Colchester: Zoo is fighting fit at 50

Zoological director Anthony Tropeano with some of the lemurs at Colchester Zoo.

Zoological director Anthony Tropeano with some of the lemurs at Colchester Zoo. - Credit: Archant

As Colchester Zoo celebrates its 50th birthday, Sheline Clarke speaks to zoological director Anthony Tropeano about how running the attraction as a successful business is crucial to meeting the needs of his animals, and others around the world.

Anthony Tropeano was just 12 when his parents Angela and Dominique decided to take on Colchester Zoo.

It was quite day for the youngster who was already developing a fascination with the natural world and had been mesmerised by David Attenborough’s new television series Life on Earth.

“The park was very different in those days,” he says, “but as a 12 year old you are oblivious to the problems it might have, you just arrive and it’s a garden full of elephants and lions and tigers and zebras and so it was all terribly, terribly exciting.”

The zoo had been founded by Anthony’s great uncle and great aunt Frank and Helena Farrah, who ran it for the first 20 years until the Tropeanos became involved.

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“Most people will know the history of the park,” said Anthony. “Although it started quite brightly by the late 70s and early 80s it was in a pretty bad way, probably due to my uncle’s ill health, and he decided at that point it was time to hand it on. In hindsight, if he was alive today, he would probably say he left it four or five years too late, but once you start something it’s difficult to let go.”

What has happened since is nothing short of remarkable. Under the Tropeanos’ stewardship the park has become one of the UK’s finest zoos, a major visitor attraction and an important local employer. It plays a crucial role in conservation to help preserve endangered animal species through captive breeding programmes, works tirelessly to improve animal welfare and offers education programmes for learners from primary school age to post graduate level. The zoo’s own charity, Action for the Wild, assists conservation projects all over the world and funds its own UmPhafa Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa which Anthony says was a ‘great dream of his’, finally realised in 2005.

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This is a business like no other.

“It a business you are very passionate about and certainly now, as we have grown, it is really a multi-faceted business. It’s not only about the zoo and the care of the animals, the conservation, the charity and the education, there’s also the retail element, the catering, the construction - there’s about half a dozen different businesses rolled into one, so it has fairly unique challenges in that respect.

“What we have to do is balance the economics with our role as a conservation centre because actually economics and conservation go hand in hand, and that’s true even if you were looking into conservation in the wild. If conservation doesn’t intrinsically add some sort of cost benefit to the local population it is probably going to fall down flat on its face. Whether that is right or wrong you can debate until the cows come home.

“So, what we try to do within the park is carefully balance our spend between what we provide for our visitors and what we provide for the animals. What we have got to remember is all the commercial outlets we build inevitably fund the new exhibits. The secondary spend by visitors to the park is very important to us because no matter how much we build undercover, we are still a fair weather attraction. So, we have to make sure we have those secondary income streams so if you have a poor June or July weatherwise then we are not looking at the bank balance wondering how we are going to survive the winter. So that’s where things like gold cards, keeper for the day, and the corporate things like team building all become important incomes for us because if we have a summer like last summer, then your visitor numbers are not what you would like them to be.

“The park is still a family business, we don’t have any big shareholders at the top being paid a huge dividend, we pay ourselves a very modest wage and any profits that the park makes all gets sunk back into the zoo.”

And the improvement and reinvestment programme is certainly impressive. A improved home for the orang-utans, for example, cost £1.25m while a new pad for the sea lions came in at a cool £1.75m. The next project, a bear enclosure will probably cost three-quarters of a million pounds.

“These are not small projects and in order for us to fund and keep improving you need to have the commercial aspects of the park fit and running efficiently.”

By doing that the Tropeanos aim to run the park debt free and even have a reserve in case the park ever has to shut, as it did for several weeks during the foot and mouth crisis.

“When we first took over in 1983 we were at that time indebted to the bank and it was a situation we swore we never wanted to be in again and we don’t want to be borrowing money to build exhibits so everything we do build is all paid for.

“We all learnt very valuable lessons through the foot and mouth crisis, the park was closed for about five to six weeks and although we had some money in the bank, it would limit us to how long we could remain operational with no money coming in.

“We now have a contingency plan for that – there is a pot of money if such an episode happened again we could remain closed for two to three months, if we had to, and survive on this emergency fund.”

As well as improving the retail and catering outlets, schemes to encourage visitors to visit more frequently have also proved successful. It has 50,000 gold card members, which entitle the bearer unlimited access throughout the year, and schemes such as animal adoptions and keeper for the day help encourage the local community to engage more frequently.

“Our gold card members are very staunch Colchester Zoo supporters and we are extremely grateful to them, they help keep us ticking over through that winter period, and we try to engage with them as much as we can to tell them of the improvements we make, to keep them coming back because the zoo doesn’t remain the same, it is constantly evolving.

“Paying attendance has dropped slightly over the past few years but gold card membership has grown and we believe that is because they offer genuine value for money at a time when we appreciate that disposable income, for many families, has decreased.

“We are part of the tourism industry here in East Anglia and we want to see the region and Colchester grow as a destination and I think the zoo has an intrinsic part to play in that. “We are the largest tourist attraction here and I hope the town is proud of us and whatever we can do to bring people into this part of the world then so much the better.

“These are difficult economic times but but what we have never done is disappear into our shells. We continue to reinvest in the zoo in the theory that when we come out of recession the the zoo is fit and healthy and we come out ready for the upturn.

“The investment is in services and facilities for the visitors, as well as the exhibits. We recently spent a quarter of a million pounds on plants and £300,000 on a new childrens’ play area. You look at the balance sheet and think well, that is a lot of money, but have a look around and it just adds to the ambience and how the park looks and we think it is vital. We don’t want to sit still. Fifty years is a time to look back but what we don’t want to do is fall into a lot of navel gazing, it’s time to look forward to the next 50 years and where we go from here.”

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