In charge of a city bustling with history and culture, Visit Ely has been ramping up its digital offering to reach new audiences in a post-pandemic world. The tourist information experts have worked with Calvium to deliver an innovative digital placemaking experience on mobile apps and digital kiosks across the city.
On the cusp of completing the initial rollout, Visit Ely’s Sales and Events Officer, Matt Routledge, tells us how Visit Ely has adopted, adapted and evolved in recent years, and the importance of putting community at the heart of digital placemaking.
Can you give an overview of Ely and its local economy – where does tourism factor and what are the economic development strategies?
While it may not appear quite as sprawling as nearby neighbours Cambridge and Peterborough, Ely is a city. We have a sizable agricultural income and economy because of the nature of the fens. We are home to a number of production industries, including being the European home of international organisations such as Thorlabs. We also have a bustling town centre and tourism sector.
Tourism is a sizable element of the visitor economy throughout the summer and winter, and we have everything they need in one destination, such as accommodation providers, food and drink establishments, independent shops, markets, and unique visitor attractions, for example, Oliver Cromwell’s house. Residents and school visits certainly contribute, but it is tourism that provides a considerable cash injection to Ely’s overall economy.
As placemakers, a destination marketing organisation and visitor guides for the city, what are your key opportunities and challenges?
The biggest challenge is that we are in a very well-supplied market where there is a finite resource of time and money for people to enjoy leisure activities. They go hand-in-hand: if you have money, do you have time to spend it? If you have spare time, do you have money to spend? So to assert ourselves, we need to make our product appear top-of-list in front of people.
Fortunately, that isn’t enormously difficult when you have a resource, a product per se, such as Ely, which is filled to the brim with history and things to do. People travel all over the place for our markets, for instance, while our upcoming traditional apple and harvest fair attracts between 5,000-7,000 people in a single day.
Digital technologies are playing an increasing role in the lives of locals, visitors and potential visitors. How is this influencing the ways that these groups engage with Visit Ely and the city?
Digital technologies have created two almost defined streams of tourism. We have our traditional 50-65+-year-olds who engage with our print materials, want to see posters and still pop in to see us at the tourist information centre; then we have a newer, younger audience that are much better served and reached by digital platforms.
We’ve seen a need to move towards Facebook, X, Instagram, TikTok, and have had to adapt. We know that we are looking at a global audience and in the post-pandemic world, international travel is coming back with a renewed vigour. There is a desire to travel internally and internationally from markets that we may have not seen before. People are doing more virtual tours using a range of platforms, and then going to see places as a result of that. That’s also why Ely is on these platforms.
So, digital technology has had an enormous impact and will continue to have an enormous impact on how we drive business and in what basket we put our eggs.
What has been your strategy in providing local information through public access, as well as direct to personal devices?
This strategy – the development of a tourism app – dates back to the early days of the pandemic, where the economic development team at East Cambridgeshire District Council applied for funding from the combined authority. Because of the local roots the project needed to flourish, it made sense for it to sit under the Visit Ely banner.
That has influenced the initial campaign and structure of how we are going to engage, particularly in making sure the app isn’t just a boon for tourists. That was one half of it – giving tourists and potential visitors the opportunity to see all the things to explore in Ely via an app – but we also wanted local residents to benefit as much by letting them know what’s available, to defeat that kind of threshold anxiety that might exist. There is an ever present sense of “that isn’t for me” or “It’s of no use to me”, but once you get someone over that threshold, once they engage and see what is on offer they will hopefully become life-long users.
It has very much been something we’ve wanted the community to be at the heart of, so this has informed the content we show, like government buildings, the library or emergency dentist – things that your average visitor may not want or need.
Can you describe the Visit Ely app and its visitor experience?
We currently have around 326 local sites, services and places of cultural interest listed, ranging from dentists, museums and architects, to the cathedral, public transport and the ‘secret yarn bomber’ – a local resident who designs knitted tops for post boxes under a secret identity.
We have events, which we can geolocate so somebody gets a notification when walking past a specific place. Then there are the trails and quests, including wellbeing trails for Ely Country Park and the ‘Station to City’ trail, which seeks to bridge the gap between the city and train station, which can feel quite isolated.
We know people love gamification; if you can turn something into a challenge, adventure and experience, then you should. So our first quest is made up of 40 questions, leading people to look at and discover things they might otherwise miss.
More recently, we have started to roll out digital kiosks, which host a version of the app that is only available on the kiosks – which you don’t need a phone for. By the end of the project, we will have 17 kiosks in key prominent locations around the city, including the railway station, market, riverside and all car parks.
What value do you anticipate the app will bring to your city?
It will add value from a two-fold perspective. Economically, it will bring eyes that formerly would not have reached the city of Ely. Equally, it will support residents, local businesses and events that are taking place in this city to grow, develop and share themselves around the world and within our own little microcosm here.
We’ve had some incredibly positive reviews already, often saying it’s about time Ely was put on the map! I had an email from a lady who had lived in Ely for eight years, and because of the app she had gone on her first proper walk around the country park. She said it was revolutionary.
Visitors are enjoying it too because they are able to plan their visit and make the most out of it, rather than getting overwhelmed with choice anxiety.
What have you discovered/encountered working with digital technologies and information/content – has it changed the way you see future storytelling and visitor experiences?
We are on the cusp of something incredible developing from here and you cannot avoid it; you cannot outrun the future. So we are being faced with that redirection.
The app is the perfect example of that happening. We are taking that relevant information and transposing it to a new medium. We’re saying to people we are still here; the tourism office and printed visitor guide aren’t going anywhere but digital works harmoniously with it and they can be used to support each other. We have to be acutely aware of the change of tide of technology we adopt to adapt to evolve.
Are there any words of wisdom that you would pass on to other Councils or places seeking to create their own digital placemaking experiences?
Root it in your community and get that community buy-in from the beginning. Make it work for residents first, then it will grow and flourish because it is tended by those that know the soil, air and nutrients best. Let them plant the tree and grow with you.
We have made it a very open project and invited people to feed back and submit their own events. It’s about giving the community a sense of ownership; letting them know that their thoughts, wishes, feelings, desires, ideals and content is appreciated and not just paying lip service.
What are your plans for the future?
We are adding more content daily and would like to start doing more community-curated trails, letting those who know Ely best submit their own routes. They will be the lifeblood of this app.
It is still a very young idea but we’re so invested in it and there are so many branches that can spring from it… additional screens, new functionality on the app, itineraries. The wish list grows and grows, because if we are constantly improving the experience and keep giving people something to come back to, they will come back.
Thank you Matt for sharing your experience and insight!