Mark Locker explains the challenges of developing mobile phone applications (“apps”) for the amusement industry and ponders, “Will apps make paper maps a thing of the past?”
There is no doubt that the term “app” has become a buzzword over the last few years, and it’s easy to see why. Since the advent of the smartphone, modern mobile devices are able to connect to the internet and determine your location, wherever you are – giving software developers an incredibly powerful platform to work with.
When Apple launched its AppStore in 2008, we were really excited about what role apps could be used for in the leisure industry. Without delay, we started working on an independent app for Alton Towers, our local theme park. Since then we’ve developed three more independent apps, including the chart topping Thrill Seeker, as well as working with parks to create official, branded apps.
When we started developing, our aim was simple, to improve the day of your average park visitor by making use of the technology they already had in their pocket. The traditional paper map has been a standard means of getting around since parks began, and they’ve never been challenged or replaced, until now.
Being regular park visitors ourselves, we had to take a step back and look at the needs of the general public, who may only visit a park once or twice a year and would not be as familiar with them as we are. Your average guest tends to pick up a park map at the start of the day and then turn to it for directions and information as they wander around.
It turns out that many modern day park maps really aren’t that easy to navigate. We would often encounter guests huddled around maps, having trouble orientating themselves, and even saw visitors mistaking rides for those at the opposite end of the park.
With this in mind, we set out to create what we dubbed a “park map on steroids,” one that would be able to show you where you were at any given time. Essentially it should be a constantly updated “you are here” sign in your pocket. We also wanted it to be able to direct you to wherever you want to go, with intelligent “sat-nav” (GPS) style directions.
By the time we came to release our first app, the feature list had expanded beyond this to include a “nearby” function, allowing users to see everything around them sorted by distance, and a tool for finding the nearest toilet (a feature desperately requested by our users!). It also provided a wealth of information about each attraction and all of the park facilities, allowing users to find out about rides before choosing to experience them.
These features alone count for a credible app, but for the right park, this is just scratching the surface. We’ve since been able to integrate live ride wait times (a feature incredibly popular with users), social networking (Facebook and Twitter), a day-planner and so much more. The possibilities of what can be done are endless. In fact, we’re already working on some exciting new features including a “friend finder” function allowing you to instantly view the location of your friends on the park map. Ideal for groups that wish to separate and do their own thing throughout the day, it should also help parents locate lost children.
All of the above might sound great, but what’s important is that these features aren’t just gimmicks, they all offer genuine value to visitors and park owners alike. The response we’ve had from users so far has been phenomenal, and it’s incredibly satisfying to know that we’re able to make people’s days out more enjoyable.
One of the challenges we faced was getting guests to try out something completely new, but by picking the iPhone we were able to pull on Apple’s extremely popular and easy to use platform to market our apps. We did question whether there was a big enough market to make such an app profitable, but the number of downloads has blown us away.
While our independent apps offer great functionality to the end-user, branded apps offer fantastic opportunities for parks and attractions to reach out to their target market in various new ways. With ever-increasing sales of smartphones, the potential market is growing at an incredible rate, with no sign of slowing. Features like the aforementioned social networking integration allow users to post status updates from within the app, showing all of their friends and followers that they are at the respective ride or attraction. A great marketing tool for your park!
A more direct approach is to utilise “push notifications,” which provide additional, instant contact to everyone in your park with the app installed, whether or not they have the app turned on. This is a great way of sending news, updates, show times and offers to your guests throughout the day.
There’s one other little reason why apps are great – they’re green. Traditional paper maps offer a great point of reference for visitors, but more often than not, they end up littering the parks or are thrown away after little use. Utilising a mobile app decreases the reliance on printed maps, potentially reducing the amount of waste, not forgetting printing costs.
Mobile apps are a very exciting development, penetrating many aspects of consumer life. Any theme park or attraction that doesn’t at least consider getting into mobile applications is overlooking an amazing opportunity to not only improve the guest experience, but also bring your brand into the 21st century and maybe also increase incremental revenue. If you don’t develop an app for your guests, someone else will!
Mark Locker is managing director of Theme Park Nerd, a UK-based company specialising in the development of mobile applications for the leisure and entertainment industry. Its products include a number of official and independent theme park related apps, including iTunes bestseller Thrill Seeker.
Want to sell more tickets? There’s an app for that!
While they might offer an added service to guests, most existing theme parks apps appear to offer limited revenue opportunities for the parks concerned, even those with their own official branded apps. Leading ticket and admissions provider OmniTicket Network aims to put that right with a new ticket-purchasing app for parks and attractions.
Already in use at a number of venues in Italy, the app is offered free to users, allowing then to book the full range of tickets available online and then a scan a barcode at the turnstile to gain entry. With the next generation of iPhones promising RFID (radio frequency identification), users would not even need a barcode.
Although developed primarily as ticketing function, OmniTIcket’s director of UK operations John Davies says, “Potentially we could integrate maps or any other functions a park wants to offer.”