Building the iTourism experience

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal newspaper and website.
March 21, 2011 (March 23 on

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The Discover Ottawa iPhone app.
The Discover Ottawa iPhone app.
Image courtesy of Purple Forge.

A new crop of locally developed smartphone apps is bringing a fresh dynamic to a tourism industry that’s long past the days of having a visitor information stand on the side of the road leading into town, but still feels the acute need for details on a destination’s attractions and amenities.

The recent launch of the city of Ottawa’s official application, Discover Ottawa, is a shining example of this: within the first 36 hours of launching, the app had a five-star rating on the iTunes store, attracted more than 2,000 downloads, and was ranked the eighth-most-downloaded social networking app and the 128th overall in Canada, according to Brian Hurley, CEO of Purple Forge, which developed Discover Ottawa.

“It’s helping to develop Ottawa in terms of visibility and attractiveness … the app helps improve the effectiveness and reach of existing programs,” says Mr. Hurley, who notes the bilingual app will be integrated into existing tourism communications and info packages for people interested in doing conferences in the city. It will also be promoted in the Ottawa International Airport’s digital signage.

Discover Ottawa – which was developed with the help of $40,000 in funding from the city’s economic development budget – provides information from many of the city’s tourism-related parties, including the City of Ottawa itself, Ottawa Tourism, the Ottawa International Airport Authority, local business improvement areas and major shopping malls.

The app includes a wide range of data, from up-to-the-minute flight details, to restaurant, entertainment and activity listings, to social networking features such as the ability to post a virtual “postcard” – adorned with photos of Ottawa – to Facebook or Twitter.

“There’s a basic change going on out in the world in how people are accessing information … and for travellers, the smartphone is becoming the primary way of gaining information about a destination,” says Mr. Hurley. “So cities and tourism organizations are matching communications to the vehicle and end user.”

“People have this device in their pocket that’s an incredibly high-quality computer with high-fidelity audio. Then they go into a museum and … pay extra and sometimes leave their ID, all for a rather clunky, antiquated device with a basic keypad that’s four times the size of an iPhone.”– Chris McLaren, Tristan Interactive CEO.

Discover Ottawa isn’t the only homegrown app making a splash on the tourism scene; Tristan Interactive’s Autour technology, which allows organizations such as museums and galleries to deploy special information guides and other multimedia for use on mobile devices, counts the Smithsonian network of 19 museums and the U.S. national zoo among its customers. The Canadian Museum of Civilization, the City Walk of Amsterdam and even the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, which has a sizable collection of contemporary art, are also on Tristan’s client list.

In fact, Tristan CEO Chris McLaren notes his company’s mobile guide for the Canadian Museum of Civilization is the only one in the world for BlackBerry, and the first in Canada for the iPhone, with “more downloads every single week” for the app.

The Smithsonian estimates that since it launched Tristan’s application in the summer of 2010, there have been more than 10 million downloads, based on focus group studies and approximately 30 million visitors to its 20 institutions, Mr. McLaren says.

“People have this device in their pocket that’s an incredibly high-quality computer with high-fidelity audio. Then they go into a museum and are asked to wait in a second line after getting their ticket and to pay extra and sometimes leave their ID, all for a rather clunky, antiquated device with a basic keypad that’s four times the size of an iPhone,” says Mr. McLaren, who came up with the idea for Autour after having that very experience on a trip to Europe right after the iPhone came out.

“The smartphone didn’t invent the audio tour, but it’s a much better experience. And if you appreciate art, even on a superficial level, the difference is night and day between listening to audio and learning something very deep about the painting, and looking at a piece of art and saying, ‘That’s pretty, I like that,’ or ‘I’ve heard of this artist.’”

The response to the Autour mobile guides has kept Tristan quite busy, and the company is preparing to ship guides for the Canadian War Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Parks Canada’s national parks system.

Mr. McLaren says the War Museum is even ordering banks of iPod Touches to cater to people who don’t have compatible devices. “Museums are often finding the iPod Touch to be a better device than the clunky custom devices they’ve been using from smaller manufacturers for decades.”

The emergence of tourism apps is something that will help reinforce the message of Ottawa’s “active urban vibe,” says Dick Brown, executive director of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association.

“It’s exciting because it speaks to the fact that Ottawa is a contemporary and leading-edge city and destination; we’re not rooted in the past with just handing out paper maps and directories to visitors,” says Mr. Brown. “This sort of initiative is very, very good as we move to let the world know that there are many reasons to visit beyond the traditional institutions and the fact that it’s the government seat here.”

Mr. Brown says it’s important for cities to understand the role of the web and mobile technology in presenting themselves to the world at large, with the apps being a key part of enriching the visitor services aspect of tourism and making it easier to access the myriad activities a destination offers.

However, he admits he hasn’t used the apps himself, and notes he hasn’t heard of any particular clamouring for such tools. As well, he says the Internet continues to be the primary source of research for people trying to decide on a getaway destination, rather than mobile apps.

“I think it’s a bit early to make a judgment as to the efficacy of apps, as we don’t yet have the depth of penetration so a majority of visitors use the apps and have the benefit of them,” says Mr. Brown, who says the area of delivering tourism information is in transition. “Frankly, I don’t find browsing on my BlackBerry all that satisfying, and I don’t know that the technology has stabilized to the point that we know the implications for a significant portion of consumers.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Brown says the app is a “wonderful tool to facilitate enjoying the city” once tourists have arrived, and agrees there’s a tremendous convenience to having the information in one’s pocket, rather than on a desk back home.

And for Purple Forge’s Mr. Hurley, the popularity of Discover Ottawa’s postcard capability exhibits there’s a lot of potential to use apps to promote the city.

“It’s engaging and people are having a little bit of fun, and by virtue of that, people are becoming ambassadors.”

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