cultural tourism apps: infinite potential or diminishing returns?

Many believe this will be the most powerful marketing tool for the arts: the mobile cultural tourism app.


The tech for this has been around for a while, and many attempts have been made from different angles and levels of scale over the years. Everything from the Google Art Project database with thousands of ultra high resolution images of entire museums’ collections in a virtual “StreetView” style experience, to augmented reality games like Pokemon Go and Ingress, to the hundreds of little, local apps like Cathedral City’s “Where Art Lives”. These local apps are mostly built on templates from services like TourBuddy, SideKickInteractive, and others.

current local offerings

Palm Springs Modern: Mid-Century Architecture Tours App
Palm Springs Life Magazine has developed a suite of apps that each focus on a certain theme or area in the Coachella Valley including a modernism tour, El Paseo shopping, economic development, and something called the Desert Guide which claims to be:
“A free travel guide to the Palm Springs Desert Resorts area covering monthly events, attractions, shopping and offering the best rates on hotels and golf tee times. The official guidebook of the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Bureau – includes everything you need to know about where to go and what to do while in the desert.”
I was unable to access it in any of the app markets where it says it is available.
Cathedral City’s Cultural Tourism App is built on the TourBuddy platform.

Cathedral City has had a lot of success with their app. It is quite impressive. But, I tend to think its success is mostly because it’s the first of its kind in the area; it has novelty and no competitors. Once other desert cities launch similar apps it will become a competition to market the apps and try to convince every potential user that it’s worth installing one app, or another, or all of them. Most likely the response of potential users will be to ignore the whole idea.

the problem: competition=diminishing returns

As more cities follow suite, the effectiveness of each city’s app will become diluted because most people will not want to install several apps that don’t talk to each other just to plan their cultural adventures.  Most tourists want to choose their itineraries based on their interests and perhaps a certain theme or purpose for which they are visiting, not being constrained by city boundaries. Having to install a different app for each city whose cultural attractions they may want to visit is not going to be very appealing with 6 or 7 cities of interest in the Coachella Valley alone. Foreign tourists are likely going to want to visit places all over the region. Inland Empire, high desert, low desert, the mountains up in Big Bear and Idyllwild. That’s a lot of apps. If a trend of municipality-based tourism apps develops, well, it’s clearly a matter diminishing returns.

an alternative approach: collaboration=infinite potential

I would truly love to see the Coachella Valley leading the way to a different model for cultural tourism apps. One that pools the financial resources of all the municipalities,  businesses and organizations whom are stakeholders in the tourism market within the larger region. Additionally, working with large cloud based platforms like Google and Amazon, it may be possible to develop a global network that would enable such apps to integrate with each other forming a seamless mesh of cultural information that would allow users to choose the geographic and chronological scope of their travels and have the appropriate apps installed automatically.
By centralizing the financial expenditures, we would be enabling an exponentially higher quality offering. The math is simple:
5 cities spend $X to develop 5 apps at an average of $X/5 = 5 mediocre apps with geographic limitations that don’t integrate with each other
5 cities contribute an average of $X to a regional, multi-city app development project with a combined total $X * 5 = 1 advanced app that provides information for the whole area
The latter model results in a far better product, both in technical terms—because more money buys better development talent, more cloud resources, and better technology partnerships—and in terms of functionality and usefulness to the users: the tourists.

One app that is ubiquitously marketed to all visitors of, say the whole Coachella Valley, that can guide you to all points of interest in that area, is a much more manageable and valuable proposition. Also, an app that is state of the art with advanced features like analyzing your, and your travel companions’, social media feeds and personal calendars to automatically provide suggested itineraries based on your interests and existing schedules, is much more appealing than a low budget custom Google map with some bells and whistles.

Palm Springs Life has the right idea but they need to make one or two apps that serve a broader range of functions instead of a whole suite of apps targeted at specific segments of the market. Apps that serve narrow purposes for specific types of users are much less desirable than broad purpose apps that can adapt to each individual user’s needs and preferences

infinite potential? really?

Yes, the potential is virtually infinite if a standard protocol can be developed that allows these apps to inter-operate with each other and integrate with common mapping, scheduling, and social media platforms. Other important aspects to consider in order to realize that potential include:

  • Content: the content model has to be inclusive of the appropriate agencies or organizations for each area.
  • Branding: content managers per area should have the ability to use branding techniques for all the points of interest therein.
  • Interaction: user contributed content would be important also, adding photos and videos, commenting, reviewing, recommending, sharing, and live-streaming video from points of interest and especially from events would be important features to incorporate.


A beautiful ad revenue model?

I do not often see beauty in things like advertising revenue models, but this has to be an exception. A tourism app platform, like what I’ve described here, offers excellent advantages for advertising revenue and monetization. For instance: non profits, cultural institutions, and of course public monuments and places would be included in the app as informational content, but users will want to access other information for convenience, such as restaurants and bars, sporting events, and shopping. These are commercial operations and thus can generate advertising revenue to support the app’s continued operation. This revenue could be derived from partnering with existing directories like Yelp! and Google MyBusiness exchanging the additional reach and impressions from the app for a share of the fees they have already collected from their customers for paid advertising services. The beautiful part is that this “advertising” could blend right in, very organically, with the other content of the app. It could also offer direct ad sales for featured positioning. And that’s just the local advertisers. Open it up to highly targeted offerings from eCommerce and nationwide or international service companies and there really isunlimited revenue potential.

travel or telepressence?

Samsung Gear VR Headset **

With the latest push from companies like Google, Kodak, Samsung and others, virtual reality, augmented reality, computational photography and immersive video technologies are becoming more pervasive and will soon be ubiquitous.  This will soon converge with increasingly advanced behavioral analysis algorithms and artificial intelligence systems resulting in a dramatic transformation of our whole concept of place, distance, experience, and memory.

Google’s Cardboard(tm) DIY Headgear *

Very small, intimate, authentic cultural experiences will have the potential to reach thousands via real-time VR, or millions via recorded VR. This explosion in reach will come at almost no expense to the inherent qualities of the experience. The intimacy and authenticity will be preserved while each individual participant’s experience, whether virtual or real, will be unique because their movements and viewing angles will be their own.

With all that in mind, the need for a robust, universal, “internet” of culture if you will, becomes a clear priority. Cultural tourism app developers and purveyors need to consider this fast approaching paradigm.

brownian’s sum

Given a platform like what I’ve described here, these apps could serve as far more than just cultural tourism guides. They could also function as sporting event guides, business and economic information agents, real estate search tools, scientific and historical research libraries, etc.

Multi-functionality and adaptability are the keys to creating lasting value for app users. There are too many apps already, too many choices, most aren’t worth doing the research necessary to find the best of the breed. App markets will increasingly need to rely on community curation and advanced algorithms to keep top quality apps within a few taps of users’ search results. The developers and products that will achieve long term success in mobile applications are those that move towards compatibility and integration with other apps, reducing redundancy, and providing as much information and rich, immersive media as possible without forcing the user to install yet another app.

Anyone interested in working on this? Is anyone already working on this here in the desert? Is anyone working on something similar elsewhere in the world?
Please comment if you have answers to those questions or otherwise create a dialog about this.
* By othree (Google Cardboard) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
** By Andri Koolme (, via