Enhancing the typical zoo experience

Belina Lee, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Mandai Wildlife Group (MWG). Image courtesy of MWG.

Singapore’s tourism industry took a massive hit from the pandemic. According to a Visa study, international visitor arrivals decreased by 76% in 2020 because of protracted restrictions on cross-border travel. The country also saw a 39% year-on-year decline in tourism receipts.

Like many other industries, tourism companies had to embark on a digital transformation journey to weather COVID’s impact. This includes Mandai Wildlife Group (MWG) – the organisation that manages most of the wildlife parks in Singapore.

We recently asked Belina Lee, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at MWG, about the initiatives they implemented to adjust to the new normal, how they enhanced the visitor experience in their facilities – especially for kids, and MWG’s technology plans, among others.

The circuit breaker measures following the spread of COVID have affected many establishments in Singapore. How did it impact the overall visitor experience in your wildlife parks and reserves?

During pre-COVID times, tourists made up around 40% of the guests who visited Singapore Zoo. The absence of international guests challenged us to create new programmes which are more intimate and interactive to appeal to a domestic audience.

Besides curating new experiences for our domestic audiences, our parks were closed for the first time in about 50 years of operation during the circuit breaker period. This led us to accelerate our journey towards a mobile-first, cashless, counterless, queueless, and paperless experience. These were originally part of our IT master plan, and were fast-tracked as a result of COVID. These design principles will form the foundation of our reimagined guest experience and will continue to be relevant moving forward.

In addition, the organisation has developed an array of virtual programmes. Going virtual means that we are not constrained by physical boundaries and have the opportunity to potentially reach out to a wider audience, including those beyond our shores.

It also allows us to reach out to as many people as we can through meaningful wildlife experiences to foster love and inspire care for wildlife, and stay true to our mission as a wildlife conservation organisation.

Virtual initiatives launched during the COVID period have demonstrated that virtualisation offers a lot of opportunities for growth, and the organisation will continue to develop and evolve this offering to engage with guests. These include hybrid experiences which complement in-park experiences, as well as build presence and engage audiences from anywhere in the world.

Talk to us about your My Animal Buddy and Ranger Buddies. How did MWG come up with the idea behind these programmes?

Our vision is to inspire people to value and conserve biodiversity and we have traditionally done so by delivering immersive wildlife experiences in our parks.

Beyond an occasional visit to the park, we need to support behavioural changes through more frequent engagement, especially in the daily lives of our core target segment – families with kids. Therefore, the challenge was to understand how we can be relevant in the daily lives of families.

Through our research over the years, we uncovered unmet needs amongst parents with children in terms of animal interaction, helping their children be future-ready in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.

Our regular guest surveys also highlighted that the awareness and desire for wildlife conservation and sustainability has increased over the years. However, this has not translated into wide-scale impact as impediments still exist in terms of knowledge and actionability. Factors such as cost and inconvenience are commonly cited as impediments.

To address these needs, MWG experimented with offerings that support parents in meeting these parenting goals, while nurturing children to become future-ready global citizens that care for our earth.

My Animal Buddy allows every child to befriend an animal buddy who lives in our parks and builds affinity through regular engagement and animal interaction through a variety of content (e.g. scheduled video streaming, virtual sessions with veterinarians). We don’t protect what we do not care about, and this app deepens the bond between children and our animals.

Ranger Buddies aims to empower every child to drive positive change through bite-sized missions such that doing good becomes a daily habit. These missions (which are posted on the MWG website) allow children to learn regularly and be rewarded in a variety of fun ways while embracing positive learning and outcomes. These missions can be completed at home, in schools, in our parks, in our community, as well as at various partner locations.

How do My Animal Buddy and Ranger Buddies help enhance the visitor experience in your wildlife parks?

Our children not only drive positive change for themselves through practising these life skills, but also drive positive change for our world through the knowledge they gain and the actions they undertake.

Through My Animal Buddy, instead of a trip to the zoo just to see animals, the relationship is transformed to that of visiting an animal friend that they care about. For example, Pedro the sea lion once had to undergo eye surgery. By keeping the children informed and engaged throughout his experience and recovery, there was an outpouring of love and concern for Pedro and his animal caregivers, both online and in our parks.

Parents have shared that the various fun activities to get to know the animals in our parks add to the anticipation of the physical visit and enhance the meaning. Children now have a “to-do” list based on what they had been exposed to and engaged previously, and make it a point to visit a particular animal or animal caregiver. After the visit, they also can continue finding out more about the exciting things they have discovered in our parks.

Through Ranger Buddies, there are regular missions that take place in our parks which encourage children to experience our parks in new, exciting ways. They can continue the missions beyond their visit at home and other touch points.

The missions are designed based on robust pedagogy research where children are given the opportunity to embrace key future-ready skills such as curiosity and grit. Each of these missions also have an important conservation and/or sustainability theme. As they visit our parks, this multi-layered experience injects freshness in every visit.

What are some of the most exciting developments in MWG, specifically in the technologies you plan to adopt?

We actively drive innovation in achieving our planet, people, and performance goals, to make lives better for our animals, our employees, and our guests.

For our planet goals, we aim to transform our animal care through technology. This is a domain where solutions are not as mature, or where technologies may already exist, but not yet applied to this domain with proven success. Some interesting initiatives include environment real-time monitoring, AI predictive animal behaviour monitoring, animal enrichment and activity smart devices, intelligent animal health monitoring, etc.

We are working towards encouraging and nurturing every employee to become an innovator as part of our people goals. We are building a citizen developer community, with team members across non-digital portfolios developing their own mobile apps and automated solutions to transform their work processes and improve productivity. Teams as diverse as Education, Horticulture, Procurement, Sustainable Solutions, and Technical Services have embraced automation.

Last but not least, for our performance’ goals, we use technology to ensure some hygiene areas are taken care of to provide a seamless experience. At the same time, we are also reimagining a variety of hybrid experiences to heighten the emotional peaks when our guests visit our parks – fusing the real world physical immersive parks, overlayed with interesting technology applications.