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Riding the Wave: Strategic Planning Case Study at Aquarium of Niagara

Neon purple-colored coral reef

Opportunity:

The 50-year-old Aquarium of Niagara, nestled in prime real estate in the shadows of Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes, and Buffalo, New York, received its first-ever AZA accreditation in 2018, acknowledging its commitment to animal wellbeing, conservation, and education; its adherence to high standards; and its growth from a small, private research center to the popular Aquarium of today.

But there was more work to be done. Although the Aquarium had experienced significant improvement in the recent past with strong new leadership and vibrant new exhibits, the public was largely unaware of these changes and room for improvement remained. Despite these deficits, the Aquarium was determined to forge ahead.

To continue this momentum, Gary Siddall, the Aquarium’s Executive Director, embarked on a comprehensive strategic planning process—including revamping their 20-year old mission—by partnering with Zoo Advisors to guide the engagement based on our industry reputation.  

Solution:

This eight-month engagement created a five-year roadmap for the Aquarium, building on the organization’s recent success and steering it into the future, placing it on track to become a vibrant, compelling, and sustainable organization and leader among its peers. Zoo Advisors employed a four-step process, beginning with engaging a planning committee of the Aquarium’s Board of Trustees and senior staff, then reaching out to stakeholders throughout the region—elected officials, state park personnel, tourism and economic development organizations, and cultural leaders—as well as the entire Aquarium staff to actively participate in the process, ensuring a cross-section of the region was represented.

Our research revealed that while the Aquarium was viewed as a destination with great potential among Niagara attractions, it suffered from a lack of awareness of recent positive changes coupled with negative perceptions as an outdated and unexciting venue. Our audience desired even more enhanced exhibits, events, and education programs to better serve the community and attract visitors, plus renovated physical spaces, both public-facing and back-of-house.

Result:

The Aquarium’s plan was built from “the ground up”, clearly reflecting the hearts and minds of the entire Aquarium family and their diverse stakeholders. The staff and board demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the process and unshakable support of the organization and its vision for the future, resulting in new mission and vision statements and identification of core values speaking directly to the Aquarium’s uniqueness—its community and geography. With these elements in place, the team drafted foundational commitments and strategic goals and objectives—compelling ideas to launch the Aquarium into a bold future.

The Board unanimously approved the strategic plan and is moving forward with raising funds to implement their new mission that vividly captures the “why” of the Aquarium and reflects the importance of its community and its very special sense of place:

“With our community and partners, we celebrate our natural wonders and inspire people to make a difference for aquatic life.”   

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