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Posted: September 25, 2014

Tech and travel

New apps abound, but don’t write off guidebooks just yet

Eric Peterson

The trusty travel guide – the paper variety – is at a crossroads.

Take the case of Google buying Frommer’s Travel Guides in 2012. The search giant immediately quashed the model of regularly updated paper books, but within a year sold off the longstanding brand back to its namesake founder, Arthur Frommer, who started writing travel guides in the 1950s.

The paper guide was back – but the Frommer’s catalog was sliced from about 300 titles to 20 when it resumed publication in 2013.

Where dead-tree guidebooks are waning, mobile travel apps are proliferating, offering users an endless stream of hotel reviews, itineraries and other travel content.

The question is whether they can improve on the printed page.

“There have been dozens of travel-inspiration apps that have been funded and launched,” says Tom Filippini, CEO of Denver-based NextGreatTrip, a charter travel provider. “It’s been very difficult for them to get much traction and for people to commit to another platform.”

Filippini says he’s a longtime devotee of Lonely Planet’s print guidebooks. “I use paper as my primary [source of information] and digital as a backup. You can underline. You can write in the margins.”

Most importantly, “It’s all about the content curators,” Filippini says. Crowdsourced travel sites are tricky because “you have no idea whose advice to trust.”

When it comes to destination marketing, technology offers a different set of challenges. Justin Bresler, director of marketing for Visit Denver, says the bureau released a smartphone app in 2010 and an iPad app in 2012, but now is focused on a responsive website that ports to phones, tablets and desktops.

“Apps are great if they’re for frequent usage,” he says, but that’s not necessarily the case during travel planning. “People are switching screens throughout the planning process. That’s a big part of why we designed the site like we did, so the same great content we have on our desktop site is also on mobile. Over the last four years, smartphones are much more pervasive. More people have smartphones and are using them.”

Bresler says improvements in mobile search and smartphone-friendly websites have catalyzed Visit Denver’s strategy, and that a full third of digital traffic is mobile – a notable increase.

He adds that internal content creation is not going to replace Visit Denver’s traditional advertising anytime soon. “We don’t look at them as either-or.” He says that paid advertising still represents the lion’s share of Visit Denver’s media budget, but adds, “The bureau just brought in our first full-time content manager.”

KING OF THE MOUNTAIN

Meanwhile, Broomfield-based Vail Resorts has garnered industry awards and hundreds of thousands of users for its EpicMix platform, an RFID-based system that allows skiers and riders to track their days on the slopes and share their accomplishments via social media. Debuting in the 2010-11 season, it now works at the company’s four mountain resorts in Colorado as well as its properties in California, Utah and the Midwest.

“The strategy of EpicMix is to be out of the way of the skiing and riding experience,” says Vail Resorts CTO Robert Urwiler. “You don’t have to download it beforehand to have the experience.”

The RFID card tracks vertical feet, number of runs and other data. Vail Resorts followed the original EpicMix with EpicMix Photos, EpicMix Racing and EpicMix Academy, a ski-school app. A new iteration is in development for the 2014-15 ski season.

“The strategy is to create brand advocates,” Urwiler says. “The key marketing benefit is social sharing. It’s not what the brand says about the brand, it’s what the customers say about the brand.

“This is the kind of exposure you cannot buy,” he adds. “It’s hard to put a value on it. Intuitively, we can all see the benefit of giving the customers a voice.” Social impressions are in “the tens of millions.”

But EpicMix is just the flashiest technology that impacts Vail Resorts’ customers. “We look at the full guest lifecycle,” Urwiler explains. “It starts when they’re planning their trips and ends when they’re reminiscing with their friends.” He says technology can help improve every “touch point” between Vail Resorts and its customers along the way.

COOL NEW TOOL AT COPPER

Copper Mountain has taken a different approach, with the help of Made Movement, an advertising and digital agency in Boulder. Made developed Sherpa, Copper’s on-mountain app that launched at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.

“We want to make anyone who comes here feel like a local,” says Austyn Williams, Copper’s communication and social media manager. “We have people who have worked here for 40 years. How can we use the conglomeration of that experience?”

To wit: After users download the Sherpa app, they simply press a button to go into “Sherpa Mode” and slip the phone into a pocket and an earbud in their ear.

When the user skis or boards past one of hundreds of “geopins,” Sherpa activates a text-to-voice message ranging from advice on secret powder stashes to I-70 traffic updates to lodging deals. It can let guests know when terrain opens for the day or give ski patrol the whereabouts of an injured or lost skier.

Made Movement CTO Scott Prindle says Sherpa “bridges the digital and physical worlds,” and that meshing with the mountain experience was key.

“In this day and age, gadgetry gets in the way a lot of the time,” he says. “You don’t want to be pulling out your smartphone. When the snow melts they find quite a few smartphones below the lifts.”

But Prindle says simply porting a printed travel guide to a smartphone or tablet isn’t going to work without reinventing it. “It’s hard to grab people’s attention with something that’s offering a generic set of features,” says Prindle. “You need to look at points of need that give people a reason to download the app.”

Crowdsourced sites like TripAdvisor force users to “wade through a lot of bad content,” he adds, echoing NextGreatTrip’s Filippini, advocating a hybrid curated-crowdsourced model.

Applying the geo-based Sherpa model to a guidebook-like app, Prindle notes, “I could follow you from point A to point B like I follow you on Twitter.”

Maybe that’s the future of the travel app.

In the end, it’s not unlike the trusty old dog-eared travel guide, with curated travel information and advice – except for the notable lack of paper.

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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