The Future of Visitor Services?

A really good client of mine has recently announced a very bold visitor services initiative here in Canada’s Capital. It’s forward-looking, tech oriented, and pretty risky – and I really hope it succeeds.

For 20 years or so, the National Capital Commission (NCC) has operated a traditional visitor centre out of a prime location directly across from Parliament Hill, arguably Ottawa’s, if not Canada’s number one tourist destination. The Capital Infocentre offered the usual mix of brochures, friendly staff and washrooms, and was quite successful, with visitation of over 300,000 per year. The Infocentre has been getting a little long in the tooth recently, and planning work was well underway for a $5 million dollar refit of the existing space. To the surprise of the Ottawa tourism industry and NCC staffers working on the renovation plans, the executive at the NCC have recently abandoned those plans, and chosen instead to embrace a radically different vision for the future of visitor services.

Their prime location is to be closed in favour of a small kiosk presence at a downtown mall two blocks away. Parking for the former location was always at this mall, as they had no parking on-site. An extensive wayfinding system with direct and scenic routes leading to the garage is already in place. But I sense the kiosk is really just a nod toward the status quo – the really interesting stuff is what happens beyond this physical location.

The NCC has chosen to adopt a vision of visitor services whereby the information is delivered in a distributed fashion, relying heavily on mobile web technology. In this scenario, both wayfinding and interpretive information are to be delivered to visitor’s smartphones or to the ipads of roving information staff wandering Confederation Boulevard, the ceremonial route that is home to many of the national historical and cultural destinations in Ottawa. As part of this strategy, the NCC is planning to implement an open public wireless network covering the entire area. I’ve heard no details on the software side of this undertaking, but assume that content would be delivered using a browser-based model, with a responsive design that would detect device specs and serve the appropriate format. I make this assumption based on the idea that the same content that guides visitors on site could be used as visit research and virtual tour material from any location and from any sized screen. That would make sense to me, and makes sense given their mandate. It could very well be native app-based, but that just sounds like more of a content management headache to me.

I work with the NCC a lot, and I don’t think it would be unfair to say that it’s an organization that has been quite risk-adverse in the past. I find this new imagining of their visitor information services to be an incredibly gutsy call. It’s certainly a bet on the continued proliferation of smartphones. The latest data suggests that smartphone usage in the US and Canada hovers around 33%, meaning that a substantial majority of the population will be looking for a guide with an ipad. This smartphone usage number will certainly grow – it would be especially interesting to know how the trends map against the demographics of their visitors.

I will be watching the roll-out of this new strategy with interest. I think they’ve covered a lot of the risks with some smart choices around alternate delivery methods (retaining a kiosk and the roving guides) and by providing free wifi to side-step the data-roaming issue. The more I think about it, I think it might just work.

I’m really curious to hear about the experience of readers with delivery of visitor service, wayfinding or interpretation information using mobile technologies. Have you been considering mobile delivery at your site or museum? Have you been a consumer of mobile wayfinding or interpretation? Please share your thoughts below…