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Remember the days when often a city’s visitor centre had a few dusty leaflets, outdated maps on the walls and staff that looked bored rigid by the entire experience?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:

  • Mediawall
  • 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.
About two-thirds of visitors to the centre are currently from the UK (and a large proportion from northern areas), with the overseas third mostly coming from Germany, France, US, Ireland and Spain.

NB: Daines was speaking at the ENTER2012 conference in Helsingborg, Sweden.

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Kevin May

About the Writer :: Kevin May

Kevin May was a co-founder and member of the editorial team from September 2009 to June 2017.



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  3. Helen

    It seems that there are more “Apple Store” experiences being replicated and Ron Johnson, the man reputed to to have pioneered the Apple Retail Stores, has been busy transforming JC Penney as well.

    “US department store jcpenney is set to become the most exciting retailer of 2012 as new CEO Ron Johnson, the genius behind the Apple stores, teams up with Senior Marketing Executive Ruby Anik to revolutionise the 100-year-old business.”

  4. Stuart Aiken

    Thanks for all the nice comments. I’ve created a very quick blog post to answer some of your questions:

    • Brian Hayashi

      Thanks for the reply, Stuart.

      When it comes to staff, companies often start with a centralised social media team. This approach often ends up with people that are better at memorising things than people with better people skills, since the focus is on technical skills using social media and providing support to people who don’t know Hootsuite from Radian6. I’d be interested in hearing how your HR needs may have changed with the new approach.

      Love the comment about the need to look at things breaking down. We know about printers, but many people are surprised how fast stuff gets into displays, etc. People also assume that links are stable…until a popular restaurant shutters and kills not only the listing, but also the blog posts that have been written and even QR codes. This is even more important in mobile, where the emphasis shifts from delivering information to providing a prompt response. Getting sent to a place that has been shut down is a top source of irritation. The good news is that there are free link shortening services from Google, etc. that unlike, enable destinations to manage scores of links and edit them long after they’ve gone live.

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  6. vibhu

    Would be interesting to know if they have used mobile technology too. Any inputs?

  7. RobertKCole

    Manchester – “birthplace to one of the best music scenes of all time”

    Oh wait, that’s right, you must be referring to the spring of 1965 when Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits & Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders topped the US Billboard charts ;^)

  8. Margaret McCormick

    We were excited to see news of this development several years ago (in fact I think we spoke enviously about it at our annual Visitor Centre conference!). Congratulations Stuart! Would love to hear some key learnings now that you have some time under your belt. What would you do differently? Digital vs print – what has been the impact and, what are you planning next!!??

  9. Julie Woodward

    As a Mancunian, I am very pleased and proud to see this innovation in Manchester. I’m not surprised though as the city has consistently been at the cutting edge – ever since the Manchester Ship Canal was built. Well done Manchester!

  10. Joe Buhler

    What’s the operative word for this around these quarters again? – Awesome!
    Seriously, congratulations to Manchester for this innovative approach. This is a key part of the overall brand experience.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @joe – it’s good, but not THAT good 😉

      • Stuart Aiken

        It IS that good! 🙂

      • Joe Buhler

        Judging from the photos it looks very attractive to me, but I haven’t seen it in person.
        Applaud DMO innovation in all its forms, as it is rare enough….!

        • Philip Caines

          I remember the first time I saw the Microsoft surface tables at PCW2009, I knew they would be a great fit for a DMO info centre. I used to run one in Vancouver, and the old counter divide is just that, OLD. Great approach at making a fresh, barrier free experience that looks sleek and inviting (and a bit of a knock off ;).

  11. Stuart Aiken

    Glad you like the Manchester Visitor Information Centre. You can see more of it in action at our corporate YouTube channel


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