New Technology Enhances Event for Essex National Heritage Area

Strategy: Take Advantage of Tech

Type of attraction: Heritage Area/Scenic Byway/Heritage Trail

Summary: Transitioning from printing brochures and buying magazine ads to Internet and mobile phone communication tools can be a sure way to save money during tough economic times, but “you have to get people to look at it,” notes Annie Harris.



Transitioning from printing brochures and buying magazine ads to Internet and mobile phone communication tools can be a sure way to save money during tough economic times, but “you have to get people to look at it,” notes Annie Harris, executive director of Essex National Heritage Area in Massachusetts.

Developing and implementing a series of strategies using new technologies has paid off for the National Heritage Area’s popular “Trails & Sails: Two Weekends of Walks and Water” event, held each year in September. Designed to raise awareness and support for preservation of the area’s heritage sites, the event offers free activities at more than 100 cultural, historic, and natural sites including walks, guided hikes, sails, and historical tours.

“A wide variety of events are held throughout the Heritage Area over two consecutive weekends. With so many choices of destination and experience, it’s important to provide a flexible way for residents and visitors to choose their itineraries,” Harris says. “That’s the nice thing about a website. We can keep the information about events up-to-the minute and we’ve allowed for the information to be ‘searched’ a number of different ways. For example, a visitor can decide to search what is happening in Newburyport or see what is planned on Saturday or only look at hikes or boat rides that are offered.”

The website allows event hosts to post their own event information, saving staff time. “For nine years we had one staff member dedicated to posting events, so this enhancement has helped to redirect staff productivity into other important aspects of the program,” Harris says.

Once the website was set up, organizers took the next step to make use of new technologies available on smart (or web-enabled) mobile phones. “That is the future for a lot of travel – getting information at the site from your phone,” Harris observes. “It’s not enough to have a website that people can access via cell phone, as traditional sites are not optimized or designed to fit onto a small screen. At this point, it made sense to create a mobile version of the website that gives the smart-phone user a quicker, easier access experience.”

After deciding against smartphone apps – “They are costly to develop, especially across multiple provider platforms,” Harris says – the decision was made to develop a specific mobile website version for the smart phone.

When users type in the website address on their smart phone browser, the system immediately recognizes that the inquiry is being made by a mobile phone. The user is given access only to the mobile version of the Trails & Sails website.

“The smart-phone mobi-site is an ‘abridged’ version of our traditional website,” Harris says. “It contains the essential information a visitor needs while on-the-go. The information and graphics are streamlined, allowing for large font size and quicker response time between page selections.”

With hundreds of events and activities, Trails & Sails was a perfect place to implement the mobile phone-based information system. “It’s more accessible when people are out and about,” Harris explains. “The events are popular, and it may happen that your event of choice may be at capacity if you arrive late. While this is disappointing, the mobile phone user can instantly find out what else is happening in the same or nearby town.”

Additionally, in 2009 event organizers began using Facebook and Twitter during Trails & Sails which provided venues for instant information as well as comments from participants. Plans are in place to further use Facebook and Twitter this year. Participants are being urged to upload their Trails & Sails photos onto the event’s Facebook page and to tweet their reactions about events before, during, and after they happen.

For those who would like a printed guide – or who may not have cell phone access – organizers still provide the opportunity to print a guide from the website or to pick up a free copy at one of the area’s visitor centers.

Even with a difficult economy, Trails & Sails continues to succeed. “Right now site participation of host sites is steady,” Harris says. “Some add and some drop off every year which is a function of the economy and the capacity of each site to handle a growing number of visitors.”

But using new technologies has clearly paid off. “We saw an increase in visitor satisfaction,” Harris says. “We had 4,500 participants in 2009, and attendance continues to grow each year.”

For more information, visit http://www.essexheritage.org/ts/index.php; contact Mary Williamson, mwilliamson@essexheritage.org or 978-740-0444, ext. 16.