For hospitality expert Ivan Tuohy, it was a trip to Alcatraz that proved the key to unlocking the potential of a dream that had languished for years.
“It really hit me that the challenges that I had in my own workplace in Ireland were actually the same challenges that many attractions and museums had all around the world,” says Ivan, founder and CEO of Great Visitor Experiences. A hotelier by trade, he was working as a general manager for one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ireland and had recently completed an MBA at the University of Limerick.
It was 2018 and new innovations in technology were transforming user experiences across various sectors, but tourism operators were still relying on traditional tools like audio guides, maps, leaflets, in-person tour guides and stand-alone signage to engage their visitors; even in the biggest tourist attractions in the world. The tools were outdated. It was the cause of much frustration for Ivan and there was no obvious fix.
For international visitors, there was also a language barrier, with about 20% of visitors unable to understand audio guides or maps. “We had limited communication with the visitor, pre-arrival, onsite and after arrival,” Ivan says. “We didn’t have any tools in place from a digital point of view to capture that data. There was no real-time commercial information to drive onsite business.”
Ivan began to look for a digital solution that would immerse the customer in the visitor experience at every touchpoint, from start to finish and beyond. It didn’t exist. He was told he could source an augmented reality app but no app could integrate all their existing assets into one place. He thought, “No way, it needs to be bigger than that. We needed to build an ecosystem with just one omnichannel where attractions, museums and activities could all live together.”
“The New Frontiers programme was a fantastic first step. It really allowed me the time to focus on the idea, and to build some structure around it.”
The tentative steps towards developing Great Visitor Experiences, an interactive app that enables operators to engage with visitors, source data, tell stories and sell more, were underway. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Ivan felt that he had the relevant skills to make it as an entrepreneur. But there were fears.
“The first big problem was not believing in myself, in my own ability. And the other real problem was quitting the job and not having a salary,” he says. “It was a case of, I might have a good idea but how am I actually going to commercialise it and bring this to reality? I might take a chance on myself, but can I really do it?”
Ivan sought support and applied to New Frontiers. Once accepted, it all became very real. The programme put him on the path towards backing himself and his dream.
“The New Frontiers programme was a fantastic first step. It really allowed me the time to focus on the idea, and to build some structure around it.” It also brought out Ivan’s competitive spirit. “You’re in the room with 12-15 people, all with very good ideas and all coming from a problem from different angles. That support, that peer-to-peer network is great. But you’re dealing with people who want to succeed. It’s fairly competitive. It was a case of, I want to help people, but I also want to do well myself.” As for the mentors, “They really challenge you. They challenge you in a way you wouldn’t challenge yourself.”
Since launching in 2018, Great Visitor Experiences has scooped major innovation awards. The company works with leading attractions across Ireland and recently launched an All-Ireland Destination Guide. The team is working closely with operators to help them get access to the platform with the choice of a subscription or ticketing partnership model as they navigate COVID restrictions.
For anyone thinking of taking the leap and following their dream, Ivan has some advice; “Don’t be afraid.” He adds, “No one is going to back you until you back yourself. So if you can back yourself, and be open to listening to people, go for it.”
Want to learn more about Great Visitor Experiences? Visit their website.