by Cooper Levey-Baker
New technology allows us to know where tourists go and what they do.
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IT’S CALLED A MAGICBAND—a brightly colored, mouse-embossed wristband you get if you’re a Walt Disney World passholder, or if you stay at a Disney Resort hotel. The wristband unlocks your hotel room, gets you into the park and even pays for food and merch. And through its radio frequency device and transmitter, it also collects information about what you’re up to and how you’re moving around.
Why? Cihan Cobanoglu, chair of the College of Hospitality and Tourism Leadership at USF Sarasota-Manatee, says data collected from radio frequen-cy-enhanced tickets help attractions better understand how visitors experience their parks. That in turn lets companies adjust where they place food and drink kiosks and other amenities and also contact guests with special deals if they’re in the vicinity of a specific vendor.
Sarasota and Manatee attractions aren’t as sophisticated yet. As Visit Sarasota County president Virginia Haley points out, many of Sarasota’s biggest destinations—the Ringling Museum, Mote Marine, Selby Gardens—are nonprofits, not exactly up for head-to-head competition with Mickey Mouse. But local tourism agencies are doing their best to gather as much detailed information about visitors as possible, while walking a fine line between gathering data and annoying consumers
Visit Sarasota County conducts what Haley calls “visitor intercept interviews” every month (volunteers with iPads do face-to-face interviews with visitors), as well as follow-up email surveys. The Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, meanwhile, employs a third-party research firm that performs “low-key” visitor Q&As to learn about tourist habits there, says executive director Elliott Falcione. The Manatee County bureau also uses focus groups in cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to gauge potential tourists’ knowledge of Southwest Florida.
But all that depends on visitors actually volunteering info.
Visit Sarasota County also analyzes data from its website and whether users are on desktop browsers, tablets or smart phones. Matt Murphy, Visit Sarasota County’s website manager, says data on mobile users is particularly valuable, allowing the agency to analyze a user’s specific location and interests. But Visit Sarasota County treads gently. “We could analyze a little deeper and more invasively,” Murphy says, “but that sort of location-based tracking is not a neutral topic. We’re a little cautious about that.”
The Visit Sarasota County website includes a map widget that identifies your current location (if you allow it to) and suggests nearby hotels, restaurants and leisure opportunities. Murphy says examining what users look for on the maps can yield surprising insights. One example: Visitors who have already arrived in the region often are still searching for accommodations. That information may influence how Visit Sarasota markets area lodgings.
Visit Sarasota County is exploring how best to use its mobile app to send notifications about events and discounts to users. Haley says it’s difficult to figure out how to reach app users with useful information without harassing them so much they delete the app altogether. “They don’t want to be dinged all the time,” Haley says. “It has to be something that they really are going to appreciate.”
Another advantage that global attractions like Disney have over regional destinations like Sarasota and Manatee is that Disney often controls the entire visitor experience, including transportation, lodging, food and entertainment.
A typical trip to Sarasota, on the other hand, might include a stay at a locally owned hotel or condo, a day out in nature or at the beach, and visits to any number of independent nonprofits. The challenge is piecing together the visitor’s overall pattern and figuring out why he or she chose activity X instead of activity Y. Unless, of course, we just start issuing MagicBands to every tourist who crosses the county line.