The new tech partnership that helped Taronga Zoo change its spots

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A new partnership for Taronga Zoo has enabled the conservation leader and family favourite to optimise its experience for visitors, staff and animal inhabitants.

Last September, Aruba announced a partnership with Sydney’s Taronga Zoo and Dubbo’s Western Plains Zoo. Aruba, an HP Enterprise company, was to deliver networking solutions to both sites, enabling wireless connectivity and location-based services. A network of access points, switches, software and Aruba beacons now enables Taronga to better track and monitor its sites. Analytics and wayfinding helps visitors access real-time, geofenced notifications about nearby attractions and services and almost 2000 staff now call the network home for their daily workflows – accessing information about guest traffic and improving operational strategies.

It’s all part of a long-term digital transformation vision currently underway at Taronga. A big challenge for the attraction is to manage two sometimes-conflicting priorities: global conversation and customer engagement. “For a zoo to remain relevant, it must grow and evolve,” says Paul White, head of information and digital technology for the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. “Here at Taronga, we aim to continually improve our animal habitats while striving to enhance our visitors’ experiences. “

White and his team’s transformation required complete network coverage and location-based services to enhance the Taronga Zoo visitor app and provide a base for the “next-generation visitor experience”. Wayfinding, AI, augmented reality (AR) and location-based alerts for information, as well as safety and security, are critical functions for the new platform. The Aruba team spent time with the zoo IT staff to analyse the sites, profile the needs of customers, staff and animals, understand the use cases for each access technology and then design a network to service these needs. Unsurprisingly, zoos are unique organisations and they presented very diverse needs for the Aruba team to service.

In chatting with FM, Pat Devlin, South Pacific director of Aruba, recalls the exciting prospect for his install team in putting up access points in a tiger exhibit. At times, a zoo “can look like a school campus, a university lecture theatre, a research facility, a hotel, a restaurant, a shopping complex and a theme park,” says Devlin. “Each of these use cases has different needs and priorities, and balancing all these together is a huge design challenge.”

Despite the logistical hurdles of getting into animal habitats, recalls White, “the team were able to build the new network right alongside the old.” The outgoing network was riddled with black spots and was a difficult to manage necessity. The new one allows management to gather data on connection quality, durations and numbers of connected people and things. Furthermore, it empowers staff and increases productivity, since they’re now able to share a single ‘zoo-wide’ network rather than jumping between various platforms and networks.

“We have more than 80 buildings at Taronga alone, some are underground, some are all metal enclosures, some are literally concrete bunkers,” he says. “As we empowered staff to be more mobile, the new network has allowed us to remain connected and productive, allowing us to provide hot desking and flexible workspaces.”

For guests, the improved navigation experience is a delight. Cellular coverage is challenging for the large site, so Wi-Fi is a definite boon – especially among international visitors.

Taronga has grand plans for launching many new initiatives in the coming years. “Our research team is right now exploring new ways to use AI to study all kinds of animal behaviour,” says White. “Our mission is conservation.”

The Aruba integration is only one component in this significant Taronga transformation program. The overall project follows a commitment by Taronga and the New South Wales Government to co-fund a multimillion-dollar Visitor Experience program for both Taronga Zoo Sydney and Taronga Western Plains Zoo Dubbo, which is seeking to transform visitors’ experiences, boosting wildlife tourism offerings for NSW and fostering unparalleled conservation education outcomes.

Other educational and conservation-based facilities are underway, delivering important new wildlife exhibits at both zoos. In total, $200 million has been committed over a 10-year program to revitalise Taronga’s zoos, producing compelling animal exhibits that inspire visitors to commit to a shared future for wildlife and people.

Careful consideration is important when it comes to choosing tech partners to implement projects like this one. “We investigated many options for our needs,” White says. “On paper, all of them looked good. In practice, very few vendors took the time to really understand our needs and very few could actually deliver what they promised. I’d encourage buyers to look beyond data sheets and push for their vendor to show ‘proof of value’.”

“The support provided by Aruba’s local team has been exceptional,” White is happy to affirm, “and we’re already seeing the benefits of their networks to areas such as marketing, community conservation and our guest experience teams all using the analytics and data provided, as well as new ways to deliver our message to our guests.”

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