a little bit about your background and then we can start to talk about what your current role entails and how you got to that decision. 

Mike Coe: Yeah, I’ve been in visitor attractions now since around about 2010 and then earlier through my studies, I studied leisure and tourism as well, but really got back into visitor attractions after a break, actually, with BP in their graduate scheme for a while. And I launched or relaunched Bristol, well, what was then Blue Reef Aquarium, but rebranded and relaunched Bristol Aquarium in Bristol, which was a great one for me, to be honest with you, launching a new product, new brand and a really nice new attraction for Bristol. So, yeah, growing and developing new attractions, certainly for me. And then on there, I was brought in chief executive of Arnos Vale, which is actually a cemetery in Bristol, but we was scheduled to close and we got some Heritage Lottery funding to reopen that as a heritage site, events as well going on there. 

So were the first people doing events in a cemetery as a heritage site, as a museum, and we found a sustainable model for it financially to actually make it pay for itself. So this heritage site would save, secured, rebuilt with the Heritage Lottery Fund money and really a great success story of developing another new visitor attraction in Bristol as well. Then over to Westonbirt the National Arboretum, supporting Forestry England in the development and growth of Westonbirt the National Arboretum and some great new developments there. So always growing new commercial opportunities within visitor attractions. And then this opportunity with Bristol Zoological Society, which is very different, of course, because I hadn’t closed a visitor attraction before. 

But, yeah, that was what I moved over to Bristol Zoological Society to which, although I say it’s about closing Bristol Zoo, it was a lot more than that, of course. So it’s the closure of Bristol Zoo Gardens after 186 years, but actually the future and the positivity for the society that brings, because we also own an attraction called Wild Place Project. And the sale of the proceeds from the sale of Bristol Zoo Gardens that’s going to be moved into, ploughed into the Wild Place Project with a brand new zoo for Bristol in effect and really reimagining what the zoo of the future should be. So, yeah, that’s where it’s gone from growing new visitor attractions to closing one and developing another one. 

Kelly Molson: Yes. So it’s come full circle, isn’t it? We started off that quite negatively, didn’t we? But actually there’s some really incredible opportunities that are coming from this experience. So we’re going to start kind of at the beginning part of it, though. So, like you said, Bristol Zoo closed in September 2022 after 186 years. Got absolutely phenomenal. What was the decision behind it? What was the reason for that happening? 

Mike Coe: Yeah, it’s one of those decisions, I think if you were to ask the Trust now, they probably should have taken earlier, in my view. So for a number of years, Bristol Zoo Gardens had been its revenues have been reducing and then in decline. So it had been losing money for a number of years over the decade before it. And it’s a bit like that Region Beta Paradox. Have you heard of that?  And actually, what the Region Beta Paradox says is essentially a theory that sometimes the worse things are, the better the final outcome will be because you actually act on it and you actually make a change and you do something about it. So the recovery can be a lot quicker from a much worse situation. That worse situation, of course, was COVID. 

So that really hits the charity reserves, in effect. And really, at that point, that decision had to be taken that they could no longer take the losses from Bristol Zoo Gardens and the site itself was crumbling. So the amount of investment that would have been required to restore Bristol Gardens as a visitor attraction, that wasn’t falling effectively, the infrastructure was crumbling, so it would have taken a huge amount of investment to keep the site going in a space that had reduced visitor numbers year after year after year. So that was kind of the financial and commercial decision to close it. But the other thing, of course, is that Bristol Zoo Gardens was a twelve acre site, so quite a small inner city zoo. 

Welfare standards amongst animals have changed from where they were 186 years ago into what size enclosures animals need for their welfare now. And Bristol Zoo Gardens, great space, but unfortunately just was too small to be able to provide the levels of welfare standards that are required now in zoology. So we’re over here at Wild Place, ten times bigger than the sites at Bristol Zoo Gardens and the ability to develop enclosures far bigger than we were able to be, able to do at Bristol Zoo Gardens. So it wasn’t just this commercial decision that we had to close the zoo. It’s also, quite rightly, an animal welfare situation. 

And what we can offer here is much better space and the chance with the money from that, the chance to develop a brand new type of zoo over here at Wild Place, a zoo of the future, where animals that we work with are involved in our conservation projects around the world. So it’s not just about putting animals in for entertainment, it’s about actually the purpose of those animals in terms of conservation and their conservation status. 

Kelly Molson: Let’s talk about that then, because I’d love to know kind of what the vision is for what you’re now kind of building on and that kind of positive aspect of it. 

Mike Coe: Yeah. And I think we start off it is about the animals that we have in the New Bristol Zoo. And the New Bristol Zoo will be developed with the sale of Bristol Zoo Gardens over the course of the next five to ten years. And the enclosures that will be here at first are much bigger, so the animals are in a more natural environment. So almost as you’re walking through the gates, you’re arriving somewhere other that you’re almost on an on foot safari. So, you know, the traditional type of zoo. And another controversial thing I’ll say is I’m not a big fan of traditional zoos, so I’m not a massive zoo fan. Certainly the modern zoos and the way we look at it is certainly the way to move. 

And that’s making sure that there’s much bigger enclosures, that you’re stumbling on those animals, you’re not just looking from fence to fence that you actually have to do a bit of work while you’re here to see those animals on foot. So this “on foot safari”, that’s going to be a theme that sort of overrides what goes on here. The species of animals that we have here are going to be involved in the conservation projects that we have around the world, be that Africa, Philippines, we have a number of projects around the world and we’re going to have the species here are the species that we’re involved in those conservation projects. So actually, this is just going to be an insight into the world of field conservation, our in situ work. 

So in situ means the work you do out in the field on those projects. So this is going to be an extension of those in situ field projects that we have out there, working with the same species of animals. We’re also going to have a conservation campus. So within that campus, we’re going to have university students who are involved in direct conservation work. They’re going to be here on site, so our visitors are going to be able to walk through that campus as part of the visitor journey. So those students are going to be there interacting with our visitors. It’s going to have a breeding centre, so they’re going to see the breeding work that we do both here that supports the conservation work around the world. 

So it’s that whole what we do in the field, what we do here, and the breeding centre, linking that all together on this on foot safari. So something completely different to a standard zoo, I would like to think. 

Kelly Molson: What a phenomenal experience for the guests that’s coming along as well. Because the opportunity that they could bump into students that they can talk to about their education path and what they’re doing and the conservation aspects of there, that makes that visit even better than it would be just if you are just going to visit a standard zoo. 

Mike Coe: Exactly that. And what we realise is that if we want to save wildlife, and our vision at Bristol Zoological Society is to save wildlife together, we realise that we can’t do that in isolation on our own. It has to be together, it has to be changing behaviours of the people that come onto the site. And a large proportion of those people that come on site are young people. We attract young people.

So it’s changing the behaviours of those young people for them to make correct, positive conservation decisions. And you’re right, you talk about them engaging with those students as they’re on site. We want them to become adventurers for the day when they walk in, so they almost become a conservation hero as they leave the gates. They come in as a visitor, become an adventurer and leave the gates as a conservation hero. 

And that’s what we want to do. We want everyone to come away with this impression of what they can do at home to make real world changes. You’re going to come and visit. 

Kelly Molson: You absolutely sold that into me. Like, I’m there. I want to be an adventurer. 

Mike Coe: We’ll get everyone wearing those Indiana Jones style hats as they come in, so they feel the part. We’ll get our public engagement team coming up with some really exciting ways to make them feel like they’re suddenly out on their in situ adventure. 

Kelly Molson:  Perfect. I can absolutely rock that hat. And I’m sorry I interrupted you mid flow, but I was like, “Gosh, yes, I’m really feeling this”. And I was like, the buzz that there is around this is quite tantalising. 

Mike Coe: Exactly. And it all relies once we get the sale of Bristol Zoo Gardens, then we can really start to make this vision and become a reality. And it’s much bigger than just Bristol. It’s this global conservation emergency that we’re in that we’ll feel like we’re a part of and it’s great that it’s in our city. Bristol is known for being quite different in the way it looks at things. We’re a great city, we’re an ingenious city, and it’s going to be great to have a zoo that does things a little bit differently, a bit like Bristol tends to like to do. 

Kelly Molson: Definitely, yeah. The ethos of Bristol is definitely different. This is amazing. So an incredible vision that you have there. Genuinely, there is an excitement there. I can feel it as you talk about it and the passion for it. I just want to go back a little bit, though, because I guess it’s been quite a difficult decision to make from a financial perspective, anyway. And from a heart perspective, you’re going to have a lot of team that have worked at Bristol Zoo for many years. And I know you weren’t there from the start of this decision making process. But how did you go about communicating these decisions to the team and what was their reaction? 

Mike Coe: Yeah, like I said, I wasn’t there when the initial announcement that the zoo would be closing. I know that it was an incredibly difficult decision, both making that decision, but also how that was communicated with staff. And the staff are clearly the first to be told before it was made public. And you think you’ve got a number of staff who have been there 30, nearly 40 years at that time. So it’s dealing really sensitively with all the staff, especially those that have been there that time. And then you’ve also, unlike, I guess, other attractions, where you probably don’t have as much attachment to the product, not that I’m calling the animals a product in a museum, you don’t quite have that same attachment. 

You’ve got keepers that have been working, say, with the gorillas for a decade, so they’ve seen them grow up and work with those. So you can understand how gut wrenching it must have been at the time for those stuff and how sensitively this had to be dealt with, because it was a decision that clearly nobody wanted to take, but ultimately had to take. And it was communicating that now. I was there when the actual final dates of a date closure for Bristol Zoo Gardens was announced, the 3rd of September being the last day. So I was there and we brought everybody into a big town hall and told all the staff that 3rd of September was going to be the final day. 

And you go through this curve of emotion, this acceptance cycle, and that first stage is real despair amongst a number of the staff there and working and developing those through that, then there’s that acceptance and then realisation of how we do that. Clearly there are as we move from two zoos to one zoo, there were some people that had to move on, unfortunately. But the good thing is we managed to do most of that through voluntary redundancies. So there’s very talking ones or two where people were actually made redundant. The voluntary scheme meant that a lot of people made those decisions themselves, luckily. I guess we’re kind of still just on the rise of that curve now. 

 So even now, although there’s this great positivity around the future, there’s still people still trying to get used to having moved over from Bristol Zoo Gardens and over to the Wild Place. And we’ll continue to work with those people as well to make them see the vision of the new Bristol Zoo in effect. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, because my next question is general public and what their reaction was, and I guess it’s a very similar reaction.

Mike Coe: I think, absolutely. When you’re a zoo which is at the heart of a city or a society that’s a heart of a city, then you’re right. It’s not just that the staff that work there. Visitors have been visiting the zoo. I remember I was there throughout the final closing weeks and we had people travelling from not just around the country, literally from around the world, to say their goodbyes from Bristol Zoo Gardens, people that have been visiting for 70 years. I had one talking to and just, I guess, more stoic understanding the reasons why it was closing. But still that sense of nostalgia, and that’s what came out in those last few weeks, that sense of nostalgia, what the zoo had done for the city, really, and these people as well. 

But actually what I did get was this overwhelming sense of people understanding actually what it is time for Bristol Zoo Gardens to close. It is too small in terms of welfare and these animals and these enclosures that ultimately were just too small for them. And people got the sense that actually time moves on. And what was right for a city centre zoo back in the 18 hundreds is now not what’s right for the modern world. So there was that great sense of acceptance at the end.

The good thing is that Bristol Zoo Gardens will, within our plans, be reopened as a development, which will still have the parks and gardens open, so people will still be able to come and enjoy the parks and gardens. I think that’s the most important thing is what people said. “We still want to be able to see some of the old monuments, we still want to be able to see some of the old park.” Well, they were going to be able to do that, which is really exciting. They’d be able to see the old monkey temple. A number of those items are listed.

The entrance building itself is listed as well. So the entrance building is going to be turned into something called the Clifton Conservation Hub. So there’ll still be conservation work. We do a lot of conservation work around the Avon Gorge and Downs wildlife project. So Avon Gorge and Downs is a site of scientific and conservation interest, while the hub of that is going to be within the entrance building when the developments finish. 

So conservation work and wildlife conservation will still go on at Bristol Zoo Gardens, in parks and gardens, and then in the wider Avon Gorge and Downs. 

Kelly Molson: It’s really good to hear that as well. And I guess one of the things that we always talk about from an attraction perspective is how many memories are made at a visitor attraction, regardless of whether it’s a zoo or a heritage, a park, et cetera. So it’s lovely that the reaction from people is we still want to be able to see these places because they’ve got great memories for us.

We’ve taken our children there, we’d love to be able to go back there ourselves, and that’s wonderful. And I think, on the other hand, as well, what’s really good is that the message around conservation and welfare of animals is obviously a very positive one and very clear one that you’ve been pushing out, because that’s what people have accepted about the change that’s going to happen now. So that’s a real positive that feeds into the vision for the new attraction. 

Mike Coe: Absolutely. Like I said, we ran a campaign at the end called The Zoo and You or You and the Zoo, I think it was, and it was really just people sharing all those memories and all those pictures. Like I said, understanding that actually walking with an elephant or whatever they used to do is not something they can do now, but celebrating that as something that was done in our past and being a part of that, but understanding that actually we do have to move on. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, talking about moving, actually, while we’re on that subject. So we’ve talked about the kind of the financial and the emotional decisions that have gone around this, and we’ve talked about communicating to the people and how from a team perspective and from the general public, let’s talk about the animals, because I can only imagine that this is a logistical nightmare. How do you move a zoo? How do you move a giraffe down the road? How does it even happen? 

Mike Coe: Yeah, we’ll come back to how do you move a giraffe, I guess. But the first off, there are literally thousands of individuals at Bristol Zoo Gardens and a number of those animals are coming with us, but the majority of those are going to other institutions. So I think the first thing to explain, and I get this asked a lot, I’m still relatively new to zoo, so it’s something that I’m still learning and it’s that we don’t actually within zoological societies around the country, in Europe and the world, we don’t own our animals, they don’t belong to us.

They’re coordinated through a network of institutions, European Institute of Zoos and Erza have EP coordinators. Those coordinators coordinate those animals all the time between institutions because they’re involved in breeding programmes. 

So you’ll get breeding recommendations and the animals will be coordinated by those coordinators from the receiving donating Zoo to the receiving zoo because of breeding recommendations that have been flagged up. So animals are always moving in between institutions anyway, those member institutions, so we don’t own those animals.

That said, of course, this was a number of animals moving all in one go, or a lot of animals moving won’t go. Some of those animals are still remaining at Bristol Zoo Gardens while we build their new enclosures at Wild Place, and we’ll move directly from Bristol Zoo Gardens over to Wild Place. So the gorillas, for instance, will be at the Bristol Zoo Gardens for a little while longer yet, and so we’ve built their enclosures. 

So once those coordinators have got those recommendations of where those animals go there’s, then the paperwork has to be done, those medical inspections, certain animals, depending on the size. Have to be trained for a move. So we have to train those animals before they can move, to be able to go, if they’re going into crates, to be able to comfortably go into those crates and the trains to be able to do that.

So there’s actually, arguably, at the closure of a zoo, there was more work for the keepers than ever before. And the coordinators doing all of that work, moving them on. And we’ve moved on a large proportion, literally thousands of individuals. Admittedly, some of those thousands of individuals are insects and fish and things like that. That kind of bumps the numbers up a bit. 

Mike Coe: But you can understand there’s still an incredible amount of work that has to go on between both the society giving and the one receiving the animal, between those. So all of that work goes on in the background of paperwork. Brexit god love it. Does mean that if you’re moving something over to Europe, instead of having just to do one piece of documentation and paperwork, each country around Europe would require its own documentation.  So the paperwork minefield that we now have to do if we’re moving them out of the UK. So a lot of ours we’ve tried to keep within the UK, just for those reasons as well. 

And then, obviously, the medical checks on those animals, you can’t move them if they’re not healthy to move as well, the medical stuff. So I guess when you say, how do you move a giraffe? I guess then that adds even more logistical implications. What are a giraffe? About five metres tall. So I guess avoiding low bridges on a giraffe would be the most important one.

But also, again, even with a giraffe, that same process of the coordinators finding the right breeding recommendations, you’ve also then got to have the right transport. So specially licensed transport companies that are licensed to move animals would have to be found, I guess. I’ve seen the crates that they moved. I think our giraffes here at Wild Place, they came from Amsterdam, I think. And the crates that they obviously move in, especially designed crates for giraffes. 

There’s probably not many of those out there that you have to try and coordinate as well. So, yeah, those big crates and the animals have to be trained to go into those crates comfortably and those moves happen. One of our animal team does have a presentation on how to move a hippo, and it is the most interesting presentation of logistics that you can possibly imagine. 

Kelly Molson: We need to see this presentation, pop it in the show notes. 

Mike Coe: How to move a hippo. 

Kelly Molson: That blew my mind. I’ve got so many thoughts about that. I hadn’t actually considered how many animals would be involved in breeding programmes. So I think my mind always goes to Pandas, because it’s one that’s talked about quite a lot on the news. We always talk about panda breeding programmes, but yeah, I hadn’t really considered the fact that the zoo, it cares for those animals, but they’re not the owners of those animals and there’s so many different places and variables involved in where they go and what they do next. It’s crazy. 

Mike Coe: Yeah, and we also, obviously, I mean, our keepers have to visit those institutions that those animals are going to make sure that they’re happy as well, so it’s not just the coordinator. So we visit all of those centres and we review and check and make sure everything is right for those moves as well. We wouldn’t let animal go unless were absolutely confident that the receiving institution had everything in place for them. 

Kelly Molson: Percentage wise, how many animals are coming across to the Wild Place and how many are kind of going off and going to different places. 

Mike Coe: So as a percentage, it’s quite high, but that’s because within our breeding centre, a lot of the ectotherms, insects, lizards, fish are coming across into the breeding centre, so obviously that makes a large proportion of those. And it’s interesting when people think of animals, they always think of the large, cute, those iconic, charismatic animals, but actually that’s a very small proportion of the numbers that are held in zoo. So of those animals so we’ve really only got the gorillas, I guess you would say, moving across immediately over to Wild Place. And largely because, as I said right at the start, we want to be working with those species that were involved in our conservation projects around the world. 

So a lot of the animals that come to Wild Place will be from other institutions where they’re animals that we’re working in, those areas that are critically endangered, that actually have a conservation value to be in zoos. They’re not just there for entertainment purposes, like I said. So very few of the animals, the gorillas being the prime example of one where we are working with those in the field and endangered, so we are bringing those across. So a lot of them will not come from Bristol Zoo, but from elsewhere. 

Kelly Molson: I guess you need the time to be able to build the enclosures as well for them in a responsible way. And this is the final kind of piece of the puzzle, is planning for the development, like, how are you kind of developing the existing Wild Place site to accommodate all of the new things that you want to do? 

Mike Coe: And it is like a massive jigsaw with 100,000 moving parts of trying to make sure that we move the right things at the right time, open up the right areas at the right time to make sure that the visitor flows work. That the infrastructure that’s required because obviously, as we open up large areas of Wild Place, we know there’ll be an influx of visitors.

You need things like car parking, toilets, cafes, all of those sort of secondary things that make sure that the visitor can have a great day. It’s not just about building enclosures as well. So it’s been a really big piece of work. We’re currently doing some master planning work. We’re into more detailed design on that master plan now, which really starts to map out all of these sorts of things, visitor flows, the conservation model of where everything’s going. 

Our species list has already been defined, so we know which species are coming across and we’ve published those. So things like within the Central African Forest, which will be our first area. The reason we clearly need to put the Central African Forest area in first is because we got the gorillas that we need to move across. They need a home to go to. Conservation campus is something we really want to get in the early stages as well, because we want to get those students here and engaging and with the breeding centre in there as well, to get those animals all off site from Bristol Zoo Gardens as well. So some of this is dictated by the logistics of it and some of it is dictated by the need to improve the infrastructure to deliver the visitors. 

One of our core visions is to be sustainable, revenue sustainable, so we have to be able to have the secondary spends from the visitors coming through, because that’s the money that’s ploughed back into the conservation work in the field. And we do give a proportion of that money to our direct conservation in those countries and our native work as well. One of the big pieces of work we do is native conservation. So crayfish is a big part of the work. We’re doing invasive species another one. So a lot of native work. And the great thing about Wild Place, unlike Bristol Zoo, it has semi ancient woodland, it’s got wetlands, so we’ve got the chance to talk about native woodland and communicate native woodland in a way that we didn’t maybe we didn’t know so much of it at Bristol Zoo Gardens. 

Kelly Molson: It’s such an exciting opportunity. I was thinking earlier when you were talking about the animals and the logistics and the paperwork and all of those things, I was thinking, there’s going to be attractions, professionals that are listening to this going, “I don’t want Mike’s job. I’m going to stick to my theme park. I’m going to stick to my heritage site. I’m going to stick with my museum artefacts, because that all seems a lot simpler.” But actually, when you started to talk about the planning and the master planning and how you’re having to plan things, you have to think about things now that might not be developed for like five or ten years down the line and how that all works together. That’s really exciting.

Mike Coe: It is exciting. I was brought in to work on the commercials of closing the zoo and looking at some of the future stuff. And I’m sure there’ll be the more detailed planning paperwork stuff. We’ve got teams working on that, so it’s definitely not me. There’s a number of people, the animal teams, they’ve done an incredible job with these animal movements. I wouldn’t even know where to start with some of the things that they’ve been doing. They’ve been absolutely incredible, the whole team. So, yeah, I’m a very small cog in a very big machine here.

Kelly Molson: A very important cog, though, Mike, for sure. Don’t play it down. Thank you. I’ve loved understanding about this process and I feel real, genuine excitement about what you’re developing down there at The Wild Place. I think that’s going to be an absolutely phenomenal opportunity for the whole of the region to come and get involved, and I’ll definitely be travelling down and seeing how that’s developing over you. So thank you for coming on to sharing on the podcast today, we always ask our guests if they have a book that they’d like to recommend our listeners.  

It can be anything, it can be something that you love from a personal aspect. We’ve had all sorts of suggestions recently from marketing books. We had a marketing book on the last podcast and we had cook books from Abbey at Castle Howard. So, yeah, what have you got for us? 

Mike Coe: Yeah, it’s funny you asked this question. I’m not a massive reader of books, so I was doing my MBA about three, four years ago and I was thinking, when you asked that question, which management book? And even when I was doing the management course, all the management books and theories that are out there, porter’s theory, you got 1 minute manager how to influence people. And whilst I was doing that, I was thinking of the book whilst I was doing the MBA that I read and thought to my child, Charlie, who was about six or seven at the time, and I remember reading it and thinking, “You know what, this is possibly the best management advice that I’ve ever given.”

And I’m reading it from a children’s book to my seven year old child, and that’s a book that we’ll all know, and it’s over Oh, The Places You’ll Go, which is a Doctor Seuss book. Do you remember it? Yeah. And I was just thinking, like even when I was reading out some of the quotes to Charlie and thinking,” Actually, this is what management books are trying to summarise, but never seem to do it.” Try 300 words to do it. Quotes like, you’re on your own and you know what you know, and you are the one who will decide where you’ll go, that you’re in charge of your destiny. And things about that tells you to make mistakes, except you don’t, because sometimes you won’t. 

I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too, games you can’t win because you’ll play against you, but actually you’re going to be the one holding you back in that as well. So there’s loads of amazing management advice in other places you’ll go, and it’s something that I recommend that everybody gives to their child when they’re going off to secondary school or even off to university as well, because there’s some incredible quotes in there. You’ve got brains in your head, you’ve got feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you’ll choose.

And I think that’s kind of how I’ve lived my career up to date, is through the advice of other places you’ll go and making those decisions yourself and sticking by those decisions, and the world is there to explore. So it comes back to your thing about, where would I like to spend a month while Africa and going back there? Because that’s the place I’d love to go again. 

Kelly Molson: But you’re not taking Charlie with you? 

Mike Coe: No, he’ll have read the book and be on his own journey by then, bless him. 

Kelly Molson: What I really liked is that you were quoting that book, so I know how many times you’ve reread that book to your son, which is lovely, and I was smiling. It’s actually brought a little bit of a tears while because one of my really good friends has bought that book. She bought that book for my daughter when she was born. We’ve not read my daughter’s 18 months old, it’s not going to go in so much. Sitting on her shelf next to her bed, and I look at it every night. It’s kind of the last thing that catches my eye before she goes in the cot. And when you said that book, I was like, “Oh, yes, that’s just such a great book.”

Listeners, as ever, we give a copy of this book away, so if you would like to win a copy of it, head over to our Twitter account, retweet Twitter this episode announcement and you could be in with a chance of winning. Mike’s, fantastic book. 

Mike Coe:  That could be my controversial opinion that, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! is the greatest management book ever written. 

Kelly Molson: I think maybe more people who would agree with you that on a pat than Paris one a slightly less controversial. Thank you for coming on and sharing that. It’s been wonderful to talk to you. Where’s the best place to find out all about what’s happening? 

Mike Coe: Yeah. So if you go on to either our websites for Wild Place and the Old Bristol Zoo Gardens website is still there, and look at our vision and our future, and all of the information on the master planning work that’s going on there and the vision in the future are there, and please come and visit us and see us here. We’re right at the start of the journey, but over the next five to ten years, we’re going to really transform this place.

Kelly Molson: I don’t think you’re going to have any problem getting any of our listeners to come and visit. Mike, thanks again for joining us. 

Mike Coe: Thanks, Kelly.



Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

Give your customers a better online experience with our newsletter

Receive free advice that will enable you to create better online experiences for your users and guests.