Q & A with Sarah Best at the Chicago Office of Tourism

Our recent post about geosocial networking spurred a lot of interest about the medium, with the majority focused around the foursquare campaign launched by our peers at the Chicago Office of Tourism.

The campaign, which highlights uniquely Chicago venues…mmmm, hot dogs…has become a PR darling and quite an effective mobile engagement point for the tourism team.

Obviously we need to know more, so we reached out to our counterpart Sarah Best and made her tell us everything she has ever learned about foursquare…including how to unlock the mysterious Pizzaiolo badge.

Give us a little background on how this promotion came to fruition?

First, allow me to give you some background on our office: The Chicago Office of Tourism is a division of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs. We are not a membership based agency and we focus exclusively on leisure travel, rather than on conventions and business travel. ExploreChicago.org is the City’s official tourism website, and is the name of our branded presence on social media channels.

Last fall I reached out to Foursquare about the possibility of doing a partnership. At that time, Foursquare still had a nascent presence in the Chicago market. Meanwhile, Explore Chicago is always looking for fun new ways to get people to explore our 77 diverse neighborhoods, while learning about Chicago’s unique cultural traditions. A partnership with Foursquare seemed like a win-win for us.

Foursquare’s one stipulation was that we develop badges that represent things that were really unique to Chicago. So that’s how we came up with the idea for our three Chicago-themed badges: The Celery Salt Badge celebrates Chicago-style hot dogs and Chicago’s professional sporting venues, the Chicago Blues badge encourages visitors to discover the Blues through historic sites and iconic clubs, and the On Location badge invites game players to visit famous movie locations throughout the city by participating in one of five movie-themed experiences: The Blues Brothers, The Dark Knight, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, High Fidelity, and Chick Flicks (which includes a variety of movies, from When Harry Met Sally to The Lake House).

Was this based upon personal experience within the bureau (using Foursquare personally) or a brainstorm / pitch from an agency?

As the Web Specialist for the Chicago Office of Tourism, it’s my job to stay on top of web trends. It seemed clear to me last year that geo-location on mobile platforms was going to be a big trend in 2010, so I reached out to Foursquare to see if there was some way that we could work together.

How does this fit into your other social media marketing campaigns? Such as Twitter…

Outside of maintaining a branded presence on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook, our social media campaigns consider:

  1. How to provide “extreme service” to visitors through social media channels
  2. How to encourage locals and visitors to explore our diverse neighborhoods and learn about our unique cultural traditions
  3. How to connect visitors with local experts
  4. How to use technology to create new and exciting experiences

One way that we provide “extreme service” is by devising ways to extend our brick-and-mortar visitor services through our social media channels. Our Visitor Center reps have been trained to use Twitter, and they give recommendations and answer questions through @explorechicago 7 days a week. They also do outreach to people who are tweeting about their travels to Chicago, but who do not necessarily know that we exist as a resource.

Our partnership with Foursquare gives us a great way of encouraging visitors to explore our 77 unique neighborhoods while having fun and earning badges. Our tips (we currently have over 200 and are adding more this summer) and badges give us a way of educating people about our cultural traditions in a really fun way, while delivering content to visitors in a context that is extremely relevant to them.

For example, when someone “checks-in” at Calder’s Flamingo sculpture in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood, they learn through our Foursquare tips, about the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that was shot there (it’s the scene where Ferris Bueller joins the German-American Von Steuben Day Parade and lip-syncs to Wayne Newton’s rendition of “Danke Schoen”. They learn about the sculptures and public art that are featured in that scene, and they are given the “tip” to visit Chicago’s German-American Lincoln Square neighborhood, by taking a nearby ‘L’ train, if they’d like to experience Oktoberfest any time of year.

Foursquare is a fun and relevant way of delivering this kind of information to people while they’re exploring the city.

How about your mobile stratgy?

Currently our mobile strategy encompasses:

  • Three audio-tours available in five languages that can be downloaded to any MP3 playing device including a smart phone (our Chicago Blues Foursquare badge is based on  a free downloadable Chicago Blues History Audio Tour, narrated by Buddy Guy, which is available for download at downloadchicagotours.com and through iTunes)
  • Our three Foursquare badges and our Explore Chicago tips
  • Our Twitter-based concierge service
  • A Chicago App Gallery on ExploreChicago.org that highlights some apps that might help someone explore our city

However, we are always experimenting with new mobile technologies and strategies, and are always open to talking with developers about potential partnerships.

What was the reaction from ‘non-tech’ employees in the office?  How about on the front lines at a Visitor Information Center?

Ever since our office dipped our toes into the online world with the production of some of the first cultural-themed podcasts (our Millennium Park audio tour, our History of Chicago Blues audio tour, and our Chicago for Kids audio tour, all available for free, in five languages at downloadchicagotours.com) we have been committed to seeing how we could use technology to meet our mission of providing extreme service, getting people to visit the neighborhoods, and keeping people interested in exploring the city by creating fun, new experiences for them to partake in. So everyone was thrilled about the Foursquare partnership.

Our brick-and-mortar Visitor Center staff have been trained to answer questions through Twitter. We have educated them about our Foursquare initiative and have flyers on hand in our VCs that list all of the eligible locations for each badge (and in the case of the On Location Badge, for each of the five distinct movie experiences).

The Foursquare partnership has also opened up opportunities to partner with local organizations on fun real-life meetups. We recently partnered with the Chicago Theatre (an eligible location for the On Location badge), the Chicago RedEye, and Metromix Chicago on a movie-madness event, where teams of people raced to earn their On Location badge in order to win a grand prize — their name on the marquee of the historic Chicago Theatre.

What feedback have you received from travelers?

To the extent that we’ve been able to monitor it, the reception has been enthusiastic!

On the day we launched the partnership, we captured over 200 tweets about the partnership, and we’ve measured over 2,000 overall since the project launched. We’ve received a number of tweets about how excited people are to earn their “Bueller badge” or to follow in the footsteps of The Dark Knight. A number of other cities have reached out to us to talk about our experiences.

Several individuals have live-blogged their efforts to earn all three badges in one day. One gentleman even kept a running calorie count as he ate Chicago-style hot dogs at each eligible Celery Salt venue. Teams who competed to earn their On Location badge during our Movie Madness event (mentioned above) created custom t-shirts and laminated Google maps for the occasion. The winning team came all the way from Milwaukee.

We’ve seen over 471 “check-ins” at historic blues locations that otherwise might not be visited by tourists.

We currently have over 3,270 followers on Foursquare (Foursquare made it a requirement that people follow us in order to unlock a badge). Although there is a large concentration of followers from the Midwest, our followers come from 44 U.S. states & territories and over 30 countries.

Our partners have also been enthusiastic — the Art Institute let their Facebook fans know that they were an eligible location for our On Location badge, as several scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were shot there.

In terms of overall benefit to the Tourism Office, where does the Foursquare promotion rank?

Foursquare is a part of a well-rounded social media effort, and an overall effort to encourage leisure travel in Chicago through the different components of our mission, which I elaborated on above (providing extreme service, focusing on neighborhoods, focusing on Chicago’s cultural traditions, focusing on creating fun new experiences to encourage leisure travel).

Any other thoughts or insight for your peers that are considering a ‘new media’ campaign such as this?

  • If you’re thinking about a badge, choose cultural traditions are unique to your city
  • Make it easy for game players to discover eligible locations for your badges–we published a list of “eligible locations” for each of our badges
  • Create real life events around badge themes
  • Utilize tips functionality to relate fun facts, historical facts, but also to encourage game players to visit other locations in your city
  • Add venues to Foursquare that are important to your city (e.g. historic Blues venues)
  • Monitor duplicate locations– this is the biggest problem that we’ve had with badges. Game players only earn a badge if they check in at specially tagged eligible locations but duplicate user-submitted locations pop up all of the time.
  • Engage in good social media listening practices – if we know that someone is going to live-blog their efforts we check for duplicates and give them advice about how to succeed (e.g. print our list of locations; Explore Chicago has posted tips at official, non-duplicate locations; etc.)
  • Educate your hospitality partners and members about how they can use Foursquare to promote their businesses
  • Target visitors and journalists who are tech-centric – promote badges on Twitter, encourage visiting media to earn badges

Our thanks to Sarah for taking the time to answer all of our geosocial questions.

Thoughts, comments or questions about foursquare? Let us know in the comments.

If you have a travel industry peer you would like to see interviewed on the Travel 2.0 Blog, just drop us an email.

Comment? @travel2dot0 or email.