Parks Canada recently announced plans to introduce wifi hotspots at about 150 of its sites.
Being an interactive studio, we’re not luddites, but we’re also careful not to apply tech in ways and places that aren’t strategically helpful. With that, we’re wondering if Parks Canada wasn’t making a misstep by trying to make camping more like home, rather than focussing on the things that make camping a unique experience. Were we advising them, this is what we’d say:
The Wifi Will be Bad
Wifi in traditionally un-wired areas is usually less than stellar. While the prospect of wifi will look great in a brochure or on the website, lacklustre bandwidth will tarnish the moment.
Not radio signals, but signals to customers. The move to add wifi implicitly says that the core product, the outdoor experience, isn’t good enough. Adding features in itself doesn’t necessarily send a negative signal, but when a new feature competes with the core offering, we’re adding noise. We’ll explore that thought in detail later in the post.
In our work with travel-oriented businesses, we’ve heard consistently that one of the key values people take away is the chance to step outside their usual life. But the tricky part is that customers don’t believe that at the beginning. After adjusting to the break from online life, they see the value, but only after.
It reminds us of the quote often attributed to Henry Ford on the problem with asking people what they want vs. seeing what they need:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
Adding wifi hotspots is justified, in the words of Parks Canada, because
…visitors want to be able to stay in touch with work, friends and family, stay up to date on the news and connect with social media.
We have no doubt that these stated desires show up in market research. And that’s why we listen so closely to our client’s experience: their guests only recognized the value of disconnecting at the end of the trip.
Loss of Differentiation
Part of the difference of camping is escape from the normal. Encouraging people to bring along the normal that they would otherwise leave behind reduces the differentiating factors in their product, and begins to position a camping experience as “like home, but with less” rather than something truly different.
It’s About the Thinking
Like anyone, we could spin out all kinds of ideas that bring tech into the camping experience without diminishing or supplanting it:
- Suggest apps that are great for campers. Several maps, wildlife guides, photography, and wilderness first aid apps can work offline.
- Promote apps that help people journal and share a camping experience.
- Produce a reservation app that not only showcases specific parks, books reservations, and is packed with offline content about the park and what to do there. Then prompt for feedback on the visit after the return to connected life.
But you know, spinning out ideas without research or validation isn’t a good move, so let’s change tracks and talk about how to think about these things. Let’s use a simple but apt metaphore: a tent.
If you wanted to make a better tent, what would you do? First, consider that the real value of the tent is the nature of the space inside it. If you make tents, you’re really selling the experience of a dry, sheltered space that makes sleeping outdoors comfortable.
Looking to improve your tent product, you consider things you can add. It would be really tempting to ask campers about what they would love to do in your tent. They might say:
- Play a board game
- Drink hot chocolate
But no tent-maker is going to include a board game table or a hot chocolate kit. Because doing so would take away space without necessarily making the space better. Things that take up the dry, sheltered space would leave less dry, sheltered space.
What might they add?
- A fly to keep dew moisture from getting inside
- A screened window to let some air in
- A pouch at the entry for shoes so they stay dry and don’t dirty up the tent
In other words, features that make the tent better but don’t subtract from, or conflict with, the space. And for Parks Canada, the same applies. Where people might say they wish they had the Internet while camping, their experience of Parks’ core offering - the getaway from the normal - would be diluted.
Parks Canada doesn’t need to turn its back on the myriad ways digital could enhance outdoor experiences, but here’s hoping they find ways to do so that don’t diminish the distinct benefits of being an offline space.