Underwater Web

No lines, no waiting with the Georgia Aquarium's Web-based reservation and ticketing system.

Visitors from around the world come to the Georgia Aquarium to see Beluga whales, piranhas, California sea lions, rare whale sharks from Asia and even African black-footed penguins. But despite the crowds, rarely do visitors wait in line to see these exhibits, thanks to the aquarium’s Web-based reservation and ticketing systems.

There’s also no waiting to apply for a job, volunteer time and services, make a financial donation or book trips for school groups. Every one of these tasks is handled online via the aquarium’s Web site, which functions as the primary connection between the aquarium, which is the world’s largest, and its various sets of patrons.

Developed primarily from off-the-shelf software that was customized to accommodate specific needs, such as online fundraising, the Web site also functions as the aquarium’s administrative heart and soul.

In the aquarium’s first six months of operations, more than 70% of tickets were purchased online. Personnel also managed nearly 1,000 volunteers via the Web site, which lets volunteers schedule their own work hours.

By customizing commercial electronic shopping cart software, the aquarium also created an online donation system that has processed more than $2 million from 40,000-plus donors.

“We’re a relatively small business, so we have to stay pretty much with off-the-shelf software packages,” explains Beach Clark, vice president of information technology at the nonprofit aquarium. “That said, we have seen some pretty significant advantages by either customizing or integrating that software.”

For example, with an integrated online reservation and on-site ticketing system, Clark says, the aquarium is able to manage foot traffic through the 550,000-square-foot building.

“From an operations standpoint, if people can make a reservation and print out tickets at home online, then we could avoid problems that many other aquariums had where everyone showed up at the same time and had to stand in line,” Clark says. “We were successful in eliminating lines to get into the aquarium.”

With online reservations and by issuing time-stamped admission tickets, “we’re also able to manage the capacity of the building so that it stays full,” he adds.

From the beginning, “we knew that a successful advanced-reservation system would be critical to managing the record crowds we expected at the aquarium,” says Clark. Since it opened in November 2005, the aquarium has hosted more than 4 million visitors.

Still, the Web site’s performance and value have far surpassed all expectations, says Jeff Swanagan, Georgia Aquarium’s CEO.

Across all aquariums and zoos in the U.S., the previous high for tickets sold online was between 8% and 10% of all sales, Swanagan notes.

“Initially, our numbers were 90% [of tickets sold online]. That has fallen somewhat, to around 60%, but wow, we had never expected it would be this powerful,” he says. “As managers, it enables us to plan ahead — how much staff we’ll need, how much food we’ll need and how we can help guests prepare for their trip.”

Clark explains that online ticket sales were especially high in the beginning because visitors were more cognizant that a brand-new aquarium would attract a lot of people, which would translate into long ticket lines. They were able to circumvent the lines by going to the Web.

Now that the aquarium has been open for a year, visitors, anticipating that lines might be shorter, might not feel the need to buy tickets online, Clark speculates.

From a technical standpoint, none of the applications used by the aquarium’s Web site is especially complex, Clark notes. What is innovative about the implementation is how the applications are customized and integrated — work that was completed by a multiparty team of service providers, including Accenture Ltd. and Spunlogic, an Atlanta-based marketing and technology firm.

The biggest technical challenge was the real-time integration between the Web shopping-cart software and online ticketing, Clark says. “The Web shopping cart was great for products, but it didn’t have the capability to collect date and time information, so we had to customize the package for that,” he says.

The team created an XML-based interface to link the two packages.

A second integration challenge involved customizing a Microsoft SharePoint document library that houses job applications so that it could be accessed by the outside service provider that scores candidates’ submissions. This, too, was done via an XML-based interface.

Enhancements are ongoing. Just recently, the aquarium began offering a feature that lets users download information about all of its various galleries and exhibits from the Web site to their iPods so they can listen to a free personal audio tour when they visit.

“All zoos and aquaria are aggressively adopting the Internet, not just for marketing but [also] for increasing and enhancing the overall experience of their facilities,” says Dennis Kelly, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta. “I’d say the Georgia Aquarium is at the forefront of utilizing the Web to present a very engaging, customer-friendly front door to their facility.”

Looking ahead, Clark says, the aquarium is aiming to enhance the Web site further so that it can better market to tour operators and local businesses. Among other things, the aquarium wants to partner with other local attractions, including the Atlanta Fulton County Zoo and the World of Coke, to offer tour packages.

“The Web site is a very big priority for us,” Swanagan says. “Everything we do, we want to put on the Web site first.”

See more of the Best in Class special report.

See the list of 2007 Premier 100 winners.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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