Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Pros and Cons of Touring on Your Mobile

Given that Stefan and I provide audio-guided walking tours on mobile phones, we tend to think of the activity as an inevitable consequence of huge numbers of travelers criss-crossing the globe with their mobile phones, and the fact that a growing number of them are 'cultural' tourists that seek to understand more deeply the places they visit.

But we acknowledge the fact that there will be resistance to our business model, stemming from traditional attitudes and expectations of cultural travel, and towards technologies such as the mobile phone. A good example is an article that featured us in a recent edition of Travel Weekly, discussing the launch of our service in Macau. A travel industry vet (whose company provides live guided tours) said that she preferred live guides because of their interactivity, preferred CDs to mobiles, and thought that roaming would be too expensive.

We have thought of these objections, and would like to offer, not a rebuttal, but rather suggestions on how to make our audio tours a more enjoyable experience:

- Interactivity. Granted, you are listening to recorded audio messages when you use our service. But to overcome this factor we have firstly, a) made all of our content only 2-3 minutes long to avoid fatigue, b) made it possible to hang up and dial in again at any time (which is tough to do with a live guide), and c) created a lot of optional specialized content (taking listeners more in depth narratives of local history, architecture, culture or social anecdotes, as well as where to find interesting shops, good restaurants or nearby bathrooms). Additionally, we have tried to make it a shared experience, so on our walks we make it possible for listeners to leave comments about our walk that we then select and put up for the benefit of future listeners. So we are not live, but we make available a great deal more stories, quotes and information than a live guide could be reasonably expected to have. We think that choosing the options that interest you most will add immensely to your "Walk the Talk" experience.

- Mobile-phobia. We believe that mobile phones are an excellent device with which to experience rich narratives about a city's streets, given that it's easily portable, it's a device you're already familiar with, it's a device you own and can therefore use at any time, and that allows you to blend into the crowd and appear more 'local'. We particularly find the phone a much more discreet device than the clunky CD player that is both heavy and labels you instantly as a tourist. However, we do appreciate that some people don't like holding their phone up to their heads for long periods of time. To optimize your experience, we recommend using headphones, and to take breaks at our suggested hang-up points (e.g. at HSBC to ride up the feng shui escalators, at the Bank of China to survey the view). This is particularly recommended for older phone models, that still get quite hot when used for more than 5 minutes.

- Mobile Bill-itis. We can totally sympathize and understand the fear of an inflammation of your mobile phone bill. For most of us, the charging mechanisms and inter-operator agreements that govern how much you are charged for a roaming call are a black box. However, happily Hong Kong and Macau have some of the cheapest calling minutes in the world, so even the roaming charges for such calls are usually cheaper or about the same as a local call on a mobile in London or New York. If you are concerned about your mobile bill though, and would like to limit your downside bill risk, we recommend you buy a SIM card (the little chip that goes into your mobile phone). They are widely available at convenience stores (7-11, Circle K) and mobile retail shops in both Hong Kong and Macau for between HK$50 to HK$130; additionally, we sell walks in Hong Kong that come packaged with a 2-hour SIM card from CSL for HK$150.

And remember, we've designed this product for global navigators and independent travelers that generally eschew organized tours, so the best comparable for our service may not be tour guides but guide books. And here we've designed our product to be complementary to guidebooks - instead of offering a directory service, we offer a 'narrative experience' of a city, placing visual cues in historic and architectural context. This is the one thing guidebooks cannot really do - because you're either reading, or looking at the city around you - it's very hard to do both at the same time.

We'd love to hear your comments on our walks, whether you've tried them or not!

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