Catch as Catch Can - March 2018

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Capture wandering travelers through their phones

by Jen A. Miller

Attractions have their core visitors—locals and those who travel back year after year—but what about capturing those out-of-town guests who may not know your facility exists until they’re within driving range? The answer is already in their hands … because people are always looking at their phones.

According to marketing firm MMGY Global’s 2016 Portrait of American Travelers, booking accommodations, flights, and hotels is still the most popular use of mobile apps when it comes to travel.

But using smartphones and smartphone apps is becoming a way to find attractions and buy tickets, too. According to MMGY, in 2016, 19 percent of travelers used smartphones to purchase attraction and event tickets. That’s up from 11 percent in 2013. Twenty percent also download mobile coupons, up from 15 percent in 2013. 

Making sure you’re present—and presented correctly—on apps should be part of your company’s reputation management. It can bring customers through your entrance or turn them away.

A lot of that traffic is going to come from big-name travel apps. But the internet is vast and wide, and so are the travel apps offered within it. How can you make sure your attraction is there, too—while ensuring your information is correct and easy to access?

First Things First: The Big Travel Review Apps

We couldn’t do a story on travel apps without at least mentioning the big names in travel review apps: TripAdvisor and Yelp.

“The way that things work nowadays is that reviews about a company are almost the first thing people see when they’re looking for a business, even if they’re not looking for reviews,” says Brian Patterson, an online reputation management expert with Go Fish Digital, a Northern Virginia-based digital marketing agency. 

Negative reviews can sting—and hurt your bottom line—even if what the reviewers are saying isn’t quite true or is just beyond your control, like giving you a one-star rating and a scathing review because you can’t control the climate in your outdoor attraction.

Brett Bertolino, director of operations at the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) historic site in Philadelphia, says its marketing department monitors reviews on these apps on an ongoing basis so the team can respond as quickly as possible to reviews that need responses. They also monitor and respond to questions and complaints posted on social media.

The guest support team will send a monthly e-mail with all the feedback they get, and then “the entire programming team sits down at least twice a year and reads those reviews,” he says. This helps management identify and address issues on both an immediate and long-term scale. Two or three times a year, the management team meets to address common complaints that seem beyond their control, like climate and not having permanent bathrooms. To address these concerns, they created “recharge” stations so people can take breaks from the heat or cold, and installed trailer restroom facilities.

What to do about reviews, good or bad? “Engage with that person, whether it’s positive or negative,” says Julie Dion, whose Dion Marketing Company specializes in marketing for attractions. “Of course, if it’s negative, you want to be able to share that with management, as well as respond to [the guest] and let them know their feedback is important and assure them you want to make their experience better in the future,” she says. If it’s positive, she adds, “it’s good to respond and thank them for that positive review, which can show other people reading the reviews that you’re a responsive theme park or family entertainment center that really cares about its guests.” She suggests creating a spreadsheet of common questions or complaints and crafting standard responses to each. 

“Somebody that could be answering might not be the general manager or the owner of the business,” she says. “Having that plan or process intact will help anybody respond, and you have better reputation management. That’s really helped us be more efficient and also have good responses.”

Go Fish Digital’s Patterson suggests taking a moment to read the review in its entirety before addressing the person by name. Plus, it’s beneficial to familiarize yourself with the app’s terms on what can and cannot be written in reviews. For example, if a negative review includes cursing and the company bans those kinds of words, you can ask to have the negative review removed for just that reason.

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Find the Niche Apps—or They Find You

It would be impossible—even if you had an unlimited time and budget—to know of every single app on the planet. Apple’s iOS platform supported 2.2 million apps this year. That’s a wild leap up from 400,000 in 2010.

The best ways to find your company on these apps is to set up Google alerts for your attraction and your competitors (since these apps usually have companion websites or are sprung from websites), and to ask guests where they find you. If you already conduct visitor surveys, it’s a question to add to the survey. You can also encourage customers to write a review if they let a staff member know in person that they had a great time, or post a sign at the exit, encouraging them to share their experience online.

“Making sure you’re up there soliciting positive reviews can balance out the negative ones that might naturally occur,” says Patterson.

You may also find customers if you’re buying ads through advertising networks on apps that may not seem to have anything to do with your company, says Dion. 

“With family entertainment centers, a lot comes with targeting the mom because she’s the decision-maker,” she says, so your ads could be placed on mom-centric apps. “Think about apps just like we think about TV shows, radio stations, or any type of digital publication where that mom might be.”

The same is true with targeted Google ads and social media advertising on platforms such as Facebook (which, of course, has an app). “It’s not a travel app, but it’s the same concept. They have targeting tools so you can narrow your audience, the geography, or their behaviors, which allows you to try to get them into your business,” Dion says.

This might also lead you to placing ads on other travel apps that don’t list sites or reviews but allow you to target those who are making long trips using apps like Waze and GasBuddy.

Bertolino from ESP says you may not need to track the apps down; they’ll come to you if they sell advertising. 

“When you own or run a business, most of the time, people are coming to you to participate in those types of apps or services,” he says. ESP has two main businesses: the tours of the historic site and its “Terror Behind the Walls” Halloween program. He discovered new haunts and horror apps because the apps’ sales teams asked him if he wanted to buy advertising space to promote his attraction. 

ESP does advertise on some haunt and Halloween apps, but decided in 2012 not to sell tickets through them. Instead, it takes what he calls “the Southwest Airlines approach” of only selling tickets through its own website, which now accounts for 88 percent of ticket sales. 

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Eastern State Penitentiary advertises on haunt and horror apps to promote its tours of the historic site and "Terror Behind the Walls" Halloween program. (Credit: JEFF FUSCO/EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY

Partner with Your Local Tourism Programs and Their Apps

According to MMGY Global’s 2016 Portrait of American Travelers, 21 percent of travelers downloaded guides provided by the destination visitors bureau. For you to reap the benefits of being included on these kinds of apps, it’s important to make sure your attraction’s information is correct on the app and website. But this can go beyond just ensuring you’re listed with Visit My Town and partnering with other local tourism-focused apps that will bring people to your site, even if you’re giving those apps a commission for delivering visitors to you.

ESP has also found a powerful partner in Philadelphia-centric apps, just like it has with tour providers like Philadelphia Trolley Works, which brings visitors to different spots around the city, and Love Philly Tours, which bring visitors to Philadelphia from New York City. It became part of The Philadelphia Pass, which provides entry into 40 sites in the city and has its own app for visitors to discover and learn about the different sites. “By being part of those passes that allow guests to have multiple experiences at a discounted rate, we think it’s great because a lot of the times they might not have been able to afford to come to Eastern State but do because we’re part of this program,” Bertolino says.


Jen A. Miller writes about running for The New York Times and is the author of “Running: A Love Story.”

 Four Niche Apps to Know

1. Roadtrippers takes a roadtrip route and shows users what they can find along the way, including the usual restaurants and hotels, but also things to do like attractions, points of interest, and photo ops.

2. Haunts.com is the companion of the popular website of the same name, which lets users find Halloween attractions, escape games, corn mazes, and scream parks. Users search by location and type of scare they crave. 

3. Roadside America focuses on the oddities, the unusual, and the delights that can be found on road trips (or, as they say, ‘in your own backyard’). It’s broken up into seven different United States and Canada regions. It lets users search for trips and map specific cities, depending on how they travel.

4. Sidekix focuses specifically on cities and urban adventurers—those who like to wander around a city without a car. They create guides for users, but also let travelers create their own routes and itineraries based on sites listed in the app.