It’s an odd proposition if you think too hard about it, visiting one of the UK’s biggest zoos without seeing a live animal. Yet between now and Christmas, that’s precisely what something in the region of 130,000 customers will pay to do as they complete their nocturnal lap of Chester Zoo to admire its annual Lanterns display.
It’s a good thing for the zoo that they will. You can’t furlough an elephant, and during the long periods of closure brought on by the pandemic since March 2020, it has cost around £1.6 million a month to continue looking after the 20,000 animals that call the site home. With 97 per cent of the zoo’s income generated in normal circumstances by ticket sales and visitor spend, it is perhaps not surprising that COVID-19 has left a £11.5 million financial hole. “That is a staggering amount for a charity of our size”, says Dominic Strange, the zoo’s commercial director. “It has affected current and future plans.”
Chief among the short-term casualties was a major new grasslands habitat, originally due to open in 2023 but now pushed back to a projected 2025-6 launch. A hotel offer will now launch around the same time, which Strange says is “linked to recovery in terms of finances but also in providing experiences that people are really craving as we emerge from the pandemic”. In the meantime, the zoo by day feels almost back to normal, notwithstanding the numerous hand-sanitising stations and some unfortunate short-term building closures due to bird flu. And while the building work has been pushed back, the Lanterns, now an established part of the zoo’s calendar, is a quicker fix for the bank balance.
Making smart use of the 128-acre site in the early dark of pre-Christmas nights, a trail of illuminated sculptures by Wild Rumpus, the Cheshire-based arts enterprise behind events like the Just So festival, this year’s Lanterns is a charming mix of the poignant – rainbow lights across the main bridge had inevitable pandemic resonance – and the silly. It’s the puppets, orangutans and lions among them that seem to most captivate the youngest visitors, while for adults the pulsating jellyfish and twinkling arch of ‘Northern Lights’ offer a gentler spectacle. The nicest thing about this year’s visit, though, was a palpable sense of atmosphere and community. In the inevitably over-priced ‘Christmas food market’ and right around the Lanterns route, there was a sense of pleasure at the communal experience.
That is precisely the idea. Now in its tenth year, the Lanterns “has turned into a really lovely event,” says Strange. “It has become an annual tradition for lots of people. Seeing people come into the zoo and spend time with their families, it really is magical.”
Easy to forget because of its international profile, but Chester Zoo has a strong regional community around it. When the Government initially prevented zoos from reopening in summer 2020, prompting dire warnings about the future of the sector, a ‘Save Our Zoo’ campaign sprang up that raised in the region of £3.6 million in vital funding.
“People went over and above. Continuing to pay for their memberships, running their own fundraising events, buying gifts from our shop, making donations,” says Strange. “So, a massive thank you to them.”
Covid-19 is still very much with us, and key to the zoo’s sustained recovery, as for so many organisations, is the ability to stay open. But Strange, full of praise for staff who have dealt with furlough, an eerily quiet site and ever-changing rules over the past 18 months, is optimistic that the team will deal with whatever is next.
“The pandemic has not gone away, we are incredibly resilient, we are not waiting for things, we are planning.”
The Lanterns will be at Chester Zoo on selected dates until December 23, 2021. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.