If you thought your industry had a lot of levers to push and pull, try running a major zoo. Taronga’s chief executive, Cameron Kerr, talks about the complexity of modern zoos. By Jason Day
You don’t have to be an old timer to recall that Sydney’s famous zoo on the harbour needed a bit of freshening up.
Along with your happy memories were iron bars and concrete and animal living arrangements that spoke of the need for infrastructure investment.
Elsewhere in Australia and overseas, there were also worrying signs for zoo boards and owners that the modern zoo was falling out of touch with the communities around them.
This was mainly because the primary role of many zoos – at least as far as the public was aware – was mostly about holding and caring for wildlife for display. The activities of innovative modern zoos, such as animal conservation, education and research, were simply not at the forefront.
By as recently as the late 1990s, both Taronga Zoo in Sydney and its sister, the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo in central New South Wales, were showing signs of wear and tear. Along with changes in attitude in society, it was clear that something had to be done. It was, and the renamed Taronga Conservation Society Australia is now coming close to the end of a 12-year master plan that has transformed the organisation.
“Particularly from an infrastructure perspective, the master plan was about making sure that the zoos were relevant in the 21st century,” elaborates Taronga’s Director and Chief Executive Cameron Kerr.
“How are you going to be inspired by wildlife if they’re sitting in facilities that look like they’re out of the 19th century? That was a big focus for us as an organisation.”
A new strategic vision
Taronga operates more than 13 conservation, research and environmental education endeavours, including the zoos in Sydney and Dubbo. In 2009, the society worked to evolve the first master plan into a new strategic plan. The vision is for a shared future for wildlife and people (see diagram, page 13).
“The important thing was to find a vision encompassing our organisation’s very specialist roles, one that everyone understood, and to make sure that they were all working together towards a common goal,” says Kerr.
Kerr started out in veterinary research and development before doing a master’s degree in business. He worked for several unrelated industries before returning to animals, but in a business role, in 2000. Most recently the General Manager of Life Sciences and Environmental Education at Taronga, he assumed the top role in 2009.
The complexity of zoos
Taronga’s key performance indicators tell a story in themselves of how complex its leadership and management process is. Indeed, it suggests a CEO who must be across hugely diverse strategic areas, implementations, deliverables and measurements.
The zoo measures itself against a quadrella of key performance indicators, namely nature-based tourism, community education, research and breeding, and wildlife conservation.
“These are the four areas that we want to excel in as an organisation. That’s how we benchmark ourselves against other good zoos around the world,” says Kerr. So just what does it take to run a zoo?
“I haven’t really thought a lot about that,” laughs Kerr. “I think having a technical knowledge helps, but it’s not necessary. The real skill that I think you need to have is – as for any leader – to be able to handle pressure.
“For its size as an organisation [its revenue is about $65 million], I think the complexity of the organisation is quite significant,” he says. “Compared to the previous business I was looking after, which was a $100-million pharmaceutical company, I’d say the complexity is probably four times as much.
“Apart from day-to-day management, the reason is you’ve got a lot of stakeholder management. That ranges from the State Government, to supporters and philanthropists, animal welfare and interest groups, the public, and everything in between.
“We have partnerships with conservation organisations, education institutions, the tourism industry, and they all need constant management.”
The more mundane but crucial tasks of managing and marketing Sydney’s No.1 tourist attraction are ever present. Surprisingly, the impact of the global financial crisis on both turnstile revenue and fundraising revenue hasn’t been too negative.
Taronga has about 500 full-time equivalent staff across Dubbo and Sydney, which is a good-sized workforce in itself. But add the complexity of a seven-day roster that runs 24 hours a day, and you can see how labour-intensive operations are.
“You can’t turn things off at the end of the day or on a quiet period. It’s like a big hospital in that sense,” explains Kerr. “We also have about 200 to 300 casuals that come in for peak periods such as the Christmas period.
“Generally we have felt the GFC less than the broader tourism industry,” says Kerr. “We haven’t had the growth that we might have had in previous years but we’ve coped quite well. For example, people stayed at home during 2009 for Christmas and they went to the zoo instead of going to Fiji.
“Of course, it’ll be a test this year because, with our dollar’s current exchange rate, it’s pretty cheap to go to Bali, Fiji or the US.”
Perhaps the bigger picture that emerges from a talk with Kerr is the delicacy required to keep the organisation balanced in carrying out its objectives, and that all areas of activity are in line with others. “We ask ourselves: ‘what do we need to focus on in the next five years to make sure that diversion doesn’t occur?’,” says Kerr.
“Is the animal collection really aligned to the objectives of the organisation? Because you can imagine, you get creep, just as you do with product lines in another organisation or with toys in a kid’s cupboard. There are some that don’t get used and some that get used a lot.
“A giraffe is not engaged in a whole lot of conservation work but it’s fundamental to generating the income for that work, from the recreation and tourism perspective. A particular quoll, which visitors never see because it doesn’t come out in the day, may be highly endangered and is part of an important breeding program. It’s not generating income, but it is fundamentally critical for our goals in tangible conservation outcomes.”
Naturally, financial viability is everything to a not-for-profit organisation, particularly one with such a wide-ranging remit. It’s particularly so when ‘bums on seats’ can be so affected by such things as the weather. Taronga Zoo Sydney can have up to 15,000 visitors a day during the Christmas period; but if it rains, a day’s attendance may drop to 3000.
“It is a little bit like farming,” explains Kerr.
“I can see a lot of relationships and similarities in the way that you have a lot of eggs in your basket at certain times of the year, and if you have the wrong weather at that time, then there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
Taronga is the largest paid-for attraction in the country, but, as the zoo’s board is only too aware, it’s a pretty mature market. According to Kerr, it’s the only major zoo in a city with a direct competitor – Sydney Wildlife World in Darling Harbour – less than three kilometres away. He also discounts hockey-stick growth of visitation.
Given the costs of managing the organisation are growing, the zoo must have a strategy for its income.
“It comes down to diversifying your income streams and not being reliant on any one,” says Kerr. “If you have a wet period between 26 December and 11 January, that is a huge impact on your business and that’s not due to anyone.
“While visitation was over 1.5 million visits last year to the zoos, we’re fortunate to have other income streams through our education program and accommodation program.”
With only so much ad spend available, the choices zoos make about where to put their marketing efforts is an interesting one.
In fact, while traditional retail ads are a part of the mix for Taronga, there’s a deeper level of thinking about how the marketing message must reinforce the changes to the organisation in the past 5-10 years.
“I’m constantly surprised, although I shouldn’t be, at the number of people that really think visiting a zoo is like a walk around the museum or a look through a postage stamp collection, followed by an ice-cream,” says Kerr.
“We’ve got to create a catalyst for people to come and learn more about us, but reinforce the role of a modern zoo in society.
“What we’ve been working on quite significantly with the organisation’s repositioning over the past five years is that every communication should reinforce the role of the modern zoo.”
Ask Kerr if zoos are, ultimately, a sustainable enterprise, and he is clear. “Most definitely. I know what they’re contributing at a national and state level.
“For example, we run the national wildlife disease surveillance network [Australian Registry of Wildlife Health]. More and more zoos are playing a role in biosecurity and all sorts of other areas. Yes, the sustainability of zoos is long term.
“Even a visit to the zoo isn’t like it was 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve got post-doctoral students working on the effectiveness of our keeper talks in leading or being a catalyst to behaviour change, whether it’s as simple as using the recycling bin or eating sustainable seafood.
“Our objective behind everything from a sleepover program to a visit with your kids is about you reflecting on your behaviour and how it might impact more sustainable living.
“We’re quite overt about it: even in just a quiet visit to the zoo, we’ve got plans for you and the way you may think differently when you go home. I’m very proud of that.”
Dealing with elephants, strategically
Cameron Kerr admits that Taronga didn’t really have a fully developed vision before the Strategic Plan 2010-15. It is now providing pillars on which activities and the zoo’s mission rest, as well as beginning what might be termed the re-education of the public in terms of what Taronga is all about.
“The controversy over the Asian elephant import in the mid-2000s brought home that sections of the community didn’t really understand what we do and what we’re here for. They really thought of us in historical terms, as a 19th-century zoo,” Kerr says.
“This led to the relaunch and the renaming of the organisation to better represent what we stand for and do.”
Kerr also says internal questioning was important, because the range of Taronga’s activities – from working with disadvantaged Indigenous youth to wildlife hospitals, and engaging with high-net-worth individuals through its foundation – required a core vision.
“We have an incredibly unique range of skills that are brought together in a very bizarre way. To have 4000 animals on some of the most beautiful land in the world is pretty unusual. What makes that all hang together? It’s that we can create positive outcomes by bringing wildlife and people together.
“Those outcomes may be on an individual level for a PhD student or a disadvantaged child, or it could be for wildlife in the field in the middle of Java or Sumatra. That’s the crux of what we as a modern zoo organisation see ourselves doing.”
Selected zoo facts in 2009-10
- Over 1000 animals were treated at Taronga’s Wildlife Hospitals.
- A record total of $6.59 million was raised by the Taronga Foundation.
- Over 157,000 students participated in a Zoo Education Centre program.
- Over 400 students participated in vocational education courses through the Taronga Training Institute.
- A total 64 publications, journals, conference proceedings and reports were produced by Taronga staff.
- Total income was $101.492 million.
- Expenditure on capital development and maintenance was $27.913 million.
- Total visitation was 1,738,103.