Selling a City to Tourists Via Hyperlocal

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Last week, NYC & Co., the City of New York’s marketing and tourism organization, launched NYC Map, a mapping app built by, and co-branded with, New York-based startup CityMaps. NYC Map isn’t New York City’s first partnership with native LBS plays: the organization recently partnered with Foursquare and American Express to offer check-in specials during Restaurant Week, and the mayor’s office made New York one of ten cities in the U.S. to make Foursquare Day a city-sanctioned event.

What’s impressive is that the application is built entirely on pre-existing data. CityMaps pulls data from a range of sources and displays the information across a custom user interface (e.g. map). NYC & Co. then curates the content to fit its goals, added an existing directory of 2,000 or so businesses, and integrates the product with its existing content management system.

Though New York has led the way, location-based services are well positioned to help small and medium-sized cities drive tourism and help facilitate engagement with local businesses. Much of what impedes local tourism growth stems from the same information problem that has hindered small businesses: discovery (how do I connect with those who want to find me) and validation (how can I help consumers believe what I’m saying). And no brand is stronger than the city in validating a business.

“From a loyalty standpoint, if we can get [tourists] to explore the city, particularly areas outside of Manhattan, we can break some of the false preconceptions people harbor about New York,” Willy Wong, Chief Creative Officer at NYC & Co., told me recently about the motivation behind building the application. “And that’s the same with restaurants or other business – people forget personal experiences and may have a perception that might not be real.”

Wong says that the app also is built to promote “access,” a major point of emphasis in the technology blueprint released by the mayor’s office two years ago: “Through something like this visitors are able to see what’s in the landscape. Even if they travel to far corners of the city there are things to do and deals to be had.”

New York’s extensive WiFi access may make the app more accessible to international tourists who do not want to spring for a data plan, but Wong says that he could still see the strategy replicated elsewhere.

Consider a medium-sized metro like Philadelphia: according to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation’s (GPTMC) annual report, visitor spending accounts for over $24 million a day in economic impact and 8.7 billion annually, making tourism a big business for the city. Though GFTCC’s consumer-brand “Visit Philly” manages a branded Foursquare account, in its annual report the organization lumps location-based services like foursquare into a social media strategy, which aims “to drive media buzz” not facilitate local merchant interaction or increase loyalty.

What cities like Philadelphia need are well-funded hyperlocal strategies that leverage both media and commerce to incentivize visitors to explore parts of the city that traditionally do not see tourism funding. At a low level, city marketing agencies can help local businesses connect with tourists by not only promoting these business through their presence on existing services like Foursquare, SCVNGR or CityMaps but by educating neighborhood-level economic development groups on using incentives to attract tourists through hyperlocal services.

At a higher level, there is an emerging opportunity for cities to subsidize hyperlocal marketing efforts through hyperlocal platforms. For example, a city agency could create a neighborhood-based promotion on top of mobile payment play LevelUp in which a visitor who shared that they say, ate lunch at a traditional tourist destination, could win a promotion to receive a free round trip train fare to a peripheral neighborhood if they ate dinner at a restaurant in the neighborhood. A conductor with a smartphone could use LevelUp’s merchant app to process the payment, which would be refunded once the user paid for a dinner at a restaurant within the pre-defined geographical area.

As local information and commerce continue to coalesce around location-aware mobile services, cities — like merchants and brands — will have an unprecedented opportunity to drive and direct tourism spending at the point of sale.

Steven Jacobs is an associate editor at Street Fight.