Team building is a recognised part of the good management of people. It’s rare that we work in total isolation; we are, after all, social primates, and there is much management theory that shows that results from group working are greater than the sum of its parts, when it’s done right. Of course, that simple statement hides a multitude of layers of complexity and nuance, but in practice it boils down to a single tenet: that happy teams of people who like and trust each other, and have a shared set of goals and beliefs, are more productive than those that don’t. But how do you develop that in a team that has only been together for a few months and is, anyway, composed of hard bitten old-lags who are pretty much immunised against conventional methods of team building?

The answer, in the zoo world at least, is that you set aside a sum of money in a team development budget and you select a part of the world which has a small land area but an extraordinary density of zoos and zoo-like organisations, with a huge variety of backgrounds and philosophies. You then spend six days visiting as many as you can and talking to the people that run them about life, the universe, and everything.

When you combine that with a challenging (=scary) road system and lunatic traffic; leave the team to do their own driving and navigating; and do it in a place with extraordinary landscapes and habitats that most have never visited before, then you have a winning combination. Shared experience, and terror, is a great bonder of people and the more memorable the experiences the stronger the bond.

With this in mind I took the Zoos’ Senior Management Team to the United Arab Emirates in early March this year. We visited a dozen different places, most of which were amazing. One or two were awful (just for balance) but all of which challenged us in some way. The UAE is, of course, the world’s richest country and the display of wealth is simply staggering. Fortunately, a strong conservation ethic, which is latent in Arab culture anyway, is coming to the fore and the number of wildlife-related visitor centres and attractions is growing yearly. There are already more specimens of species like oryx, falcons, and bustards in ex situ holdings in the UAE than there are in all European zoos put together and the expansion plans we were told about are simply dizzying in their ambition. They will alter the paradigm for how zoo based conservation is carried out in the future.

As well as the scale of the ambition we were very struck by the variety of organisations and management-types that we saw, ranging from massive aquariums  run purely for profit to beautiful, purist, educational establishments run without any attempt to make them economically sustainable, considering that the educational and conservation messaging and action was far more important. There was no ‘right’ way. What they all had in common was a real focus on providing the best guest experience that they possibly could and we had some memorable moments with species like penguins (in the desert?!), budgerigars (who showed a heartening ability to spot a Finance Director and shun him), and a stow-away hermit crab. We saw the world’s most expensive and beautiful zoo-based education centre and had dinner in front of the world’s tallest building.

Although it wasn’t a primary objective of the trip we saw so many good ideas and good practices that we want to steal for our zoos that it will take years to implement them all. But at the same time we were reassured to see that even the very best, or at least the most expensive, still make little mistakes in presentation and organisation that were familiar to us from our own operations. Oh, and I still think we are well up there with the very best when it comes to animal welfare and the appliance of science.

Simon Tonge - Executive Director, Paignton Zoo Environmental Park.

Quotes It's got to be said, Paignton Zoo is hard to beat! Quotes