You can’t furlough a Penguin. Experiences from the last 19 months at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland

In this Skip the Queue episode I speak with David Field, CEO and Lisa Robshaw, Head of Marketing & Sales at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

David Field, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) CEO, returned to RZSS in 2020 having been a section moderator at Edinburgh Zoo early in his career. David’s previous roles include chief executive of the Zoological Society of East Anglia, zoological director of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), curator of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and assistant director of Dublin Zoo. An honorary professor of the Royal Veterinary College, David has served as chairman of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA) and is the current president of the Association of British and Irish Wild Animal Keepers.

“I think Edinburgh fell in love with its zoo again. They began to value what they might just miss.”


Lisa Robshaw is a visitor attraction marketing specialist with 20 years’ experience of working in the tourism and hospitality industry after studying International Tourism at the University of Lincoln. She joined the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS)  in August 2019 after a brief stint agency side. Prior to this she has worked for Historic Environment Scotland, Continuum Attractions and British Tourist Authority (Now Visit Britain).

As Head of Marketing and Sales at RZSS, Lisa leads the teams responsible for the wildlife conservation charity’s marketing, sales activity, membership, adoptions, events and experiences . No day is ever the same and what she enjoys most is sharing the amazing experiences Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park have to offer and telling people about the important work RZSS does to protect threatened species in Scotland and around the world .  When she’s not working, Lisa can usually be found chasing after her young family and planning visits to the south coast of England from where she originally hails!

“Our visitor numbers this year have been amazing…We’re reaping the reward and the challenge is going to be keeping the momentum going into next year when we’ve got so much more competition.”


What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The zoo’s experiences over the pandemic, highs and lows
  • Why you really can’t furlough a penguin

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.

David and Lisa Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guests, David Field and Lisa Robshaw


Kelly Molson: Lisa and David, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I’m really looking forward to speaking to you both.

Lisa Robshaw: Yeah, looking forward to speaking to you. It should be good fun.

Kelly Molson: Well, let’s see how we get on with the icebreaker questions, and see how much fun it is going to be.

David Field: Yeah. I’m dreading this.

Kelly Molson: I’ve been quite kind to you both, actually, I feel because we’ve got two of you today and we’ve got a lot to cram in. So what is the worst food you’ve ever eaten and why isn’t it peas?

Lisa Robshaw: Oh my God. I think it was snails for me. And it was when I was 12, in France. So that probably doesn’t help. So we’re talking like 1990, giving away my age now. And we’re in this awful school canteen on this French exchange trip, we were forced to eat these snails. We weren’t rude to our hosts. I don’t actually think they were cooked particularly well because I think some of us were ill afterwards.

Kelly Molson: Oh gosh.

Lisa Robshaw: The texture, the smell, the whole experience.

David Field: Yeah. I adore snails and I adore peas. I’m not sure your listeners would particularly want to hear about my adventures when we’ve been out on … doing field work in Indonesia, some of the things that we had out there. But we did have to eat animals which were hunted and caught, and we ate. And they were kind of animals, which suffice to say, had a very strong aroma about them. So you’re in the jungles, you’re surviving, and it was not nice. But it was the aroma of their scent glands which permeated the meat.

Kelly Molson: Oh Gosh. Yeah. I’m getting a really lovely … a lovely image of that, David. Thank you.

David Field: It makes celebrity in the jungle thing a walk in the park.

Kelly Molson: You were the real celeb. Get me out of here.

David Field: I really wanted to get out of there.

Kelly Molson: Okay. Brilliant. Thank you. Okay. To both of you, if you could have an extra hour of free time every day, how would you use that free time?

David Field: I would do more moth hunting. I like trapping moths and counting moths. And I never get a chance in a morning to do that. So that’s what I would do, every single day if I could.

Kelly Molson: Moth hunting, can we just elaborate on this? So this is a hobby of yours?

David Field: Yeah. Yeah. You just hunt … and butterflies. It’s amazing. It’s the best thing in the world. And you just … every night you set at this light trap and moths are attracted to it at night. And then you get in there in the morning, first thing in the morning, and you’ve got all these hundreds of different species of moths, and it’s just the most beautiful thing. They are the most gorgeous thing that we never think about that just roam our gardens. And I’d do that every day if I could.

Kelly Molson: Oh wow. I honestly have never heard anyone have that as a hobby before. That’s something completely new for me. How lovely.

David Field: Yeah. Try it.

Kelly Molson: This is why I ask these questions. You never know what you’re going to get. What about your unpopular opinions?

Lisa Robshaw: Harry Potter books should not be read by adults. They are a children’s book.

Kelly Molson: Oh. I mean, no one can see my face because this is a podcast. So if you’re not watching the video it’s … Gosh.

Lisa Robshaw: But I don’t know what it is. I remember when Harry Potter came out. Again, I’m aging myself here. I was at university and I didn’t understand why people were going mental. And then I think right about the time of … in the middle of it all, they re-released the same book with a different cover to appeal to adults. And I was like, that is wrong. You’re ripping people off. It’s a children’s book. That’s what I talk about. No, no, no.

Kelly Molson: I am quite shocked by that. I love the Harry Potter books.

Lisa Robshaw: I’m sure they’re great. I’ve tried reading them. I just … they’re not for me.

Kelly Molson: What about the films? Fan? Not bothered?

Lisa Robshaw: I kind of class those as a sort of Boxing Day, fall asleep in front of it after a few glasses of red wine type of film. Anything that keeps the kids’ kids quiet for two and a half hours. You know what I mean? It’s that kind of thing. But I just don’t … I mean, this is ironic that I’ve been to a Castle and done the broomstick riding three times and my kids, and it’s a brilliant experience. But like grown adults losing their minds over it, I just don’t get it.

Kelly Molson: Oh my God. Well, David, I don’t know, can you top that for an unpopular opinion? I’m not sure.

David Field: Well first off, who’s Harry Potter?

Kelly Molson: What are you doing to me, David?

David Field: So perhaps this segways a little bit into talking about the visitor attractions and that type of stuff, but mobile phones should be banned at visitor attractions because it’s about family time.

Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s a bit serious.

David Field: I really do think they should be banned from visitor attractions.

Kelly Molson: I can see where you’re going with that. Yeah. Like being present, not on your phones, not looking for the opportunity to be on your phone, but just being present with your family. I get that.

David Field: Yeah. Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Oh, this is … isn’t it really interesting though. But from the perspective of being a CEO of an attraction, wouldn’t you want people to be engaged with the stuff that you have there so that they share that on social media, so that then drives more people to come?

David Field: They can do that when they go home. They can do that on their way there. They can do that every time. When they’re in, and particularly when they’re in the zoo, we want them to be engaged with nature, we want them to be there in front of them, not encasing them in some sort of cloak of electronic gadgetry, putting these barriers between them and nature and putting the barriers between them and their family. Live in the moment, not on your phone.

Kelly Molson: Oh, what a great quote. Okay. Listeners, I really … well, I want to hear what you’ve got to say about both of those unpopular opinions. Thank you for sharing. Okay. I was going to ask you what you do in your roles. But I think from your job titles, it’s probably pretty obvious to people, especially the people that are listening to this. So I thought I’d actually ask you if each of you could tell me what your favourite thing is about the zoo or the wildlife park?

Lisa Robshaw: It’s like choosing a favourite child, isn’t it?

Kelly Molson: I’ve only got one, so it’s really easy.

Lisa Robshaw: Yeah. Highland Wildlife Park. For me, it’s the expanse and the fresh air. I mean, I’m a city girl. I’m originally from Portsmouth. I’ve lived in New York and all this kind of thing, and I’ve lived in Edinburgh for 20 years now, but … or 15 years. But when you get up to Highland Wildlife Park in the beautiful Cairngorms and it’s just the fresh air and the space, and even when the park’s busy, it’s almost still silent. Do you know what I mean?

It’s just this sort of really relaxing place. When I get the chance not to be sitting in meetings all day, as is the danger sometimes when you’re on the kind of hamster wheel of working and that kind of thing. So I love getting up there and just spending time and relaxing and enjoying the surroundings.

Kelly Molson: Great answer.

Lisa Robshaw: That’s my professional point of view. I mean, the animals are amazing, and asking me to pick my favourite animal is always a difficult one. Red panda, but … penguin. Now see, that’s the problem. But yeah, that’s mine.

Kelly Molson: I love it. David, what about yours?

David Field: So, as part of my job … and I’ve been knocking around this zoo world since I was 12 years old. So for me, it really is about the animals and the beauty and that connection with the animals. And as part of my job now, I insist that I have a couple of hours … an hour or so in the day that I go pottering around the zoo. And zoo directors need to potter around their zoo. Because every day, every different hour of the day, every season, there is something different going on.

There’s a different animal, doing something different, something exciting. And my favourite animal changes each day. But I go out and because the zoo and the wildlife park are so different, every single time you go around, that’s what makes them so amazing and beautiful and inspiring and glorious, and why I’ve been doing this for 30 odd years.

Kelly Molson: Oh, perfect answer. I love that you’re just pottering around, just having a little walk around your zoo, just checking out the animals. It’s really nice. I’d like to do that. There you go. And I’d like to spend my hour pottering around the zoo if I got my extra hour. Thank you both. So the title of this podcast episode is You can’t furlough a penguin. Experiences from the last 19 months at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

Now, I was at the Visitor Attractions Conference a little while ago, back in October and you can’t furlough a penguin was something that I heard Bernard Donoghue say while he was given one of his very fantastic talks, as always. And I thought that’s a great podcast title. I’m going to use that when I get Lisa to come on this podcast.

I want you to take us back to kind of Feb., March time 2020, when coronavirus was something very new and nobody in the UK had ever heard the word furlough before. I can very vividly remember what it was like for me with a team of seven thinking, gosh, we’ve got to pack up, we’ve got to work from home. Is anyone actually going to buy anything from us for the next … I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen. I can only imagine what was going through your heads, having a team of people that you were both thinking about and thousands of animals that you have to care for, that you’re responsible for. What was that even like?

David Field: Well, I think every day you are looking back on that time and hindsight’s an amazing thing, to look back on how you handled it, how many hours you spent lying, awake thinking about it. But then, in some respects, we were no different to others. And everybody was facing a crisis in so many different ways. And this has been one of the most important sort of most significant kind of social impacts in our lives.

Hopefully, we’ll never get anything like this. My parents, my grandparents had world wars and stuff like that to deal with. We just had to deal with a bit of a pandemic, which quite frankly, we should all have been prepared for. It was coming. And the next one will come.

For me, it was very odd because just February, March, I was leaving my previous job, ready to come up to Edinburgh to start a new job. So I was having to sort of resolve the issues in one zoo and leave it in a good enough state, ready to come to Edinburgh, where my board, etc. at the time were already trying to deal with the organization that at the time, we didn’t have a CEO in place then, did we? You just had to react. You just had to understand that you had so little information that you had to be incredibly dynamic and react to situations.

And the crucial nature, before anything else, was just securing money, was securing funding, just so that you could make sure that you could stay open. And the difference in dealing with governments in the UK as compared to governments in Scotland, were miles apart. And so that was the crux. And you were so focused into that, that other things did disappear.

Once you could get the money, once you could get the bank loans, once you got that, then you could start some sort of planning. So that was the crux. It was money, money, money all the way, just so you could stay open. Now, as good charities, we all had some reserves, but we just didn’t know what the endpoint was going to be. And so securing funding was the be all and end all.

Kelly Molson: And I guess, so David, were you … I mean, you talked a little bit there about the challenges dealing with English government, Scottish government. What were the differences? What was difficult about that process?

David Field: Access, getting people to listen to you. Now look, we know the governments had so much on the plate that wanting to listen to the zoo director down the road was probably fairly low down the list. But it was trying to get the message across that you couldn’t, not so much furlough a penguin, but you couldn’t furlough a penguin keeper. And just trying to get those individual messages through.

But being able to get that through to Scottish government made life so much easier, having people that would listen made so much easier for you. To be fair, DEFRA were excellent, but it was trying to get to the ministers. The civil servants, hats off to them, amazing. But try and get through to ministers who actually make the decisions, was nigh on impossible.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I can completely imagine. And Lisa, so where did this leave you? Because I guess you then have to think of different ways to drive donations. You have to think about how you’re engaging with the audience who aren’t able to come to your venues. You’ve got to engage with them on social media, online, and virtually in some way. How did you even … how did you start that process and where did some of the ideas … and what did you do? Where did they come from?

Lisa Robshaw: I mean, for me, it was a massive learning curve. I’m a visitor attraction marketer by trade. I’m not a fundraiser. And it’s obviously a different discipline. Although we’re talking to the same people, we’re having to talk to them in a slightly different way. So I mean, back to that week in March, it was a sense of disbelief of what was going on.

All of a sudden, I had to put a different hat on and I was learning a new trade almost from our sort of development team, and all that kind of thing. We put a lot of people on furlough, which meant we all had to wear different hats and support people in a different way. I suddenly became a web developer and yeah, I’m a digital marketeer, I’m not a web developer.

Kelly Molson: You want a job because it’s really hard to find web developers right now.

Lisa Robshaw: I don’t think anyone would want to employ me, to be honest. I gave that part of my career up as soon as I could. But very quickly, it was long hours, long days, adapting our messaging. Because to be fair, Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, visitor attractions first, almost kind of … in terms of individual giving, it was such a small part of our charitable income at that stage that we just had to completely do a 360.

So in terms of fundraising, it was really just making sure that our development team were well supported in making sure our messages got out, and working with the comms teams to make sure the messaging was appropriate, emotional enough to elicit that donation.

And then it was working with kind of our discovery and learning team, I think there was only one after we’d furloughed everybody, on how are we going to engage with people virtually? So obviously we were looking at the great work that other zoos were doing. Chester, for example, with their Friday kind of online videos and Facebook lives and all this kind of thing. Almost, okay, what can we do, which is really Edinburgh or Highland Wildlife Park-esque? You know? And all this kind of thing.

And one of the light bulb moments, I think in think in lockdown two, when we were all getting really quite professional at lockdowns, professional lockdowners, all this kind of thing, was thinking about how we can do virtual birthday parties and take that experience into people’s homes, and do something different to what other people were doing. That’s what we wanted to do. And that’s how we honed our kind of skills, I guess, and how we developed, and how we all evolved during the two lockdowns. It was incredible.

But the outpouring of support from people we had. I mean, I was very much the same as David, how … and other attractions, not just zoos, but other attractions, how are we going to keep the money coming in while we’re closed? How am I going to sell a membership to somebody when the zoo’s closed and they not having the experience?

It’s things like making sure the membership didn’t start until we reopened, so people felt, we’ll get them the money at that point, but their membership wasn’t starting. They were getting the added value when we opened. And our membership, the support we had from our members and our new members was just incredible during lockdown. It really was. And that just … yeah, it was a massive learning curve.

David Field: I mean, that support Lisa, that you talked about, was huge, was overwhelming. It was remarkable. And certainly Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, certainly the zoo, hadn’t had that level of support previously. The level of support that we received from the community was incredible. But I think that came because the authenticity of our message. We were very, very transparent with what was going on.

We spoke to everybody and anybody, whether they wanted to do a podcast, whether they wanted to do a newspaper piece, whether they wanted to talk to us on the phone. We spoke to anybody. And it was the honest truth of what we were putting out there, that we didn’t know what was happening day to day. We didn’t know about the future of some of these animals. There was questions about our pandas. There was questions about our penguins. But we went out there and talked. We opened our hearts, we opened our zoos to information and messages, and the response that we got was incredible.

Do you know, I think Edinburgh fell in love with its zoo again. They began to value what they might just miss. And it was about the … I truly believe it was the authenticity of our message and what people saw and heard from our zookeepers, from our conservation teams. And that work with the D and L team, the Discovery and Learning team, was incredible, because they didn’t just put material online. They made it just a zoo visit online. They made it so interactive. They made it one on one. It was remarkable. It was just so exciting.

Kelly Molson: I love what you said there about Edinburgh realises what they could potentially miss if the zoo wasn’t … if it didn’t exist anymore. Have you seen, since the zoo has reopened, that you are getting a lot more kind of people … a lot more local visitors? Have you seen that that’s kind of increased, that people … they are really loving Edinburgh Zoo again?

David Field: I think so. I mean, Lisa might … you might be able to give a bit more of the kind of stats and facts of it all. I look at it from a more emotive sense and you do just get that level of feeling that people believe in what we’re doing and they’re really supporting what we are doing. But I think one of the most remarkable things for me was when we did reopen and you saw people coming back into the zoo for the first time.

And it was also a time when the families were probably meeting each other for the first time again, because we were one of the few places that were open, one of the few places where people could meet. And suddenly the emotion of people meeting in a place like the zoo, it was remarkable. And we tend to forget the social value of our visitor attractions for quality family time. And that period of just as we were starting to reopen, just emphasized it perfectly of how important the zoo was as a family place, a place for real quality time.

Lisa Robshaw: Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree. And the amount of people that were coming back that were saying, “I haven’t been for years, and I’d forgotten how wonderful it was or it is.” You still get that in the school playground, anecdotally, the mums going, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you work at Edinburgh Zoo.

You’ve done so much amazing work during lockdown. The kids have loved the films and all this kind of stuff.” And you just go, wow, that social value is an absolute, really good point. And yeah, anecdotal evidence is that everyone did fall in love with the zoo again. It’s incredible.

Kelly Molson: And they’re coming back in droves to show you that love now as well.

Lisa Robshaw: Absolutely, yeah. Our visitor numbers this year have been amazing, better than … I think summer 2020 was better than summer 2019. But we have to make … or ’21, sorry, was better than 2019. But we have to remember 2019’s a pretty bad summer weather wise as well. But I do … so couple the bad weather with this new affection and the fact that people haven’t been able to go anywhere else, I mean, it’s … yeah. We’re reaping the reward and the challenge is going to be keeping the momentum going into next year when we’ve got so more competition.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

David Field: Absolutely. We’ve got to seriously up our game for the … when the period sort of as we were reopening and lockdowns were being lifted, so people just wanted to get out and be local, there was a benefit there. People started to see, as Lisa said, actually this is a pretty, pretty great place. Look at all this exciting stuff that’s going on. But now we’ve got to just keep going and maintaining that excitement and that wonderful visitor attraction element, which drives our charity mission, is essential. So it’s challenging going forward.

Kelly Molson: It is. And actually one of the questions I was going to ask you is about how you kept your team motivated through the pandemic. Because, like you said earlier, it’s not just, you can’t furlough a penguin, it’s you can’t furlough the penguin keeper.

So you had a lot of people that were still coming into work during the pandemic because there was a need for them. They had to be there. But I guess an extra question to that is how do you now keep your team motivated to keep that excitement and keep that enthusiasm going, to keep drawing the people in again? So two different questions, or same question, but for two different situations there.

David Field: Yeah. I think there’s … it’s a really, really tough time for the staff. They’re absolutely shattered. Staff such as the … say the keeping staff, and I mean … were coming through during the pandemic to work. So they weren’t getting time off particularly. And even now our other teams, which are so crucial to making the place work and be great place to visit, there’s so much going on that people can’t take their … are struggling to take their holidays because of the momentum that’s going on. So people are tired.

And then with the challenges that we are getting there with trying to recruit new people, where there is nobody to recruit, it is putting pressure on people. But it’s humbling to work for a team like team RZSS, because they just step up and go above and beyond constantly. And it’s the belief in what we do. It’s the love of the animals. It’s the love of the institution, that people step up to such an extent. And it’s remarkable. But they are tired. And we would like to recruit more staff so that they could actually recover.

Kelly Molson: We have Kate Nichols on from Hospitality UK, speaking with her next week about the recruitment challenge. So if you do have any questions that you’d like to pose to her, feel free to send them in, because I know that this is widespread right now.

And if I’m honest, it’s not just the attractions industry. We’re struggling ourselves. Like I said, no joke society, if you have got web development skills hit me up. It is a huge challenge right now. And like you said, people are really, really tired. So there’s still a long way to go to get everyone motivated and to keep everyone going. I really hear you on that.

Lisa, I want to talk a little bit about what you said earlier about the birthday parties and some of the things that you did in terms of engaging with your audience while you couldn’t open the zoo. Will you still carry on some of those things? And if so, are there any new things in development or anything that’s coming up that you’re quite excited about that you’d like to share with us?

Lisa Robshaw: Yeah. I mean, the demand for the virtual birthday parties has obviously waned now. And actually they’ll always be secondary to trying get these groups of kids into the zoo so they can actually, like David say, get close to nature and sort of be around the animals. That’s our number one reason for being really, in terms of engagement. But that was great, to see the reactions and all that kind of thing. Not only because we tested it on my own six year old who had a second lockdown birthday, but also just the demand, and people by that point were wanting something different for their kids. That was great.

I mean, one of the things I loved were the amount of companies that came out and actually wanted to work with us, and companies that traditionally the zoo have worked for … worked with kind of on a sort of cursory ticket selling level. So hotels, for example. We had so many hotels that wanted to come and work with us in a completely different way. So one hotel wanted to do a giraffe themed bedroom, and a certain portion of percentage of the room rate would come to the hotel … to the zoo. So I mean, I’m under no illusion, a lot of that was for PR and unusual ideas. But never before have we had hotels being that actively courting us.

The big one is the Waldorf Astoria, the five star Waldorf Astoria Hotel, more sort of known as the Cally here in Edinburgh. And they did a zoo themed afternoon tea. Five pounds from every afternoon tea that they sold came to the zoo with an option to top up it to another five pound donation. And I think it was three and a half months that was for sale with, just as we were coming out of lockdown. So you could get home delivery or you could get the whole Waldorf Astoria experience. And they raised eight and a half thousand pounds.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Lisa Robshaw: So you work out how many they sold. And that was a partnership we would never have had the opportunity to do had lockdown and COVID and the pandemic not happened. So that was fantastic. So moving forward, I’m really looking forward to working with loads of other different companies, in the next couple of … next year or so. We’ve started that initiative with our art trail that we’re doing next year, called Giraffe About Town.

So this is one of the Wild In Art trails. You might remember things like Cow Parade. Here in Scotland we have the Oor Wullie Bucket trail, but they’re popular all around the country. I think there’s been Elmer Elephants in Luton, that were involved with. All this kind of thing.

So we’re going to have our own herd of 40 sponsored eight foot giraffes around the city of Edinburgh next summer. And at the moment we’re going out and talking to companies about sponsoring those giraffes. And what … this is a complete unknown of a project for me. I’ve never been involved in something like this to this scale before.

But what is really heartening is that a variety of companies that are coming out and actually wanting to support their zoo, from big house builders to a company, a sort of a one man band who does synthesizer things for electric guitars and bands. It’s just so random, but it’s so amazing to see the outpouring of support that’s happening.

And also the public are really excited about … Every time we talk about Giraffe About Town, there’s people making arrangements to come to the city and have a weekend break so they can find all the giraffes. That’s kind of our way of giving back to the city as well. So that’s a really exciting initiative. Alongside the day job, it’s quite hard work, but it’s going to be so exciting.

And the whole process is a whole new thing for me, from talking to sponsors, to people who create concrete plinths and these things to sit on and then looking at venues for auctions at the end to raise money for our wildlife conservation projects around the world. So yeah, that’s a really exciting initiative and that would never … we would never have taken that type of project on if it wasn’t for the pandemic and have the confidence to do it.

Kelly Molson: That’s amazing, isn’t it? That that’s something so fabulous that has actually come out of something so horrendous.

Lisa Robshaw: I’m going to have a lot of gray hair by the end of it. It’s great that I am already. But already. I get quite emotional thinking about what the end result’s going to be, and from people … sort of companies actually getting a lot of extra PR and marketing value out of working with us, to people having a great time around Edinburgh and exploring parts of the city they’ve never explored, trying to tick off all their giraffes, to the impact they’re going to make at auction with real money for charity. It’s quite exciting.

Kelly Molson: It feels like people want to take ownership of an experience in some way. They want to be part of it, not just come to visit. They want to be part of that for a longer period. Do you know what I mean? Like you come and visit the zoo and then you might adopt an animal, but actually being part of the walking trail, that’s really kind of embedding yourself into that experience. Something that Gordon and I discussed actually, when we had it on, was the desire for more personalised experiences, that people want to do things that are not just the norm now. They want something that’s really kind of tailored to them. Have you seen an increase in demand for your zoo experiences this year?

Lisa Robshaw: Yeah. Massive. Massive demand, to the point where we’re getting so booked up in advance. It’s great, but you almost get to a situation where we can’t fulfill some of them. So we’re having to manage that really carefully to make sure that we don’t lose the sale, but we’re also managing people’s expectations. But people want that experience. And if nothing else, the pandemic sort of reignited that passion. People don’t just want a tangible kind of gift. It’s this thing where … that experience that people really want, which is … we are just made for that kind of experience.

David Field: I think that is really interesting with the need for personalised experience, but deeper and more emotive experiences. And I think that’s a way … not everybody who comes to the zoo can possibly have a personalised experience. We don’t have enough animals. There’s not enough time in the day. For all different reasons. I’m very lucky. I get that kind of contact with animals constantly. And people need that in their lives. They cry out for this contact with nature, and it makes people better.

And somehow we got to deliver within the zoo more and more of these emotional experiences. We’ve got to get people to not just look at an animal from a distance, but when they go into the giraffe house now at the zoo, they don’t just see animals. They’re really, really close. They can smell them, they can hear them, they can almost taste them. That sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it? But it’s a full multisensory experience.

It’s a deeper meaning, which is why the zoo experience means so much more than something you just see on screen. It has to be … we’ve got to make the hairs on people’s necks sort of stand up, get them really emoting, get those emotions running about animals. Then people care about animals more and want to hear our messages about how we can do more to protect them or conserve them. So emotion is huge for us.

Kelly Molson: And is that part of how you kind of inspire people to help you now? Because I guess the zoo … we’re heading into winter, so you’re going to have less people visiting. I wanted to ask what the kind of shape of the zoo is as you head into winter this year. But I see that you’ve got the Help the Animals that you Love campaign still running. Is that something that you run all year through? Are you going to be doing a big kind of driver of that to kind of help get through the winter? Like where are you at?

David Field: I mean, I think there’s a couple of questions there. I mean, in terms of … we will do various fundraising activities at different times. And there’s a recent appeal gone out just for more of our general work. When there’s some specific project, we might do other appeals. But I think where we are really trying to get to is that … and we touched on it before, is that long term relationship with the zoo.

And I said, the zoo is different, whether it’s winter, summer, spring, autumn morning, noon, evening, it’s always something different. So we want people to be able to experience that and really pushing our membership, pushing that long term relationship with the zoo. And really there’s a cradle to grave relationship that you can have with the zoo. And that’s what we want to achieve because it’s more than just a visit.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it is. This is something that I saw Bristol Zoo has just said, that it’s going to open its grounds to the public for free after it moves to a new home next year. Circling back to what you said earlier about the zoo being at the heart of the community and people falling back in love with Edinburgh Zoo, do you have any more initiatives to kind of connect with that local community aside from the walking trail that we’ve just discussed, which I think is an absolutely wonderful way of connecting with the local community? Have you thought about anything long term for the zoo where you get more of the community engaged with it?

David Field: Well, I would say kind of watch this space, because we will be launching next year, a major part of our future strategy is about community and it’s about using the unique resources of the zoo and the power of animals to do good, to actually build improved wellbeing in individuals and also in the communities where we work, helping to strengthen the communities where we work. That’s really powerful for us.

When Edinburgh Zoo first opened back in the early 1900s, it was designed by the social architect, Patrick Geddes, so it was a place where communities could come and walk and commune with nature outside of all the industrial areas and built up areas of Edinburgh. And we still appeal to that. That idea appeals to us, so that it is a place of sanctuary. It is a place where people can come.

And we are undertaking a range of initiatives that we can link with the community. We already do that in many ways. We work with different community groups, both in Edinburgh and up at the Highland Wildlife Park. And we want to look at all of those barriers that are cultural, social health wise, which stops people getting to the zoo. We need to work with that. We need to work with local businesses, with local council, with Scottish government, in order that we can become the most inclusive and accessible visitor attraction, not just in Scotland, but in the UK and beyond.

Lisa Robshaw: It’s probably worth talking about Highland, Wildlife Park as well, the developments that will start next year for the Scotland’s Wildlife Discovery Center. We’ve got HLF funding for some massive new developments at Highland Wildlife Park, which are just around that sort of engaging with the community, the people that would normally be able to have those experiences, getting close to nature and that kind of thing, and really telling the story of sort of Scotland’s wildlife heritage as well. And no better place to do that than in the Cairngorms. So we’re really excited about that project and that’s going to be an absolute game changer for Highland Wildlife Park.

Kelly Molson: Oh, can you share a little bit more about what makes it game changing? Or is this top secret information for the time being?

David Field: No, not at all. I mean, there’s been quite a lot of information out there about it already. And the Scottish Wildlife Discovery Center is … it’s a transformational project, both for the park and for the society, because it will be … in reality, it’s a network of hubs that takes you on an expedition across the Highland Wildlife Park. But this expedition exposes you to the people, the place, and the animals of the Cairngorms. It brings the beauty of the Cairngorms and all the knowledge and information that we need the people that will come and visit.

But we will have … there’s a large discovery center where you can find all this information. There will be hubs, which overlook our wildcat breeding program project, and our peat restoration project. Then there’s a wonderful new accessible learning hub, which will be open for the community as well, so that we can bring people to the park that would never have dreamed of coming to the park before or wouldn’t have been able to come to the park. But they’ll be able to come for different events, community outreach. But it is designed so that we can celebrate the Cairngorms and the people, the place, and the animals therein.

Lisa Robshaw: What he said.

Kelly Molson: What David said. Do you know what’s lovely? Is you speak … there’s a real sense of positivity in this interview. Whenever you both speak, there’s a real kind of uplift and a real kind of sense of excitement about what’s coming next. So it’s been really lovely to hear that come through from you both.

David Field: Oh, fantastic. Thank you. I mean, we work with animals. It’s amazing. You’re having a bad day, go and sit with the penguins.

Kelly Molson: That is not dreadful, isn’t it? Yeah. I mean, the closest I get is to picking up a dog if I’m having a bit of a bad day, but a penguin would top it.

David Field: But that is … it’s so important to us. And it’s not a trite statement, but we know that people just visiting a zoo, your stress levels just go down. We know that. We know that again, it’s that quality social time. It’s memories. It’s access to nature. All of this is important for us from so many aspects. And the power of animals to do good is just … it’s beyond. They’re amazing.

Kelly Molson: Couldn’t have said that any better myself, David. I totally agree with you. Thank you both for coming on the podcast today. I always like to end our interviews by asking if you have a book that you would recommend to our listeners. So it could be something that’s helped you in your career. It could be something that you just … you absolutely love. It’s definitely not going to be Harry Potter. We know that. Hopefully Geoff is not listening to this, our past-

Lisa Robshaw: I’m to going to get an invite to the Warner Brothers Studio at any time soon, am I?

Kelly Molson: No, it’s not happening, Lisa. But yes, I would like to ask you both if you’ve got a book that you’d like to recommend?

Lisa Robshaw: I’ll let David go first.

David Field: Well, I love my books. Absolutely love my books. The Zoo Quest Expeditions by Attenborough were an inspiration to me. But more recently, it’s The Invention of Nature: The adventures of Alexander van Humboldt. Amazing book by Andrea Wulf. Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest naturalists, a real kind of polymath that was there. He invented ecology. He saw climate change before anybody else. And it’s so beautifully written and a real inspiration in terms of what he achieved. He’s one of my scientific heroes.

Kelly Molson: Fabulous. That’s very topical. All right, that’s David’s one. Lisa, what about you?

Lisa Robshaw: I’m now regretting asking David to go first. Mine is … I’m not sure I’m allowed to swear on this podcast.

Kelly Molson: You can.

Lisa Robshaw: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck.

Kelly Molson: Excellent book.

Lisa Robshaw: It was given to me, the actual book was given to me by a friend, God, probably about six or seven years ago when I was having a bit of a hard time. And David … it’ll probably make David smile, and my boss, Ben, but I give myself a really hard time over things sometimes. I just want things to be perfect all the time. It’s quite topical at the moment. And actually, I just … sometimes when I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, I just go into this book and it reminds me that I can’t control certain things.

I just need to give a fuck about the things I can control and let go of the things I can’t. I recommend it to so many friends that have found it useful as well. I know Ben, my boss, would probably want it to be like a bit of a marketing book that I’m recommending or something like that, I thought I really let him down with this. This is well worth a read.

Kelly Molson: Lisa, I have read that book. It is an excellent book. So basically what we are recommending is grab a copy of that book, head to the zoo, go and sit by the penguins, life will be sweet.

David Field: Perfect.

Kelly Molson: All right, well, listen, listeners, as ever, you can have the chance to win copies of those books. So if you would like to win a copy of Lisa’s book and David’s book, then head over to this episode announcement and retweet it with the words, “I want David and Lisa’s book,” and we will put you … books even, and we will put you in the draw to win a copy of each of them. Thank you very much. I really like those suggestions and I really am very grateful for you both coming on and sharing your experiences today with the listeners for the podcast. So thank you.

David Field: You’re more than welcome, Kelly.

Lisa Robshaw: 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

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