Location gone mass market

The Rocky statue rests in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: As you think back on your summer vacation, how many of you spent time flipping through guide books, trying to figure out what was worth spending time doing and what you could safely take a pass on? A lot of it, probably. For you, there's a growing industry trying to turn your smart phone into a 21st-century tour guide. Sometimes it works out, and as Joel Rose reports now from Philadelphia, sometimes it doesn't.


Joel Rose: One mobile app company is treating tourism like a game. The first rule:

Seth Preibatsch: If it isn't fun, don't do it. And we take that very, very seriously.

That's Seth Preibatsch, the founder of SCVNGR. It's a game you play on your mobile phone. SCVNGR tells you where to go. And when you get there, it gives you a challenge, like solving a riddle or snapping a picture of a local landmark.

Preibatsch: If you do enough challenges, you'll earn points and you'll unlock rewards -- which are things like free coffee, half off your ice cream, free appetizers at your favorite restaurant, you name it.

To see how it works, I decided to try a SCVNGR challenge here in Philadelphia.

Rose: So I'm standing here near the steps of the Philadelphia Music of Art, and the very famous statue of Rocky. And let's see what the phone wants me to do. The challenge is "show us your mitts" for two points. "Give us your best fighter pose, and have a friend take your picture." Alright, here we go. Could I just get you take a picture of me in front of the statue?

Woman: Sure, of course!

Rose: Thank you.

Woman: Here you go.

The challenges in SCVNGR are suggested by its partners -- in this case, the local tourism office. But at least there's a human editor, someone who's deciding what's worthwhile and what isn't. Seth Preibatsch wants to make sure SCVNGR is more than just a bunch of corporate marketers run amok.

Preibatsch: SCVNGR actually turns down probably in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars per month from brands, from potential partners who want to do things that don't strike us as fun.

This is a serious concern. A lot of free tourism websites turn out to be little more than ads for chain hotels and restaurants. And SCVNGR isn't the only company trying to provide a better experience when it comes to your smart phone.

John Boris: So if I'm in San Francisco, I can hold up my phone just as if I'm taking a picture, and it will tell me which points of interest are in that direction that you're looking and within the surrounding vicinity.

John Boris is a vice president at Lonely Planet, which is famous for its print guides. The company now offers mobile applications, charging $5 and up per city for the same independent reviews of local attractions.

Boris: You do get what you pay for. If you are going to a city, if you are making a big investment for a trip, we do view this as a relatively nominal investment to ensure that you have the best possible trip.

But the professional travel writers may soon have to contend with competition from, well, everyone else. Last month, Facebook announced that its 500 million users can now post their locations using its Places service.

Susan Etlinger: That Facebook announcement meant that location has now gone mass-market.

Susan Etlinger is a consultant with Altimeter Group in Silicon Valley. She says it won't be long before our smart phones can show us location-specific recommendations from the people in our social networks.

Etlinger: If I'm in Chicago, and I want deep dish, here's the place that all my friends have gone to. And then you can get those recommendations from your friends, and they're free, as opposed to having to pay for another service.

Of course, that only works if you trust your friends to make sure you have the best possible trip.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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