Anyone who visited San Diego in the third of week of July likely saw some interesting sights. An old man dressed as a Minotaur? Why not. Spiderman playing Hacky Sack with a Power Ranger? Of course. Even the strangest spectacles seem routine at the world's largest comic book convention, Comic-Con International, which has descended on San Diego every summer for the last 46 years.
But onlookers at this year's event had the opportunity to witness something more notable than a Batman costume composed entirely of body paint: a horde of several hundred people hunting imaginary Pokémon together outside the San Diego Convention Center using the augmented reality game Pokémon GO. An unofficial bar crawl created by a lone Pokémon fan who organized it on Facebook, the "PokéCrawl" attracted interest from hundreds of people who showed up to play the game, imbibe, and socialize as they visited bars along a planned route through San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.
"It turned out to be one of the best events at the show," reported Jacob Kastrenakes of tech site The Verge.
It also turned out to be a case study for other meetings and conventions, organizers of which have an opportunity to similarly leverage Pokémon GO at their events to increase networking, engagement, and perhaps even revenue.
Fad or Phenomenon?
Creators Nintendo and Niantic released Pokémon GO on July 6 in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and have since rolled it out to more than 40 countries worldwide. Although it's less than two months old, the game has been installed on smartphones more than 100 million times and earns over $10 million in daily revenue, according to a report by app analytics firm App Annie.
Here's the basic goal of Pokémon GO: to find and catch more than 100 varieties of fictional creatures. These creatures appear via augmented reality technology that leverages your smartphone's camera and GPS to "layer" the characters onto the real world around you. At designated landmarks known as "Pokéstops" you can collect special objects and rewards to assist you on your hunt, and at special spots called "Gyms" you can meet up with other players to pit your Pokémon against theirs in battle. And because you're playing a virtual game in the physical world, players don't just get points -- they also get exercise.
Like Cabbage Patch dolls, Furbies, and "Gangnam Style" before it, Pokémon GO may seem like a flash in the pan. The premise driving it, however, is here to stay, according to Randie Adam, vice president of marketing and visitor services at the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau in Cincinnati, OH, which is one of innumerable American destinations where attractions and businesses are capitalizing on the craze to attract consumers -- including Pokémon-playing business travelers and meeting attendees.
"Although this particular game may go away, augmented reality will not," Adam says. "The technology has finally reached a level that makes it mostly reliable, and the gamification element is making people keep coming back for more. It will only get bigger from here. So your best bet is to learn what is going on with augmented reality now -- Pokémon GO -- so you can be ready for what comes next."
Indeed, meeting planners can leverage Pokémon GO today in order to prepare for future iterations of augmented reality tomorrow.
"Pokémon GO is getting people to go outside their houses and visit locations they've never been before," says David Budimir, content marketing manager at event software company Social Tables, who recently authored a blog post titled "What Pokémon GO Can Teach Us About the Future of Attendee Engagement." "Smart event planners are thinking creatively about how they can leverage technology to do the same thing within their conferences, trade shows, and even smaller events."
According to Budimir, it will likely be several more years before augmented reality is fully integrated within meeting and event apps. In the meantime, here are several strategies meeting planners can use to incorporate it into their events, courtesy of Pokémon GO:
Create PokéStop maps. In Cincinnati, local attractions have capitalized on Pokémon GO in order to attract attendees who are in town for major events and conventions, like the NAACP National Convention and the Cincinnati Music Festival.
"The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden recently released a complete map of the grounds, showing visitors where to find the 26 PokéStops, two Gyms, and countless Pokémon around the zoo," Adam says.
Meeting planners can similarly map for attendees the PokéStops, Gyms, and hunting grounds in and around their meeting venue. Doing so, Adam suggests, is a great way to help attendees explore their host city. As a marketing piece, it could even drive attendance by getting players excited about the gameplay prospects at the meeting.
Organize Pokémon hunts. To go even further than mapping, consider hosting a "PokéCrawl" like the one that took place at Comic-Con.
"You can facilitate a certain time to go Pokémon hunting between events as a replacement for a networking break or teambuilding activity," Budimir suggests. "There might be away to ask your attendees to join certain teams as an icebreaker, or as a way to get to know each other and work together to find and catch Pokémon."
Echoes Adam, "We think the best way to use this is as a networking element -- there is nothing that bonds people more than doing something seemingly silly together."
Invite families. More and more meeting attendees are looking for events that help them combine business and pleasure. Marketing your meeting as a destination for Pokémon GO gameplay can scratch that itch -- especially when you organize activities or hunts for attendees' families.
Says Adam, "[Pokémon hunting] will be particularly helpful in getting the younger audiences engaged in your meeting, but since families are playing together, you will likely find some of your older attendees getting in on this as well. In fact, this is a great activity for attendees that are bringing their families to meetings."
Focus on fitness. One of the most cited benefits of Pokémon GO is its physical component, which has been getting even the most sluggish gamers off the couch and on their feet to play the game. Enter weight-loss wagering company HealthyWage, which organizes competitive weight-loss challenges and contests for corporate clients, the victors of which receive cash rewards generated by participants betting on their own success. In response to Pokémon GO's physical attributes, it launched a "Summertime Stepping" program last month dangling cash rewards for participants who set and meet step goals while playing the game.
Meeting planners could take advantage of attendees' growing interest in health and wellness and their enthusiasm for Pokémon GO by engineering a similar challenge at their event -- either through a company like HealthyWage or on their own. The result could drive attendance and, thanks to the benefits of exercise, enhance attendees' productivity and performance.
Leverage lures. A key feature of Pokémon GO is the ability to purchase and drop "lures" that attract flocks of Pokémon to a designated spot for a limited time -- and flocks of people who are interested in catching them. Lures cost $1 and last for 30 minutes.
"If you've seen the videos showing crowds of people rushing down the street to catch Pokémon, it's because people started dropping lures strategically so everyone would pile up at the exact same location," Budimir explains. "It's brought people together naturally through the mechanics of the game, and there are probably ways you could leverage that for business purposes."
Eventually, meeting organizers and event venues may be able to attract players to designated spots by "sponsoring" a Gym (i.e., paying a fee to put a Gym where they want one). For now, however, lures remain meeting planners' best tool for driving traffic to targeted areas within their meeting, such as a keynote address, a networking event, an education session, or, as part of a premium sponsorship package, even a trade show booth -- wherever the planner wants to draw people.
The Orlando World Center Marriott has seen firsthand how Pokémon GO can drive traffic to a venue. The resort, which has nearly 10 PokéStops and a Gym on property, recently created a "Catch 'Em All Escape" package for gamers who want to stay at the resort and hunt Pokémon.
"Several of our hosts are Pokémon GO enthusiasts and started educating each other about this new craze. With all the great PokéStops and Gym we have on property, it was thrilling for our team to see groups of guests searching throughout our resort," says director of sales and marketing Gary Dybul. "We highlighted these features on our resort social media channels and saw great engagement with this content, so decided to take it a step further and create a fun package that is a way to extend their experience."
You may not understand what it means to catch a Pikachu, but at the end of the day all that's required to appreciate the possibilities of Pokémon GO is an appreciation for face-to-face interactions. And meeting planners have that in spades.
"When you host an event you're bringing like-minded people together in an environment where they can learn or network or have conversations around the things they're passionate about," says Budimir. "Pokémon GO facilitates that in a super organic way."