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Colonial Williamsburg modernizes tourism with mobile reservations and integrated GPS

Colonial Williamsburg, the historical tourist destination in Virginia, is taking an aspect of its customer experience into the 21st century with the release of its newest mobile companion application, complete with mapping, reservation-making and a camera filter.

Through this app, visitors can augment their Williamsburg experience in a number of ways. The app boasts location-based tools, ticketing and restaurant reservations as well as GPS and digital guides.

“We are a 300-acre living history museum, so improved wayfinding was a critical goal for us,” said Andrea Sardone, executive director of marketing at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “We wanted to enhance the guest experience by giving them the tools to get around and actually enjoy the immersive experience of Colonial Williamsburg, rather than spend their time trying to figure out where to go.

“We also wanted to empower people to explore and discover. We can fit a whole lot more of what we have to offer into an app over a map.

The alternative would be to carry a heavy book around and we know that’s not what people’s behavior is.”

Welcome to Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg prides itself on being historically accurate. All through the town visitors can see period-appropriate costumes and living quarters, eat food that early colonists would have eaten and listen to historically-accurate music and speech.

But now Colonial Williamsburg is modernizing one part of the experience with a newly redesigned mobile app with increased functionality. The Colonial Williamsburg Explorer app provides a wealth of functionality, helping visitors maneuver around the town and get the most out of their time in Williamsburg.

“The core philosophy of this app concentrates on meeting the primary need of guests during their visit to Colonial Williamsburg – wayfinding,” Ms. Sardone said. “With more than 80 buildings to explore on over 300 acres, we have tried for a long time to create a map that works for everyone.

“This app is the first step in moving away from paper fold-out maps that are expensive to produce daily and outdated as soon as they hit the street. We focused on providing a robust, easy to use interactive map that allows our guests to find what they’re looking for quickly while also presenting up-to-the-minute information about our events and programs.

“From a visual standpoint, this app is aligned with our new digital design language that has already started rolling out on the core website.”

The app seems to take influence from a wide number of mobile trends. Users with the Explorer app can engage in some of the more standard companion app activities, such as make reservations at one of Colonial Williamsburg’s many restaurants or purchasing tickets for events.

Other options include a suite of wayfinding features, such as giving directions to events and showing a map of the town. The map can be downloaded for offline use as well.

The more involved use of GPS lets users track characters – actors who roam the town impersonating historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson – so they can follow them to their next event or speech.

Users can favorite certain events, receiving a notification before that event has its next showing.

“While working on this app we researched industry trends for wayfinding, navigation, and itinerary planning,” Ms. Sardone said. “This first release sees core map, directions, and ‘favoriting’ functionality brought to fruition, and in future releases these features will become much more robust and customizable.

“Because of the wide variety of things here at Colonial Williamsburg (history, hotels, leisure activities, shopping, dining, etc.), there are very few places we can look for inspiration in how all of these items can fit together. This allows us the freedom to experiment and explore though, so as we move forward we are hoping to set new trends and break new ground.”

Mapping the territory
The app also has a location-based and contextual welcome screen. When users open the app, it analyzes where they are shows them a different home screen with nearby points of interest and a unique message based on that part of the town.

Visitors to the town can also tap a Near Me button to get three recommendations of nearby attractions.

Finally, the app makes use of a Snapchat-style camera filter – the Colonial Camera – that lets users overlay historical and Williamsburg themed images onto photos snapped on their mobile devices.

As mobile use has risen and smartphones have become nearly ubiquitous, companion apps for in-person experiences have become more popular in turn.

Colonial Williamsburg is also in the unique position of offering its users a break from the comforts and hectic nature of modern life. Introducing a comprehensive mobile app that lives on a consumer’s personal device could be a way to let users enjoy the benefits of modern technology without detracting from the authentic experience of the town itself.

With all of the modern convenience housed on the smartphone, Colonial Williamsburg is free to keep all of the modern day touches out of the town itself and into visitors’ pockets.

“We have seen a nearly 80% increase in mobile traffic to our website in the last year,” Ms. Sardone said. “We will continue to meet our customers on their terms and those terms are increasingly digital. Our goal is to use digital tools to enhance the customer experience, not replace it.

“We want our customer to have an experience of an 18th-century city, and use technology to facilitate it.”