What Pokemon Go means for the travel industry

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The explosion in popularity of the mobile video game Pokemon Go since it was released on July 6 presented both opportunities and challenges for travel destinations last week.

The game sends phone-clutching players into the streets to catch virtual monsters in the real world. According to the app-focused research firm SensorTower, Pokemon Go had surpassed 15 million installs as of late last week, at a time when it was only available to smartphone users in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

One measure of its popularity is that users are spending more time playing it (33 minutes daily on average) than they are spending reading statuses on Facebook (22 minutes) or posting photos on Snapchat (18 minutes).

But the very fact that Pokemon Go forces players to actually get off the couch and leave their homes also posed challenges and opportunities for attractions and destinations.

“It came out last Wednesday, and come Monday it was a big conversation at our marketing meeting,” said Legoland rep Brittany Williams. Inside the park, she said, “We are definitely seeing a lot more phones out. You can tell what they’re doing. They’re definitely following their phones around.”

A Wartortle found on the streets of San Francisco. Photo Credit: Sarah Feldberg

In Manhattan last week, some stores and attractions had started enthusiastically seeding their properties with Pokemon characters and “lure modules” as a means of drawing in potential new customers.

On the other hand, Pokemon players were beginning to pose a problem for attractions like the 9/11 Museum in New York and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, both of which complained that the game was inappropriate given the solemnity of their missions.

For the uninitiated in the world of Zubats and Spearows, Pokemon Go is built around the hunt for cute, cartoonish monsters that populate streets and other environs. In fact, the name Pokemon is a shortening of “pocket monsters.”

Players follow GPS maps to designated Pokestops, often landmarks such as murals or historical buildings, where they collect Pokeballs used to trap the creatures. The goal of the game is to “catch ’em all” and to use the resulting menagerie of monsters in battles against other players in “gyms.”

While Pokemon has been around since 1996, Pokemon Go has taken the game’s virtual universe and incorporated it into the real world using augmented reality. The game overlays animated characters onto the live, first-person view on a player’s smartphone, so a Caterpie worm can show up on your dog’s head or a poison bat can flap above your front door.

“Augmented reality has been around for a while,” said Norm Rose, an analyst with Phocuswright. “Both virtual reality and augmented reality can be huge for the travel industry because they allow a user to look at a destination through their own lens.”

In Amsterdam, for example, Rose pointed to an augmented reality app that enables visitors to see inside the homes they’re passing as they float down a canal.

“Pokemon Go is an example of how you can drive engagement with game-ification,” Rose said.

With so many people playing the game in public, so many Pokestops set at real-world landmarks and so many monsters showing up virtually anywhere, Pokemon Go is having a noticeable impact on some attractions.

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