Several Twin Cities suburbs are delving into new technology aimed at better promoting their cities and helping visitors — whether they're locals, metro-area sightseers or tourists — get around.
Prior Lake plans to create a wayfinding kiosk with a QR code to navigate downtown, while Apple Valley has incorporated an interactive online map and artificial intelligence to answer questions. Apple Valley's visitors bureau recently added drone footage and will soon have a "virtual concierge" on its website.
"You need it because demographics are changing," said Ed Kearney, president of the Apple Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).
"People are younger now; they're not picking up a paper anymore."
Apple Valley's biggest draw is the Minnesota Zoo, which brings in 1.3 million visitors annually.
But there's also 50 restaurants, a golf course, Lebanon Hills Regional Park and two hotels in town.
The Mall of America brings tourists to the south metro area, and some stay in Apple Valley. While they're there, the visitors bureau encourages a zoo trip, he said.
Kearney said he plays up Apple Valley as comfortably suburban for people from small towns, as many visitors are, yet still near urban areas.
But before they arrive, they have to want to come. The visitors bureau and Chamber of Commerce websites use artificial intelligence — a "digital assistant" icon pops up for visitors — to answer questions in real time, 24 hours a day.
Apple Valley is likely the first visitors bureau in Minnesota to use it, Kearney said.
"We've anticipated almost any question people would need to ask," Kearney said.
The Apple Valley CVB created an interactive, online city map last year. Site visitors can limit results to items in a given category, such as coffee shops. A tech specialist wrote computer code so that when Google updates its maps with a new business, the city map will add it, too.
By August, the CVB website will feature a "virtual concierge" to give viewers a 360-degree perspective of various attractions, similar to what is used in real estate to give 3-D home tours.
Visitors can use it to "walk around" a restaurant or check out a hotel banquet room. Eventually the zoo, some restaurants, hotels and Valleywood golf course will be available to explore.
"We're trying to be smart with technology so no one has to wait for us to answer an e-mail," he said.
The city is using drone footage, taken at a height of 400 to 450 feet, to provide a bird's-eye view of the city and zoo, he said. On-screen text points out attractions.
Some cities are considering trying new technologies or using them on a smaller scale. St. Louis Park officials are discussing ideas like interactive touch screens to assist in wayfinding once the Green Line is extended, said Clint Pires, chief information officer for St. Louis Park.
In Prior Lake, road reconstruction on County Road 21 created a problem: While there's a crosswalk for pedestrians, a median now splits the downtown into two sides for vehicles, said City Manager Jason Wedel.
The city put up a temporary kiosk and map during construction, which ended in 2020. Now, city staff is moving toward erecting a permanent kiosk to ease navigation, with a second location under consideration.
The city contemplated using touch-screen technology, but learned Minnesota's temperatures were too extreme.
Instead, a QR code, accessible from smartphones, will bring visitors to an interactive map they can carry with them, Wedel said.
The app is aimed at both new and existing visitors coming for Lakefront Park access or shopping. "We want to see our downtown thrive," he said.
Kearney said he hopes tourism in Apple Valley picks up. The city, which contracts with the CVB to promote its attractions, pulled $30,000 from its lodging tax reserve fund to encourage post-pandemic tourism, Kearney said. Ordinarily, the CVB has a $115,000 budget that comes from lodging taxes.
Kearney likely won't print tourism brochures this year. Many places went paperless during the pandemic, when even menus were online. The trend may stick around, he said.
"If there's ever a time to transition, this is the time," he said.
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781