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Is mobile storytelling the next piece in the platform domination puzzle?
There are online platforms for everything from digital media to retail, music and entertainment, but is the world now ready for a dedicated mobile storytelling platform? Pamela Whitby finds out
Alex Tourski is nothing if not passionate about izi.TRAVEL the storytelling platform that was inspired by a two-day road trip from Amsterdam to Florence in July 2007. The trip, says Tourski, who will be speaking at EyeforTravel Amsterdam, was “so boring” that he simply “had to invent something”.
Imagine, he thought, if he could hear stories en route about significant points of interest, such as the historic importance of the Belgian town of Waterloo, where Napolean was defeated in 1815.
A few years later, following plenty of quantitative and qualitative research, izi.TRAVEL, the storytelling platform for guided tours, and for people on the move, was born. Since the official launch in June 2011, the platform has secured investment to the tune of €22 million, has uploaded 9,000 guided tours, including 2,000 museum guides, has a presence in 99 countries and in 54 languages.
“With the platform now built, and stories being added globally, the technological part is essentially done. Well, we can improve it endlessly, but it works. Now we are at the level of so-called ‘organisational innovation’,” says Tourski, who has big ambitions to be number 1 in this space, through its so-called TRIAD strategy (more on this later).
What Tourski is keen to stress, however, is that this is not just another intermediary, like GetYourGuide, Viator or Klook, looking to bring the coveted tours and activities market, estimated by PhocusWright to be worth $183 billion by 2020, online. This is a free and open audio-led storytelling platform à la the likes of YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, Amazon and, needless to say, Google and Facebook.
But, of course it’s not the only one trying to fill this niche. There is competition including New Zealand’s VoiceMap, Hungary’s PocketGuide and France’s GuidiGO, and Tourski is not complacent. What he does know, however, is that the only place to be is #1 or, he admits, the platform will have “no chance” of success.
“We believe that in any particular content segment, be it photos, video or storytelling, only one platform usually takes all. This is the result of the ‘natural monopoly effect’. Do you know who is the #2 after Youtube? Probably not,” he says.
For this reason, izi.TRAVEL is applying four simple rules to its business: to be free, be open, have the best technology and actively promote the business.
While estimates around the rise of mobile voice activated search and discovery are patchy and, arguably, overhyped (Google hasn’t updated its predictions since 2016), there does seem to be potential for an audio-led platform that allows anybody with a smartphone in their pocket to “walk into a story”.
In the same way that YouTube creates media for people who want to sit and watch something, explains Tourski, izi.TRAVEL is a platform for all manner of stories (think museum, gallery, city, and even university, guides) that belong to a place. In other words, an audio-led platform for people on the move!
Says Tourksi, who will share more insights at EyeforTravel Amsterdam: “Instead of users having to search for information, the reverse could be true. The information could find the user and pleasantly surprise them in the right place, at the right time.”
The proposed izi.TRAVEL ecosystem
izi.TRAVEL is being driven by a number of trends. Among these:
· The merging of cultural institutions with tourism. In the past, it was a case of ‘ne’er the twain shall meet’, but that is changing. Universities use izi.TRAVEL to create training guides for student collaboration, and museums, galleries and so on to engage visitors. Meanwhile, tourist offices, bus companies, mobile operators, hotels et al promote the tours. Also, with the network of city-guided tours, cultural institutions now cooperate with each other, and this wasn’t always the case. “This has been driven by user behaviour because very often, the traveller uses the same app in all museums and in the city," Tourski explains.
By delivering a free platform and apps, museums and cities also leads to cost savings. In addition, museums are promoted by hotels, transport providers and so on, while the travel businesses deliver stories to their customers, all for free. In Tourski’s view “this is is a very sustainable investment for cultural funds as they can now invest in content which will live on for decades and outlive many generations of storytelling technologies”.
CMC Associates has spent two decades building multimedia content in the heritage space, and is one of the companies working with izi.TRAVEL. CMC’s 3D media specialist Paul O’Sullivan says the izi platform makes the development of digital content, in an ever-changing digital environment, affordable for smaller institutions. “People today expect a much higher level of digital engagement from places they are visiting, and previously, a museum guide was a nice-to-have that only the big institutions, like the V&A, could afford,” he says.
· Overtourism. Overtourism is a growing challenge in some of the world’s biggest cities. This is leading destination marketing organisations (DMOs) to encourage tourists away from city centres to explore lesser known destinations and hidden gems in their own language.
· Localisation for travellers, for locals and by locals. Mobile storytelling could also help tourists in their quest to ‘feel like a local’, by bringing stories to life at the right time and in the right place. Conversely, city-dwellers also want to get to know their own turf better. The Berlin Tourism Plan 2018+ claims that ’locals want to feel like tourists’, and, says Tourksi “when a city is filled with quality guided tours, locals start to explore their own city”. In addition, locals also want to share their stories (see this one-off example from a user who lives and walks her dog near the historical congressional cemetery in Washington). This can establish a dialogue that eases tension between tourists and locals.
· Bike power. With the growth of docked and dockless bicycle companies, bike-guided tours are another motivation for people to use the, and are being used by bike-hire firms as a promotional tool; an Amsterdam example here, and another here from Sydney.
The TRIAD strategy
With the technology now in place, izi.TRAVEL is now moving forward with a three-pronged approach.
1. Develop regional storytelling smart cities, in order to the boost the content development ecosystem
This can be achieved by working with, and growing, a network of consultants or organisations involved in developing regional projects. And from Russia to Sicily, Israel and Scotland, izi.TRAVEL is already in talks with destination marketing organisations and other local businesses. For example, in Russia, eight cities, including Moscow, have already enriched their commuter trains with storytelling using the izi.TRAVEL platform.
2. Stimulate the funding from public sources towards storytelling content development
If izi.TRAVEL has one strong message, it is that public funds should be used for content, including educational, development, while private money is best used to develop technologies.
“It is a shame that during the last 10 years around €500 million of public grants were used to develop numerous apps for museums and cities. Yet, most of these apps have not outlived the three-year timespan of the typical grant,” says Tourski.
In this, the European Storytelling Programme is the firm’s ‘leading star’. “We want to suggest that the European Commission launches a European Storytelling Grant Programme, which will distribute €250 million for the roads and cities of Europe,” he says.
On this score, there is more work to do, and to launch such a programme izi.TRAVEL needs letters of intent from (i) major partners like TomTom, Google, Waze et al (ii) major museums and galleries, and (iii) scientific institutions (It has already secured support from Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, a major German research institution).
3. Build partnerships with large organisations, in order to acquire millions of users
Travellers could be alerted to stories on the go by, for example, Google, Siri, or TomTom or, for that matter any other app like TripAdvisor. “Although our izi.TRAVEL app has had more than three million downloads, it is just one example. The real value chain looks is much bigger. After all, the izi.TRAVEL app is just one of them. Google Maps’ app has over a billion users. Why should we bother to compete? Our strategic role is to serve those global apps.”
Monetising the business model
The inevitable question is, of course, how will izi.TRAVEL be monetised? “It's simple," says Tourski. “We cannot charge users, we cannot charge content providers, but we can charge services and applications which use our stories via API.”
In other words, car infotainment systems, voice-based assistants, and other booking and travel services. “Similar to Google maps, it is free up until 25,000 API requests per day, but if you use more, you pay,” he says.
Early stage talks are currently underway with TomTom. However, technological implementation of this is some way off because TomTom needs stories on the road, and izi.TRAVEL still lacks these in the quantities that matter. What Tourski is hoping, is that by getting big players on board, the grant-funded European Storytelling project can gain traction. While O’Sullivan, whose firm is based in Scotland, is not clear how European grants will work post-Brexit, he says the European government has shown great commitment to digitising heritage content, a substantial amount of which is still in analogue format.
At the same time, izi.TRAVEL is actively developing ‘skills’ for voice-based assistants like Google Assistant. And they are not alone: in Russia the renowned Pushkin Museum of Art is developing storytelling skills for Yandex Alice, Russia’s answer to Google Assistant. If successful, Yandex may adopt it for other museums, and it could, argues Tourski open iziTRAVEL’s doors to Google, Apple and more.
Meanwhile, professional conferences like the Hotel Forum have recognised that guests visit hotels, not just to sleep, but also to visit a city, and is exploring ways to work with izi.TRAVEL.
Elsewhere, the interest of destination marketers has been piqued. From regionally proud and independent Sicily, an island off the tip of Italy’s boot to Germany, Luxembourg, Scotland and Mexico, destinations are seeing the potential. In Tourski’s view: “It’s not really a question of ‘to be, or not to be’ but rather who will be the first mover.”
And, perhaps, the bigger question: will there be a need for consolidation of the competition?
Join us at EyeforTravel Amsterdam (Nov 28-29) to hear more about the future of mobile storytelling from izi.TRAVEL