Listening to what the market wants

Waterford company Zolk C was the first to enter the market with an electronic hand-held tourist guide, bringing heritage sites to life and is now turning its attentions to the lucrative North American tourism market, writes Trish Dromey.

WATERFORD company Zolk C will be scaling new heights in the Canadian Rockies this year, providing passengers on the Jasper Tramway with a high-tech, augmented reality experience 7,000 ft above sea level.

Back in 2007, the company was the first to enter the market with an electronic hand-held tourist guide which provides audio and video content triggered by GPS satellite. Since then, the company has installed its technology at eleven tourist sites in Ireland and Scotland.

With the help of a €500,000 investment from Kernel Capital, Zolk C is this year aiming for significant growth in the North American market, starting out by providing electronic guides which explain the magnificent aerial views from the Jasper Tramway.

“We have been increasing turnover by 100% year on year and we aim to increase this to €5 million within four years, which will see us employ more than 40 people’ reveals Zolk C founder and managing director Paul Savage.

The company is a spin out from the Telecommunication Software and Systems Group at Waterford Institute of Technology, where Mr Savage was involved in carrying out research on the use of technology in heritage sites in 2006.

Identifying the opportunity to commercialise this research, he set up Zolk C and successfully tendered to provide an electronic guide for Culloden in 2007.

In 2008 the company brought Culloden to life with 200 electronic guides providing the sounds of battle and the stories of the participants.

This won a Heritage and Museums Best use of Technology award for the National Trust for Scotland which manages the site.

In Ireland, the largest project has been the Dunbrody Famine Experience which was remodelled by Zolk C to provide an audio-visual experience telling the stories of Irish emigrants. “The site has since recorded a 20% increase in revenue,’ says Mr Savage. The company has also provided technology for Russborough House and hand-held guides for Jacobite Cruises on Loch Ness, and the St Patrick’s Centre in Downpatrick which tells the story of St Patrick in 4 languages, as well as a city tour for Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.

Projects scheduled to go live this year include one at an Diseart in Kerry which tells the story of Nano Nagle as well as a guide to the Shetland Isles Geopark.

Zolk C has recently signed a contract with Waterford City Council to provide handheld multi-media interpretation of the Viking Triangle in Waterford.

“This will be one of the most advanced uses of technology at any tourist site. It will involve a walking tour taking in the Bishop’s Palace, Reginald’s Tower and a new Medieval Museum which is opening this year. It will operate both out on the streets and in the centres and use augmented reality to bring the experience to life.”

Augmented reality is a new addition for Zolk C this year, and will be used at a Geopark in the Shetlands as well as at Jasper Tramway in Canada.

The technology can be used to make the environment “clickable”. A live image of the scene in front of the visitor from the camera is displayed on the hand held screen. Buttons float over interesting objects and reveal information through videos and images when clicked.

Employing a staff of nine, as well as two part-time, Zolk C is engaged in continuing research and development& and now offers applications for smartphones as well as handheld guides. Supported since inception by Enterprise Ireland, it was identified as a High Potential Start Up in 2008.

Funding from Kernel Capital comes through the Bank of Ireland Seed and Early Stage Equity Fund and is the first significant investment in the company.

Recognising it is difficult for sites to get funding for development in the current economic climate, Zolk C has now adopted a new revenue strategy. “In all our projects this year we will partner with the sites and share revenue — this is better for our customers as it reduces up front costs and makes sure their offerings stay abreast of new technologies, it is better for us as they are more likely to stay customers of Zolk C” Mr Savage says the key focus for 2012 year will be North America, especially Canada where the economy is stable and tourist numbers are high.

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