How a tourism board made its visitor centre look and feel like an Apple Store
Remember the days when often a city’s visitor centre had a few dusty leaflets, outdated maps on the walls and staff that looked bored rigid by the entire experience?
Luckily, such memories are fading away for many as tourism boards realise that the offline experience is equally important as ploughing money into online activity.
Take the UK city of Manchester, birthplace to one of the best music scenes of all time, home to a few mediocre football clubs ( ) but also including a centre which boasts vibrant nightlife as well as shopping and cultural attractions.
The BBC loves the place so much it has (controversially) moved large swathes of its operations to a new development known as Media City, in Salford.
Manchester’s Visitor Information Centre used to be located close to the city’s art gallery, but when major redevelopment took place in the Piccadilly Gardens, officials seized the chance to switch to a better spot, closer to busier thoroughfares and the main rail station.
But rather than simply replicating what went before, a new visitor centre was built with technology at its heart and a rather familiar looking design – that of Apple.
The idea was, in marketing speak, to “truly reflect the original modern essence of Manchester”, but more importantly those behind the new centre wanted to incorporate as much new technology as possible to simply improve the experience of the visiting the place in the first place.
In other words: make discovering information about the city both fun and useful.
The new centre included a number different tech-led activities and displays:
- Twitter feeds
- Desktop computers
- Microsoft Surface tables
The Mediawall, for example, takes up the entire length of one end of the facility and is used to showcase events and products in the city – visitors will find it difficult to ignore, presumably.
Real-time information is streamed into the centre on screens mounted on the walls, each carrying messages not only from the VisitManchester website but also local tourism businesses as well as residents and visitors.
Andrew Daines, a former-VisitBritain executive who consulted on the project, says tweets are filtered to cut out non-desirable content.
A number of desktop computers are positioned throughout the story, allowing visitors to search and book accommodation, transport and events.
Lastly, and perhaps most impressively, is the use of Microsoft Surface tables.
Each device can be used to search and find content in a more sociable and fun way than a desktop PC. As with other deployments of Surface tables, props can be used to interact with the maps so that users can find certain services such as hotels, bars, restaurants, etc.
Daines claims it is the first time a European tourist office has used Surface tables in such a way.
The most striking aspect of the place is the design – a look and feel which may or not have been borrowed intentionally from the swanky designers that put together Apple Stores around the world.
But has it had much of an impact, got a return for the sub-£1 million spent on the place?
Daines says it has achieved a number of key milestones:
- 52% of visitors used the Surface tables or PCs to get more information – Daines says: “Younger respondents particularly were more likely to use the surface tables and computer without assistance by a member of staff – 43% of those aged 16 to 25 used surface tables independently compared to 20% of those aged 36 to 45″.
- 58% of visitors discovered new places to visit using the tech.
- Two-thirds of visitors cited the technology as a reason why they’d use the centre again.
NB: Daines was speaking at the ENTER2012 conference in Helsingborg, Sweden.
Kevin May is editor and a co-founder of Tnooz. He was previously editor of UK-based magazine Travolution for nearly four years and web editor of Media Week UK from 2003 to 2005.
He has also worked in regional newspapers (Essex Enquirer) and started his career in journalism at the Police Gazette at New Scotland Yard in London. He has a degree in criminology and a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism.