Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean you should do it. (There are nearly 9 million apps available for download around the world.)
Museums, cultural sites, and other attractions are offering mobile apps and mobile tour guide experiences to engage visitors before, during, and after their trips.
But do these apps and mobile-friendly sites actually have a positive impact on the visitor experience?
What’s in this guide:
- The dominance of smartphones and travel tech
- Technology expectations since Covid
- Business motivations for creating mobile guides
- Visitor motivations for using mobile guides
- Mobile content effectiveness
- Engagement with other facilities and offerings
- The intention to revisit
The dominance of smartphones and travel tech
Museum-led VR experiences have gotten positive reviews, but the vast majority of Americans don’t own a VR set. What do they own? Smartphones.
97% of Americans own some sort of a cellphone, and 85% own a smartphone that can utilize apps and mobile web browsers.
On average, smartphone users use 9 apps per day and 30 apps per month, which is lower than in years past, as both users and businesses have chosen web apps over native apps (because there’s no downloading required, and less phone clutter).
82% of travel bookings are completed with no human interaction at all, setting the stage for digital-first experiences in other facets of the travel, tourism, and visitor attractions industries as well.
More than half of Americans are Millennials, Gen Z, or Gen Alpha, meaning that over half the population are digital natives who are accustomed to using digital technology throughout every area of their lives. Globally, the dominance of digital-first generations is even higher.
Technology expectations since Covid
During the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, mobile app usage soared 40% year over year. In July of 2020, 90% of consumers said that their opinion of the tech industry either improved or stayed the same, as consumers adopted all sorts of digital technologies from conferencing solutions to telehealth to digital experiences. 56% predicted that they would continue to be open to trying new technologies post-pandemic.
Cleaning awareness and germ consciousness increased during the height of the pandemic and remained at higher-than-before levels. This suggests that many visitors will continue to expect to be able to use their own devices to learn new information, rather than to have to rent audio devices or touch physical displays.
Post Covid, the American Alliance of Museums found that more museum-goers identified as Rechargers and Explorers than before the pandemic (see John Falk’s 5 types of museum learners). Digital technologies can empower museum professionals to pivot. They can cater learning experiences to important emotional needs that go beyond just cleanliness. As resources and content themes become more popular due to other global challenges, world news, and trends, museums can use their mobile technologies to address them.
Business motivations for creating mobile guides
Great tour guides and docents know that apps can’t replace them, but that they can help serve the visitors who would rather engage with an app than with a live person or group.
— Podsukhina et al., 2022
The majority of guides believe that live guiding and travel apps can co-exist with each other and that tourists will still demand both, with travel apps helping to expand the audience.
In their paper, A critical evaluation of mobile guided tour apps: Motivators and inhibitors for tour guides and customers, Podsukhina et al found that the main motivators for operators creating digital tours are:
- Additional source of income (in the case of mobile tours with fees)
- Provide an interesting format and an exciting experience
- The opportunity to be creative
- The ability to serve additional people during busy seasons
- The ability to cater to different groups of people (younger tourists, introverts, people on a tight schedule)
While not mentioned in that study, mobile guides are also well-known for their ability to increase inclusion and compliance with the American Disabilities Act.
Visitor motivations for using mobile guides
Younger tourists in particular want to be able to pick and choose their experiences, and visit attractions on their own schedule—typically at a faster pace (Podsukhina et al., 2022).
Podsukhina et al.’s research shows that for customers, the motivations for using a mobile tour guide app are mainly:
- Lower cost compared with group tours
- Not required to follow a group
- Ability to go at their own pace and spend more time in certain locations
- Easy navigation between locations
- Ability to re-listen to audio information as needed
- Ability to manage their time more easily and proceed with their personal itinerary
- Desire to go solo due to introverted tendencies
Mobile content effectiveness
— Riches et al Impact on public attitudes of a mental health audio tour of the National Gallery in London
The tour increased positive attitudes…indicating the feasibility of arts-based interventions in major venues to reduce stigma.
One of the most exciting recent studies in the field of visitor attractions and technology engagement was the 2022 publication, Impact on public attitudes of a mental health audio tour of the National Gallery in London.
This study analyzed the impact of mobile audio content on mental health on participants’ perception of their own mental health and societal stigmas.
Participants scored the audio guide highly on:
- Content understandability
- Attitude change
- Amount learned
- Thinking differently about their own mental health
The tour created by the National Gallery in London was successful largely in part to its inclusion of real stories of four young adults and their personal experiences with mental health.
The authors of the study wisely write:
— Riches et al., 2022
The experiential dimension to the tour and inclusion of the voices of people with lived experience enabled visitors to engage with complex topics and reflect on their social and personal meaning. This appears to be crucial to instigating attitude change given that experiential learning theory suggests active engagement is more valuable and effective than many other educational approaches.
Certainly, a mobile tour is only as effective as its content.
But audio guides provide the ability to share audio snippets from a variety of sources, in a way that other mediums can’t. As a source of further inspiration, Parks Canada uses its mobile audio guide to share stories and land management knowledge of indigenous people.
Engagement with other facilities and offerings
“Travel technologies enable tourists to have more opportunities to engage in a wide range of activities and events,” write Pai et al in their paper, The Role of Perceived Smart Tourism Technology Experience for Tourist Satisfaction, Happiness and Revisit Intention.
Mobile tour guides, for their part, can increase event ticket purchases, membership or patron subscriptions, and restaurant reservations, creating a host of sales opportunities for cultural districts, regions, museums, and other cultural sites.
While 18% of the global population is over the age of 55, 41% of museum-goers are at least that age. Older museum-goers are looking for more ways to spend their increasing free time and are more likely to engage with other offerings, meaning that mobile web or native apps can better serve this audience as well (not just young people).
The intention to revisit
All in all, tourism and visitor experience technology should improve informativeness, accessibility, interactivity, personalization, and security. These technology elements raise visitor satisfaction, which in turn positively correlates with an increased likelihood to revisit the city or site (Pai et al., 2020).
Mobile guide apps can address all of the researchers identified essentials:
- Informativeness - Learn new facts, discover a site, locate important features and resources.
- Accessibility - Choose your language, listen to audio, and read transcripts.
- Interactivity - Interact with multimedia content that piques your interest.
- Personalization - Go at your own pace, select the tours, stops, and content you want.
- Security - Cybersecurity: no need to create a user account or password; physical security: use your own device for cleanliness.
When visitors are more likely to revisit a site, they’re also more likely to spread it via word of mouth (WOM). When WOM is the main promotion method driving a new visit, that tourist will be more likely to have an accurate perception of the destination and their intentions for visiting are more likely to be satisfied (Xu et al., 2020).
What really matters are great experiences and great stories. Mobile apps provide a way to cater to wider on-site audiences and encourage them to come back.