Monday, January 6, 2014

To App or Not to App?

Author Kristen Wilke is a Project Manager at Larisa Ortiz Associates

It is hard for me to imagine figuring out what to do and where to shop in a new city without the help of my iPhone. I choose my hotel based on proximity to restaurants that get good reviews, and pick my routes with the help of apps that will tell me which streets have nice shops with local character (because gifts from the airport just don't cut it). If there's a neighborhood where businesses aren't on Google Maps and restaurants aren't listed on Yelp, chances are I won't know to go there.

Some cities and commercial district organizations have developed their own Apps to highlight their local businesses and help visitors get around. But this can be resource-intensive, and puts you on the hook for updating content regularly. If you're considering creating an App for your community, first take a look at what is already out there that could save you from doing the work yourself. (And if you have created an App in your community that supports local businesses, let us know about your experience!)

Yelp Monocle. Screenshot via
Looking for a burrito joint open now? An Irish pub nearby? A gas station you can drive to before your tank hits empty? Yelp for your iPhone or iPad is here to help. Use us to search for places to eat, shop, drink, relax and play then read reviews from an active community of locals in the know. 

My thoughts: According to their most recent stats an average of 11.2 million mobile devices use the Yelp app each month. That means there is a pretty good chance that if people are visiting your city and using their smart phone to get around, they are doing it with the help of the Yelp app. Working with local businesses to get on Yelp and build their positive reviews is an easy way to get on visitors' radar. We wrote more about this a few months back. Also, Yelp has a great track record of working with municipalities. Recently, they've partnered with a number of cities to include Department of Health ratings for restaurants' hygiene scores. This is a good sign that the company would be interested in building new partnerships to support local business communities.

Google Maps: Find the best spots in town and the information you need to get there.
My thoughts: One of the first things you see when you go to is a link that says "Put your business on Google Maps". Having local businesses on Google Maps is an easy way to attract customers who are using the app to get around a notice a cluster of businesses in their area, whether or not they are specifically searching for places to shop or dine.

AroundMe quickly identifies your position and allows you to choose the nearest Bank, Bar, Gas Station, Hospital, Hotel, Movie Theatre, Restaurant, Supermarket, Theatre and Taxi. AroundMe shows you a complete list of all the businesses in the category you have tapped on along with the distance from where you are.

My thoughts: Though I hadn't heard of it until today, AroundMe and Yelp are nearly tied for users. There are some differences - AroundMe doesn't have the reviewing element, instead they differentiate themselves by providing information like current movies playing nearby, and making reservations through OpenTable. If it seems like Yelp isn't big in your area, check to see if businesses have made it here. Another similar app is NearMe - but, based in London, some of their terminology (i.e. Petrol Stations and Pubs) takes some getting used to.

Shopikon: As chain stores fill the streetscape the world over, this project is a celebration of the independent retailer. All stores featured on Shopikon have been hand-picked by our editors who have visited thousands of stores, and only the best of the bunch make it into our guide. We evaluate stores based on product selection, atmosphere, dedication to their specialty, and overall shopping experience, making sure that they are all worth your trip!

My thoughts: Great concept, but only available in seven cities (NYC, SF are the only ones in the US). I'm excited to see if they pop up in other US cities. For now, when I want to do this kind of shopping I typically search on Yelp or search for "Best of" listings in local independent papers.

Now is a free iPhone app that lets you see what is hot and happening in your city based on crowd
Now. Photo via
sourced photos. It's a public platform where users can stand as city journalists and share their best experiences happening in their city and see how popular they are.

My thoughts: Now tracks Instagram hashtags by location to show what is happening nearby. For a visitor, this could be a great tool for finding out about local events, sales, and store openings. The app is still young so user numbers are low and it is only available for iPhones.

Other things to consider

  • If you do create an App, how will visitors find out about it? Will they have to see it on a printed guide, or in an ad on a local website? Then it may be unlikely that they find out about it while they're planning their trip. 
  • Go to the App store for your device and type in the name of your city. What results do you get back? Chances are they are from various travel companies you haven't heard of or local sports teams.  Do they have stellar ratings? Probably not. If you're going to spend time designing an App, have a strategy in place to stand out from the crowd.
  • In a (highly unscientific) poll I just conducted among friends, many people stated that they would only download an App if they knew they were going to use it repeatedly. If that isn't the case, they will visit a website that can give the information they are looking for. Think about your target audience - if it is locals, maybe an app is the way to go, but if it is visitors who will only be in town briefly, perhaps a mobile-friendly website is more appropriate. 

For the Top 35 Restaurant Apps, take a look at this infographic from


  1. I noticed you didn't review TripAdvisor. Was there a reason to exclude that App? I tend to use Yelp most often, but some of the businesses in our district utilize TA instead. Thoughts?

    Jessa Dutton, Uptown, Grand Rapids, MI

  2. TripAdvisor is a good one and we may review it in the future. I do think is is more focused on visitors and would probably be best for districts that have a decent stream of outsiders/visitors from other places. Districts that are more locally oriented would likely look to apps/websites that get more reviews from residents. Those are probably different in every market. We'd love to hear more about hyper-local apps that are popular!