It's not every day that an aquarium boasts a Web-based ticketing system fit for a professional sports league, event management technology capable of planning meals for 1,100 guests and high-tech displays that can be accessed remotely. Then again, it's not every day that a venue such as Georgia Aquarium opens its doors.
Opened on Nov. 23, 2005, Atlanta-based Georgia Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the world, boasting a 505,000-square-foot complex with 8 million gallons of fresh and marine water, and more than 120,000 animals representing 500 species.
The venue is a $200 million gift to the people of Georgia from Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, and his wife Billi, through the Marcus Foundation. But while this one-of-a-kind venue began with plenty of big-name backing, its IT infrastructure had humble beginnings.
That's because Georgia Aquarium was charged with building its front- and back-end systems from scratch—just in time to welcome tens of thousands of visitors.
The biggest challenge was to have Georgia Aquarium's IT infrastructure all ready for the busiest day of the year, which was expected to be the very first day.
"Everything had to be working flawlessly when we opened, and the systems had to be easy enough to use," said Beach Clark, Georgia Aquarium's vice president of IT.
It was a difficult feat made even more challenging by Georgia Aquarium's tiny five-person IT department. Not only did the venue demand high-performance networks that could easily adapt to a growing business's evolving needs, but these networks would have to be remotely accessible to mitigate the burden placed on a tiny IT staff.
In early 2004, a Georgia Aquarium advisory board, headed by Bernie Marcus, invited Accenture to submit a proposal for the project. Accenture was selected by the board because of its work with other nonprofit organizations and its willingness to offer a portion of its management consulting and technology services free of charge.
Accenture's first step involved surveying some of today's largest public venues to determine an appropriate IT architecture.
Following this, Accenture created "a complete application landscape," said Clark, outlining all of Georgia Aquarium's IT requirements. Only weeks later, in March 2004, Accenture approached Unisys to lend a helping hand. The Blue Bell, Pa., IT services company agreed to provide a technology grant to the aquarium, covering business-critical infrastructure solutions to ensure a high-performance and cost-saving computing environment.
"We wanted to build Georgia Aquarium an IT architecture that was really flexible and could be used without a huge staff," said Mark Feverston, Unisys' vice president of enterprise servers.
Today, Georgia Aquarium's IT infrastructure comprises four Unisys ES7000 servers, two ES7000 Libra 510 servers, and business continuity software and services supporting functions including financials, ticketing, marketing, membership, content management, Web site and company e-mail.
There's nothing commonplace about Georgia Aquarium, and its networks are certainly no exception. For starters, the venue's ticketing system more closely resembles that of a professional sports organization than a home for marine species. Because only 4,000 visitors are allowed in the building at any given time, the system keeps constant tally of not only how many tickets have been sold but also what times they have been sold.
The system also interfaces directly with a membership database to ensure that Georgia Aquarium members receive a reduced rate when purchasing tickets online. In fact, Clark said the Web-based ticketing system is so user-friendly that Georgia Aquarium sold 125,000 annual passes online before even opening its doors to the public.
"Seventy to 80 percent of our tickets are sold online, which is unheard of in our industry," Clark said.
The convenience doesn't end there. When visitors arrive at the aquarium, employees use wireless scanning devices to process their tickets—a fast and efficient means for eliminating long lines.
"Even though we're completely sold out almost every day, waiting times are usually only what's needed to get through security," Clark said.
But a user-friendly ticketing system is only part and parcel of Georgia Aquarium's unique IT infrastructure. The venue features a 16,400-square-foot Oceans Ballroom that can accommodate 1,100 people for a sit-down dinner or more than 1,600 for a reception. The entire aquarium also can be made available to groups as large as 10,000 people.
To meet such demands, Unisys developed a robust event management system comparable to that of a hotel or convention center, featuring built-in menu and floor planning capabilities. Within the first 100 days of its grand opening, Georgia Aquarium seamlessly booked more than 300 events, Clark said.
It's Georgia Aquarium's exhibit management system that truly heralds a revolution in remote access. Throughout the venue, visitors can enjoy approximately 30 interactive displays including videos and touch-screens that identify various marine species, such as its gigantic touch-screen wall that guests need only tap as a fish swims by to view information about the species in real time.
Controlling these interactive displays is a Unisys-developed exhibit technology system that Georgia Aquarium's small IT staff can access remotely to conduct diagnostic testing, reset controls and update species information. What's more, some display walls can be programmed to showcase a company's logo, providing a perfect complement to a corporate-sponsored event. Unisys' Feverston said when it came to building Georgia Aquarium's IT infrastructure, "The visitor experience was key."
Georgia Aquarium depends on Fibre Channel technology from information storage provider EMC for its storage capabilities. But Accenture and Unisys also worked together to create a disaster recovery system with clustering and replication capabilities to ensure business continuity in the event of an emergency.
"Most of our critical systems are fully redundant, so if we lose one computer, we have another one to run that system," Clark said. To keep operations running smoothly, Unisys offered the venue's IT staff training in hardware and management systems, whereas Accenture provided operational and procedural training on issues such as how to properly back up back-end systems.
Now home to garden eels, reef squid and stingrays, Georgia Aquarium has welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors since mid-April 2005. Three million visitors are expected by the end of 2006—a 50 percent hike above anticipated attendance levels, driven, in large part, by the venue's easy-to-use Web-based ticketing system.
In the end, the technology-enhanced visitor experience has brought the greatest success, Clark said. By allowing visitors to purchase tickets online, bypass long lines with wireless scanning devices, seamlessly book events and access constantly updated interactive displays, Georgia Aquarium is keeping guests coming back for more in hopes of unlocking the secrets of the sea.
Cindy Waxer is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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