Pokemon Go offers opportunity, challenges to tourist attractions


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

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.”

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.

“Yesterday, there were five teenagers who were looking for a Pokemon outside my office,” said Cincinnati Zoo communications coordinator Angela Hatke. She asked the group if they’d come to the zoo, which houses giraffes, black rhinoceros and polar bears, just to catch virtual animals.

“The only reason they came to the zoo was just for that,” she said. “They were here just to play.”

Hatke doesn’t necessarily see that as a problem, though it might seem ironic to chase virtual monsters in a place full of real wild creatures. She said the zoo is a Pokemon Go hot spot with dozens of Pokestops located at exhibits like the Reptile House and landmarks like the cheetah sculpture. As long as visitors stick to public areas and glance up from their devices enough to not crash into barriers or each other, the zoo is welcoming Pokemon Go players.

“If people want to come here and play, we’re definitely encouraging it, but we want them to look up and look around,” Hatke said. “We’re hoping that they’re absorbing some information and wildlife.”

The zoo has also been exploring the potential benefits of Pokemon Go. Some employees purchased an in-app “lure,” which increases the rate of creatures, for a Pokestop near an ice cream stand. The idea is simple: If you draw players to the area with make-believe monsters, maybe they’ll purchase a cone to go with that Pikachu.

Likewise, the zoo is actively trying to increase the number of Pokestops in some of its less popular areas.

“Some exhibits off the beaten path don’t have Pokestops,” Hatke said. “We’re reaching out to the game to see if we can add them.”

Legoland’s Williams said she had noticed a similar benefit inside the park.

“The positive for us is that maybe [guests are] exploring new areas of the park that they don’t normally visit,” she said.

There are 25 Pokestops within Legoland, and so far players have brought the game inside without incident.

On rides, however, the park is emphasizing its no-devices policy. No cameras out. No phones out. No trying to catch Pokemon while zooming past Lego dragons and castles.

SeaWorld Orlando on Saturday promoted a Pokemon Go event, informing guests that it was “activating dozens of Pokemon lure modules,” guaranteeing that players would find “the rarest of the rare Pokemon” inside the park. SeaWorld Orlando has 25 Pokestops and two Pokemon gyms in the park.

Other destinations and attractions have been frustrated with their unauthorized appearance within the viral app. The Holocaust Museum is the site of three Pokestops, according to the Washington Post. To the museum’s dismay, players have begun catching creatures and collecting balls within its walls.

“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” communications director Andrew Hollinger told the Post. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”

The Auschwitz Memorial in Poland and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia have also lodged online protests regarding their inclusion. A tweet posted by Arlington reads: “We do not consider playing Pokemon Go to be appropriate decorum on the grounds of ANC. We ask all visitors to refrain from such activity.” 

At least one property is responding to the Pokemon Go frenzy by promoting outright abstinence, at least for a limited time.

“To combat this mania and the overall addictive nature of the digital world,” Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas is hosting a digital detox weekend retreat Sept. 9 to 11. The itinerary includes yoga, guided meditation, spa services and zero or restricted access to mobile phones.

“Pikachu, Squirtle and Charizard will be nowhere in sight,” the hotel’s marketing promises. Because unlike the real world, when you want to escape Pokemon Go, you can always just turn off your phone.

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