Supporting the Virginia Aquarium’s Transformative Vision Via Integrated Planning

Virginia Aquarium expansion


Operating as a public-private partnership between the City of Virginia Beach and the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center exists as a successful, regional tourist draw, yet strives to become an institution with a national reputation and stature. To help achieve this vision, the Aquarium hired Roto design firm, experts in science and children’s exhibit development, to complete a facility master plan in 2019 that, if fully implemented, would more than double the Aquarium’s current exhibition space and reimagine the visitor experience.  

In 2022, the Aquarium Foundation issued an RFP to undertake an integrated planning process to further define a bold future vision for the Aquarium, its team, and its community, comprised of strategic, master, and business planning. In addition, the Aquarium desired to conduct an economic feasibility study of the 2019 master expansion plan.  

Canopy responded to the RFP for both services, touting our integrated approach between the two deliverables and hence economies of scale, and was awarded the business based on our depth of experience in the field and previous work with other AZA institutions.  


Recognizing the enormous transformational project that the Aquarium wished to undertake, Canopy’s team conducted a data-based and inclusive strategic planning process, creating a roadmap for the future to help the organization thrive. This consisted of extensive business performance data, Census demographics, and audience analytics; 140+ staff and stakeholder voices gathered through surveys, interviews, and dialogue; a Board retreat; and seven months of on-site and virtual workshops and meetings.  

This process not only capitalized on the Aquarium’s strengths and built on its history, but also identified new focus areas while introducing an innovative perspective and a spirit of creativity.  

Conducted in conjunction with the strategic planning process, the feasibility study analyzed their market, attendance, admissions, and finances, plus operating models for staffing, utilities, and maintenance. The result is a cohesive, comprehensive pro forma of Aquarium operations over the next decade whose assumptions can be modified and updated for years to come based on Canopy’s dynamic modeling tool.  


Paired with a successful feasibility analysis of the planned expansion, the 2023-2027 strategic plan supports the expansion by outlining a bold but achievable blueprint that was well-received by City Council. Beyond the physical expansion, the strategic plan not only strengthens the Aquarium as an attraction, educational institution, cultural establishment, tourism driver, and research and conservation organization, but also includes a compelling vision for continued growth and development over the next ten years, while ensuring that the Aquarium is well positioned to meet AZA and other standards as desired.

Canopy Strategic Partners brought to the table a well-thought-out, and fully developed process to not only guide our team in the creation of a strategic plan, but also a deliberative plan on how to purposely incorporate our Master Plans into the overall desired outcomes for the Virginia Aquarium. Canopy provided a roadmap that was not just about discovery and formulation of actions, they more importantly provided the vital industryspecific knowledge and expertise to strategically facilitate our plans for a sustainable and thriving future.
Cynthia Spanoulis, Executive Director of the Virginia Aquarium Foundation

+49 856 9568 95

39 Lion Street

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