Extending guest experience beyond the gates of a traditional theme park, and essentially, into guests’ homes, is already happening — through online presence, social networking and other strategic technologies.
Traditionally the guest experience began at the park turnstiles, but that model is changing. Now the strategy is about circular flow that begins when the guest initially considers and begins planning their trip. These new technologies and social mediums help the guest personalize their visit so when they return home they can relive their experience online, customize their memories, and share the experience with their network of friends and family. In this way, the visit is never truly over, and one visit can connect seamlessly into the next one.
Walt Disney was an excellent social networker, and was many years ahead of his time. Before Disneyland opened, he signed an unprecedented deal with the ABC Television Group that allowed him to promote Disneyland via an hour-long television special. The Wonderful World of Disney premiered on October 27, 1954 under the name Disneyland and introduced viewers to the magical theme park he was building on the west coast. This brilliant act of synergy allowed Disney to air what was essentially a weekly, hour-long commercial for his park, thereby building a fervor that reached critical mass when the park opened the next year— everyone in the country knew about it and wanted to visit it.
Flash-forward to today where many new socially interactive technologies have taken the place of television marketing, all of which can be used to promote and customize a theme park resort experience. The rise of Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and a myriad of other information streams have saturated the consumer market to the point where major companies have recognized their potential and started to embrace the concept of maintaining an online presence. A clever example of this is Sea World’s “official” Twitter feed for Shamu, in which they hired a writer to regularly send out witty messages to subscribers that were actually written in the first-person character of the park chain’s aquatic mascot. These “tweets” are not blatant advertisements and marketing, just clever messages that spread by word-of-mouth and help build brand allegiance over time.
Again, this extended the park experience outside of the turnstiles, as guests could interact with Shamu before their visit, and share their experience long after it.
Disney’s Magical Express at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando utilizes a simple online interface so guests are able to print out luggage tags that they then affix to their bags at the airport before they even depart for their flight to Orlando. The next time they see their luggage is when they step into their hotel room in Orlando. So, Disney takes the tagged bags and delivers them directly to their corresponding hotel rooms that have been booked online. A fleet of busses is also ready and waiting at the airport to take guests to their hotels. This investment in “courtesy” infrastructure is invaluable, as guests now have a tangible amenity (one less thing to worry about) and no reason to leave the property.
The advent of RFID-wristbands continues the trend of simplifying guest experience by linking everything from a hotel room key to credit card information on a lightweight, waterproof wristband. No longer do guests have to worry about losing the valuable contents of their wallet, getting their credit cards wet on waterslides, or losing their park admission ticket. With a simple tap of their wrists, guests can charge a meal to their room, rent a locker, or open their hotel room door. Of course, this wonderful convenience only works for facilities that are integrated into the overall resort. If the same family of guests wants to dine off-property, they would be subject to the inconvenience of cash transactions.
Here we see again that a resort can create an exclusive amenity that provides incentive to stay on-property and helps increase per capita spending, while the end user also wins because their experience is “plussed” in terms of convenience.
Interactivity and Repeatability
We are quickly becoming a videogame culture, where guests expect a degree of interactivity in their entertainment. The Toy Story Mania! attraction located at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s California Adventure is essentially a virtual shooting gallery where guests ride on a moving vehicle through a physical space, shooting at targets while wearing 3D glasses. At the end of the ride, guests receive a score that reflects their abilities. The targets are all presented via 3D media on large screens, allowing for the potential of new content updates (different targets, seasonal overlays, etc.) with little or no impact on facility or footprint. The next logical step, which has yet to be taken, is user-generated content.
The reality is, guests are already doing this: creating their own attraction soundtracks, audio tours, and in-park Smartphone applications. For example, an ambitious fan and computer programmer has created an App called “Wishing Stars”. This application is essentially a geocaching overlay mapped onto a physical theme park, in which guests make use of their phones’ GPS ability to guide them to locations in the park where they can answer questions and earn points. Another fan has created a crowdsourcing App in which guests share information about an attraction while waiting in line, to create a virtual “info board” of up-to-the-minute wait times.
Resort and park owners and operators shouldn’t contest this treasure trove of user-generated content, but actively engage their most passionate fans and embrace this fundamental change in the resort experience.
In the not-too-distant future a great transformation is coming to location-based entertainment design. Imagine the resort of the future where your schedule is itemized via smartphone and every cast member and audio-animatronic figure knows your name via RFID ticketing. All of a sudden, the illusion of a personalized experience has become reality.
Currently, designers and engineers are embedding this technology infrastructure into resorts worldwide, even if it won’t be utilized in the immediate future. Although it might not seem to make financial sense to add “unnecessary” infrastructure cost up-front, it will pay off in dividends when the resort has a competitive advantage by allowing for quick implementation and more immersive integration of new technologies.
Many of the amenities described above are already in use in theme park resorts around the world, but they are still in their formative stages. The technology is proven, but successful large-scale implementation of it is still in its infancy. It is time to aspire to make that next leap in location-based technology integration. The right touch of technology will enhance and complement a guest’s experience, rather than detracting or worse, distracting them from the carefully-created environments that they are visiting. When the right mix of non-intrusive technological integration is achieved, it will provide a more complete and inviting guest experience. More importantly, it will be the amenity that separates whoever does it first from all other resorts. Imagine personalized, concierge-level service for every guest — eliminating stress and offering guest service that can’t be beaten.