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VOL. 126 | NO. 251 | Monday, December 26, 2011

Going Mobile: Travel Apps Promote City


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When Shara Karasic got the urge to go walking in Memphis during a recent trip for a friend’s wedding, she reached for her trusted travel guide – her mobile phone.

Karasic, director of social strategy for the mobile-app website Appolicious.com, used and cataloged about 10 Memphis-centric apps during her trip, from the free and hyper-local ArtsMemphis and Center for Southern Folklore apps to the more general Memphis Walking Tours and Map, which is available for $4.99.

“I love not having to manage paper/waste paper and just find the info I need on my mobile phone,” said Karasic by email from her home in California. “My phone can ping me with notifications; I might lose a piece of paper or not remember to reference it. Also my phone knows where I am and can recommend what’s around me.”

Interactive applications and mobile sites for smartphones and iPads are quickly replacing paper maps and brochures as the go-to sources for travel tips and deals. A search on Appolicious.com for “Chicago travel,” for example, pulls up hundreds of hits, from specific attractions to local history, public transit and hotel apps.

Lately, Memphis’ tourism industry and attractions have been going mobile to keep pace with the momentum.

The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau released a comprehensive city travel app in October after noticing fewer visitors were using its paper maps and guides. In its first two months, the bureau’s new app logged more than 2,000 downloads.

An Apple version is available for free at memphistravel.com, and a version for Android phones is on the way soon. The system uses the user’s real-time location to push information about nearby attractions, restaurants and hotels, upcoming events, mobile coupons and directions.

“If you’re here at the corner of Front and Union looking for something to eat, it will pull up, ‘Hey, the Majestic Grille is nearby, Bardog is nearby,’” said Bob Hazlett, director of online marketing for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The app also links to stories to help travelers plan their trips – top African-American historical sites, for instance – and the bureau’s popular I Love Memphis blog. Because visitors to the city tend to seek out unique, out-of-the way destinations that tourists in other cities might miss, the CVB made a point to focus on what it calls the city’s “flipside attractions.”

“I think we see more people that don’t want to be tourists anymore,” Hazlett said. “They want to do what the locals do.”

The push toward mobile content is driven by consumer demand, Hazlett said. Travelers aren’t at a desktop; they are exploring the city and want to know where to go and what to do right now.

But it’s also more cost effective for the CVB to produce mobile apps than printed brochures, Hazlett said. Mobile apps also can be updated instantly with museum exhibits, music schedules and up-to-the-minute information.

This year, some 80 percent of travelers consulted their mobile phones for travel information during a trip, and 65 percent before the trip, according to research by tourism marketing company Miles Media. Nearly 11 percent used a destination-specific app.

Florida-based Miles Media has delivered or begun development on travel apps for about a dozen destinations – including the new one for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau – since diving into the mobile market four years ago, said Elena Prostova, creative director and vice president of new business development.

This year might have represented a tipping point when a majority of travelers used mobile sources for information, Prostova said. Increased availability of smartphones and the spread of faster, 4G infrastructure are contributing to the increase.

“We’ve seen a huge pickup in the past two years, with this year really being a groundbreaking year,” Prostova said.

The next step for Memphis, Prostova said, might be “augmented reality” – already available in some large cities – in which phone software can add on-screen sound and video information based on the user’s surroundings.

Karasic said apps are now an essential tool for any travel destination. Travelers, especially younger ones, already use apps such as TripIt and FlightTrack Pro to manage their trips; it’s natural for them to use local apps to navigate once they reach their destination, she said.

“Whenever I get inspired about a place, I check out its apps,” Karasic said. “I used to check out books about a place, but now I check out apps first and then maybe books.”

All that mobile technology, Karasic said, helped her check out Memphis the old-fashioned way – by taking a walk.

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