Daily Operations and Long-Term Financial Health

As a not-for-profit organization, the Calgary Zoo is not motivated by the “bottom line”; however, it does operate in a business-like manner as measured in reference to delivering on its triple bottom line – economic, environmental and social outcomes that the community trusts and is willing to support. The keys to creating a sustainable financial model are to thoroughly understand the audience and their needs, manage operational expenses, maximize earned revenue, and increase regular contributed funding by building a strong case for support. This can be accomplished by demonstrating the zoo’s value as an economic, community development and tourism driver for the region.


Inspiring Change focuses on the aspects of building earned income primarily through increased attendance, but also identifies opportunities to increase revenue through ancillary services, longer stay times and repeat visitation. Operational expenses have been considered in terms of efficiencies and overall costs; however, detailed calculations are still to be completed for some aspects of development.


The planning process began with a thorough review of the zoo’s existing physical plant and operations in order to better understand the ongoing maintenance and operational costs to the business, and attempt to bring them into a sustainable relationship with the business model. Each animal, area and facility was reviewed to assess its contribution to the zoo’s mission, and for its ability to minimize operational costs while maximizing animal welfare and guest engagement. A long-term financial viability assessment and thorough risk assessment were also completed to understand and mitigate risks as well as the implications of the development on the zoo’s financial sustainability.


A zoological garden is never complete – guests continually seek new experiences, world standards for animal welfare demand constant improvements in animal habitats and care, and conservation needs continue to escalate. For a zoo to remain relevant, it must seek to continually grow and evolve to keep pace through a balanced mix of new and renovated exhibits, along with updated and new interpretation, guest services and educational programs. For these reasons, zoos require significant investment to build, maintain and operate.


The Calgary Zoo’s campus is large and complex; its mandate of wildlife conservation and animal welfare require that continual improvements be made to facilities as scientific knowledge and guest expectations change. Inspiring Change takes a measured approach to defining the future, recognizing that the quality of the experience and the quality of the facilities must be maintained – especially in a northern climate – but seeks ways to lower costs where possible and outlines a plan that incorporates a gradual implementation over time.

Working with the Climate

A dilemma shared by most northern zoos is the desire to build indoor spaces in an effort to attract more off-season guests. The reality is that most guests visit to be outside and weather is a primary influence on their decision to attend on any given day. They visit in the company of their families and like-minded guests to celebrate the seasons, but most frequently when plants are growing and animals are active. Visitation peaks in the summer, and it can be difficult and costly to attract significant attendance in the winter.


Inspiring Change seeks to strike a reasonable and effective balance in creating habitats for key species with significant conservation value and which naturally flourish in Calgary’s brief, light-filled summers and cold winters with exotic species that require assistance and specialized environments to live in Calgary.


The existing African Savannah and TransAlta Rainforest facilities, and the proposed Tropical House, are devoted to the display, care and interpretation of tropical species. The end result of establishing this balance is that the animal groups are primarily, but not exclusively, cold-hardy species.


Consideration was given to traffic flow and guest capacity to accommodate anticipated visitation demands without overtaxing staff, facilities or animals. Achieving greater efficiency in providing care for the animals and the site were also evaluated. As a result, back-of-house service access routes and the co- ocation of holding/night quarters in many areas can provide both time savings and increased professionalism as a result of improved efficiency, close coordination and collaboration.

Achieving Balance

The zoo thrives by virtue of the quality of the experience that it continually offers guests. Because people make a choice to visit, often deciding between the zoo and other family activities, all of the components that contribute to the overall guest experience must be balanced to achieve the kind of memorable, informative and hassle-free “day out” that invites a loyal following and makes the Calgary Zoo a desirable destination. Simply put, without its guests the zoo could not accomplish its conservation work.


Inspiring Change examines the experiences that can – and should – be accommodated to support guest interest and provide comfort. The optimum guest capacity of the existing zoo site, while still maintaining an enjoyable guest experience, was reviewed as well as the impact that projected increased attendance would have over time - both essential in the development of the future business case.


Well-designed, naturalistic exhibits organized as “exhibit zones” or biomes form the basis of the design, but there will actually be fewer individual animal exhibits. Small, isolated animal exhibits are replaced with expansive, multi-species exhibits that provide better overall welfare, a more complex environment for the animals, and more engaging and immersive experiences for guests.


Providing shelter opportunities throughout the zoo will encourage greater visitation during shoulder seasons and such spaces will frequently double as flexible program spaces for a variety of functions and activities, including potential use for educational offerings. Washrooms and food services are more evenly distributed and designed with flexibility to handle mid-winter low visitation days, peak attendance summer days and seasonal special events. The zoo will continue its commitment of providing unique event and meeting spaces for private functions and special occasions. This broad spectrum of activities and events will enable the zoo to share its passion and vision with audiences that might not normally visit the zoo.


It is anticipated that with the implementation of various milestone exhibits, such as giant pandas, in combination with strategic marketing and attractive programming, there will be a positive impact on zoo attendance in addition to expected regular annual growth. This increase will be accommodated in each phase through the addition of exhibit viewing space, pathways and circulation areas, food services, retail, washrooms and parking. By incorporating a balanced capacity increase between guest areas and support facilities, projected guest attendance will not be compromised by over-crowded conditions.


The renewal and maintenance of facilities and the ability to showcase educational programming are other important elements to Inspiring Change. This capacity will eliminate the need to continually reinvest in major capital projects in order to drive visitation. A habitat that accurately captures the essence and excitement of nature and provides for fulfilling lives for the animals will withstand the test of time.