Here's Looking at Zoo!
Craig Hough chats to Chester Zoo COO Jamie Christon about his life, career, the infamous fire and the overwhelming support he received in the aftermath
I’m originally from Northallerton, a market town in North Yorkshire which left when I was 18 to go to university in Leicester to read Politics and Public Order (as I wanted to join the police). I was accepted on a fast track scheme, but their recruitment was delayed, so I took up my other passion for retail, and my first real job was for a supermarket company in Frodsham, Cheshire. Having moved to London, I spent another eight years working in retail in for House of Fraser and Greggs. I enjoyed living in London as a young 25-year-old, and that’s where I let my hair down for a few years going out in Brixton and the West End.
I was Head Hunted by East Midlands Airport (Manchester Airport Group) at a time when low-cost airlines were booming. The model was to sell flights at a lower price at volume and to recoup the income from passengers at the airport from retail, car parking and food and beverage. It’s here where I met my future husband, who was the PR Manager. Within a few weeks of meeting, he had moved into my house, and we spent 11 years together.
My old MD at Manchester Airport messaged to say he had joined another airport company in the South West, so I moved down to Devon, living on Dartmoor for five beautiful years in a conservation village, where we had the most fantastic time. As keen gardeners, we had a beautiful rose garden that looked out onto Dartmoor which we opened up to the public each year, with all donations going to charity.
I worked at Exeter Airport as Managing Director, and when the recession hit I realised that living in Devon wasn’t sustainable career-wise. This prompted my decision to move back north as a director for Stena Line managing their Irish Sea operations in Anglesey. It was a beautiful place to live in the summer, but a difficult place to live in the winter months with the climate and not much to do there.
Moving Back To Chester
I moved to Chester to be closer to Manchester Airport (as i was travelling a lot), and I was sitting at home one Sunday reading The Times, and there was an advertisement for a vacancy of Managing Director of Chester Zoo. They were looking for someone with a commercial background, so I applied, and six years later, I’m still here. I now live 10 minutes away from work in a beautiful Victorian villa in Hoole with my dog Patch, who is my baby. I get the opportunity to travel to many places around the world to see what we are doing as a conservation organisation. I love living in Chester and wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Love For The City
Chester is not too big; it’s not too small, I regard it as a safe place to live, with a personality. I know lots of people in the city and feel living in a bigger city can be quite unwelcoming or unfriendly. If I want to go to places like Manchester, Liverpool or London, it’s a train journey away. Chester is close to a large airport if I need to get away. It has a race course, a great university, beautiful Roman architecture and the river.
The Fire At Chester Zoo
It was a typical Saturday and had planned to go to Manchester with some friends for a night out. My phone is linked to all the fire alarms at work, and at about half-past 11, I was in the lounge, and I could hear my phone messaging me. I think I had 38 messages in a minute! I went to my phone and contacted the Duty Manager who said smoke and fire were coming from a building. While I was on the phone, I went upstairs in my house, and out of the window I could see the smoke and flames, and I live about 2 miles away from the zoo.
Within half an hour, I had 20 Managers from the Zoo and the emergency response team on site, and we started organising what was going to happen. In the end, we had 15 fire engines from 3 different counties and 100 firefighters tackling the flames along with our emergency response team. We had category red animals in that building, so we had to ensure they were protected, as well as our staff, the public and firefighters.
Dealing With The Media Glare
As the Zoo was open, within a couple of minutes of the fire starting, it was on social media. Within half an hour it was across the national news. We have an amazing PR team, and the entire team came to work, so they could manage the PR, allowing me to manage the crisis. We didn’t do any media interviews that day to enable me to concentrate on what I needed to do. The next day we were on BBC, ITV, Sky News, all the regionals and even abroad as well.
The Outpouring Of Support
We had people contact the zoo by phone, by email and social media, offering support. People were saying ‘can we help?’ ‘Can we give money?’ ‘Can we house animals?’. Other zoos around the UK and organisations were also in contact to offer support. We have a large team at the zoo, so physically, we were able to manage the situation. In terms of giving money, we opened a Just Giving page and were amazed at just how many people offered support. Over two weeks this rose to a quarter of a million pounds, which we are now spending on conservation projects associated with the species that were inside the zoo at the time, as well as new facilities when that area of the zoo is reopened.
In terms of business continuity, we were very sensitive about what happened at the zoo, but as an organisation, we wanted to make sure that we could reopen as soon as we could. We have 125,000 members and many wanted to come and offer support and lend a hand, and we re-opened the next day. It was one the darkest days that the zoo has had in its 86 year history.
Response From His Team
Our animal teams were fantastic, in terms of ensuring many species within that building were saved and looked after. Many of the primate team stayed overnight for the first few nights until we sure all the animals were safe. We are a very passionate organisation, and we had probably about 100 staff appear during that day, in their various roles and helped do their job. Some of those people were making tea and coffee for the emergency service people. Some of them were managing the extraction of the animals in that building to ensure they were safe, and their welfare standards were maintained, moving them to a different part of the zoo. Some were dealing with crisis comms or managing the operation of the zoo. Everyone pulled their weight as expected, and that would happen at any Chester Zoo event. We have a well-rehearsed crisis management process that we practice every few months, so we were fully prepared.
A Typical Work Day
A typical day is probably made up of many meetings about the many projects we currently have ongoing at the zoo. As well as the operations of the zoo on a day-to-day basis, making sure the zoo maximises its visitation and value to the community through guest experience and also food and beverage/retail sales, on top of all the events going on. Myself and the Chief Executive probably speak at least a dozen times a day. I also try and find time to go into the zoo and talk to the staff as well as customers. Staff engagement is critical to us, and we were lucky to be named one of the Sunday Times’ Top 100 Not-For-Profit best places to work.
The Zoo’s Reputation
Chester is the UK’s most visited zoo with attendance last year at 1.96 million. People come because of our reputation and our membership. What we find is people enjoy us because we are a big park, and people can come and have a good day out, but also learn about conservation. About 12% of Cheshire West and Chester residents are members of the zoo, which is a large number, and we have tripled that number in the last six years from 42,000 to 122,000 which is mainly due to the team at the zoo our reputation and Secret Life of the Zoo, the Channel 4 TV series.
We have a reputation of being a professional, scientific organisation that does fantastic work in conservation, both for the zoo and around the world. We concentrate six significant hotspots of diversity, across the globe, where we focus our projects. We are the most engaged with zoo in the world. In terms of experience, we are developing the zoo into creating intimate, immersive experiences for our customers, so they can see things that are different throughout the year (our members on average visit 5-6 times a year).
Our mission is Preventing Extinction. An example of this is working with Bermuda Skinks. Our team, led by Dr Gerardo Garcia, have been working to conserve and breed this species and eventually return them to the wild. We went out to Bermuda and brought the skinks back to the UK as we were asked by the government to conserve that species, which can now be found at the zoo.
New Accommodation At The Zoo
We have applied for planning permission to build a 42 room overnight accommodation. It’s a series of rigid tents in a bachelor giraffe paddock, with several lodges around a lake. We are working with a South African hotel company that we have engaged with for two years now, who manage and own some lodges and hotels in and around wildlife reserves. We have always been seen as a 2-day attraction, and the hotel will allow people to stay overnight. This will enable visitors to do extraordinary things; such as early morning tours of the zoo, nocturnal tours of the zoo and things that our regular visitors don’t see. If we are successful with planning permission this will open in the summer of 2022, as part of our larger Grasslands scheme.
Love For The Job
I love the people I work with. The environment I work in and being in an office building that sits on the side of 125 acres of beautiful parkland. Getting to see animals every day never gets boring. Everyone at the zoo (the staff, the trustees, the volunteers) all love what they do.
How To Unwind At The Weekend
On a typical weekend, I like to socialise with my friends, with my favourite haunts being Bar Lounge and Opera Grill. I do like spending time at home with my dog on a Saturday morning, one of my favourite coffee shops is Jaunty Goat on Bridge Street, where I’ll go for breakfast and coffee and watch the world go by.
Chester Zoo Upton-by-Chester, Chester, CH2 1LH
t: 01244 380280 e: firstname.lastname@example.org