Why Master Plan?

A few months ago, I visited with a potential client–who will remain unnamed– dealing with a complicated case of left-overs.  An older institution with aging and non-immersive exhibits, a disconnected and fragmented campus, and plans in the works for a sister institution.  As we toured the facilities, the director, aware of experiential and logistical issues of his multi-faceted campus, asked how I could help with one specific exhibit.  I smiled and indulged him in some top-of-the-head design suggestions about visibility and theming, but ended by asking, “And what are your plans for this space?” (indicating the mostly unused plaza surrounding the exhibit).

“Well, we’re not sure.  We want to change it all.  Eventually.”  master plan quote

I dropped my notebook to the floor and screamed, “Stop! Don’t touch this exhibit until you develop a master plan!”  I didn’t really do that.  But I wanted to.

What I did do was explain the importance of master planning.  Master plans are essential to the long-term success of zoos and aquariums.  They are tools for exploring and pinpointing issues. They are compasses to keep your staff on track.  They are road maps for the future.

But why, you ask.  Why do we master plan?

To answer the why, let’s look at the how.  Generally, master plans are led and completed by zoo designers, and should include three parts: Analysis, Product Development and Implementation Planning.  Each phase sets the stage for the next.

In Analysis, we look at as many aspects of the park as possible, from your market and penetration to building condition.  We pour over visitor surveys, attendance and revenue records.  We inspect each exhibit and every building.  We talk to staff from maintenance to keepers to administrators.  We gather and analyze, zeroing in on things that you’re doing well and things that are issues.  At the end of Analysis, we create a set of overriding Goals and Strategies for the extent of the master plan.

The Goals are big.  Increase attendance.  Become world leaders in conservation.  Educate our guests.  The Strategies are much more specific—and in direct response to the Analysis.

Brookfield Zoo's Great Bear Wilderness came out of the master plan. From Ragnar Benson Construction

For example, if our goal is to create a financially sustainable organization, some strategies may include adding a new dining facility, increasing appeal of special events rental facilities, or creating budget-friendly new attractions.

These Goals and Strategies inform and guide the Product Development process; they pinpoint specific tasks to be achieved, specific projects to be created.  And in the Product Development stage, we delve into these projects.  We brainstorm and explore multiple options for projects—creating many more ideas than what we could feasibly achieve in the master plan period.  With these options in hand, we systematically evaluate each through the filter of the master plan goals—which often includes market testing.  At the end of the Product Development phase, we’ll have a list of selected projects with conceptual storylines, plans, sketches, imagery and rough estimates.

Tulsa Zoo Master Plan, from Tulsa ZooWith these projects defined, we finish the master plan by completing an Implementation plan.  This phase allows us to understand ‘how’ to get these projects instated.  We create a phasing plan—when will each project be rolled out?—and a funding plan—how much capital will the zoo need to raise by what dates?  Finally, we create illustrative site plans defining what the zoo will look like at determined intervals (ie every 1, 3, or 5 years).

At the end, the zoo will walk away with a comprehensive plan to achieve specific goals over a set timeline.  Generally, master plans plan 10-15 years out.  Of course, things come up and even the best laid plans get waylaid.  These surprises are exactly why master plans are so important.  Because we spent so much time creating the guiding Goals and Strategies, any new issue that comes up should be tackled through the same lenses as the planned projects.  Of course, Goals and Strategies may be adjusted over the years, but if the zoo finds their strategic outlook has changed dramatically from the master plan…it’s time to master plan again!

“The Master Plan gave us direction to accomplish these goals and puts us on the path to creating a more enjoyable, interactive and rich experience for the future,” said Stuart Strahl, director of Brookfield Zoo.

St. Louis Zoo's Sea Lion Sound project came from their master plan.  From St. Louis Chinese American NewsFinally, master plans are critical for zoos to move forward—logistically.  Through a master plan, zoos have specific projects to show off, to fundraise for.  The master plan provides essential visual and verbal descriptions that get the market excited and motivated to give.  Not only that, the master plan is a concise definition of who the zoo is (brand today), and where they want to go (brand tomorrow).  It’s a great handbook for employees, and a wonderful platform for marketing.

If your zoo doesn’t have a master plan, or its master plan is out of date, the best time to start a new one is right now.

5 thoughts on “Why Master Plan?

  1. Yes! A great master plan is like giving a themed attraction a backstory–it establishes the rules. It makes current and future design decisions so much easier, almost to the point that things design themselves (almost). When everything makes sense, guests can really feel it. Great post!

  2. Just curious, was the zoo that you’re commenting on in the beginning the Rosamond Gifford Zoo? Haha, the very limited description sounds like them.

    Also, with being a firm that specializes in conducting the master planning process for many zoos, how rigorous and strict does the process actually follow the framework you’ve set for it every time you develop one? Where do potentially new ideas and perspectives enter the process?

    • Chris,

      I cannot comment on the who in this story…:)

      But to answer your other questions, new ideas are brainstormed and developed in the product development phase. Our company tries to keep the first two phases fairly distinct as we believe a deep understanding of the issues brings about the best ideas–rather than just developing pre-conceived notions without unbiased examination. Oftentimes those closest to the issues cannot clearly see them or cannot clearly envision a solution because they get too caught up in the day to day details. This is why having an outside expert guide the process is so important. And guide is the critical term…the best plans are borne from a collaborative effort!

      Thanks for reading and for the follow up questions!


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