The Pokémon Go craze: Bringing the virtual down to earth for destinations

I admit it: Before July 6th, I had only a vague notion of Pokémon as some sort of globally popular digital game with odd creatures that kept a lot of teenagers glued to their computer screens and on their butts for hours. It was not something relevant to my life. But then this newfangled variation appeared on July 6th to great fanfare and headline news stories—Pokémon Go.

Apart from soaring faster up the iTunes chart than probably any other game or app, I still didn’t give it much attention. It seemed like an interesting news story, not much else. And then something very interesting happened within days of the launch; something more than a fad or transitory trend that is here today gone tomorrow; something that might be relevant for tourism.

First Signs

Stories began appearing, first in the U.S., of how Pokémon Go was driving hordes of players of all ages to all kinds of destinations and their attractions, including restaurants, neighborhoods and entire towns and cities; a virtual smart phone hunt for Pokémon, Pokéstops, Poké Balls and a menagerie of quirky named creatures.

As players descended on places at or near where Pokémon items could be found, they also began spending more at businesses where they could collect PokéBalls and the other assortment of virtual Pokémon items and experiences. Bloomberg News reported in July, for instance, on L’inizio’s Pizza Bar in Queens, New York, which experienced a 30-percent spike in pizza sales due to players coming to collect PokéBalls. This pizzeria, as with many others whose stories have been popping up—just like those wily Pokémon do—cannot ask Nintendo to make them a Pokémon attraction or bestow any of the Pokémon menagerie on them. Instead, they can buy and place “lure modules” near the stops. Each module costs about $1 for 30 minutes of luring visitors either to or near their establishment.

Getting Onboard

Destination marketing organizations and tour operators are also jumping on the Pokémon Go bandwagon. Visit Philadelphia launched an Old City Eats tour with Pokémon lures along the way and the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board has launched a Pokémon-centric marketing campaign.

Geckos Adventures is offering a global Pokémon Go tour, which includes a “race around the world with us, seeking out as many of the little guys—and big guys (here’s looking at you, Snorlax!)—as you can…Imagine the bragging rights you’ll have if you catch Pikachu at Machu Picchu, battle Blastoise alongside a giant tortoise in the Galapagos and spot Pidgeot at Angkor Wat.” Just a few of the many examples appearing around the world.

The Plunge

I finally succumbed to the Pokémon lure and downloaded the app onto my iPhone. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about and how this might be used for more than dangling proverbial carrots to get more people into a store or museum. If you don’t want to ask your 14-year-old nephew how this all works, then check out Buzzfeed’s Adult Guide to Pokémon Go.

While walking my dog around our tiny historic district neighborhood of Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C., I discovered at least five Pokéstops and the Krabby and Nidoran creatures lurking near the street art exhibits. Whether Pokémon Go is contributing to increased visitors to these exhibits is hard to say, but it does seem like more people are fixated on their phones while moving from exhibit to exhibit. I don’t have the time or battery power on my iPhone to dive into the intricacies, but from what I have seen and experienced so far, here are five Pokémon Go thoughts and ideas for destination professionals:

1. The most obvious one: Download and play with the app. If mystified—and you will be the first time—it is probably a safe bet that any kid in your neighborhood knows enough to give you a crash course. Be sure to switch on the augmented reality function in the upper right corner of the game screen.

2. If you are a business, check out the July articles in Inc and Fortune magazines for tips on making the most of Pokémon Go.

3. For now, you cannot ask Niantic, the company that created Pokémon Go, to place elements in and around your destination, attraction or business. You can, however, find the locations by downloading the Ingress game app, which has been around for years, and checking out the game locations map, which resembles an air traffic control map. The Ingress locations are the same as the Pokémon Go locations.

4. If your destination is blessed (cursed?) with a full assortment of virtual characters, be prepared for crowd control. As with any destination that is on the verge of being a victim of its own success, use lures to disperse visitors and attract them to other quieter destinations, i.e. the Foggy Bottom Art Exhibit. As The Washington Post reported on August 13th, the small and usually sleepy town of Occoquan, Va., has been overwhelmed by players of all ages.

5. The bigger trend of games and augmented reality for tourism development is this: Pokémon Go is probably here to stay, particularly as businesses may eventually be able to buy their way into becoming a Pokéstop or Pokémon gym. It also, however, signals a bigger trend beyond this one: the increased use of augmented reality and digital games to market destinations and experiences from the individual hotel or restaurant to stimulating country level development and investment.

Here is an example from the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

How, then, is your business or destination using Pokémon Go? Are you using augmented reality to drive visitors to your destination, hotel, restaurant or other business? More on this in an upcoming column.

Scott Wayne is the president of SW Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based sustainable tourism consultancy, focused on strategic planning and investment for destinations on every continent. For further information: and [email protected].