Smart Destinations Out to Make Big City Tourist Travel Family-Friendly

Boston has a pretty well-known cluster of tech companies—young and old—that are focused on aspects of travel like booking flights and hotels. Kayak, TripAdvisor, and ITA Software (now part of Google), just to name a few, fit that mold. But there’s another area player that’s helping customers to experience a city once they get there, via an interesting marketing proposition.

That would be Boston-based Smart Destinations, which is looking to provide a Disney World-esque experience to hitting tourist and historical sites in 12 cities such as Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. It’s not a new idea, as you’ll see, but it has a modern twist.

For Boston, adult travelers can buy a three-day “Go Card” from Smart Destinations for $109, and gain admission to more than 70 attractions, like the New England Aquarium, Salem Witch Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, and even Cape Cod activities like whale watching. That price can be adjusted in wintertime (when people don’t want to be out on a boat), and, naturally, a kids’ Go Card costs less. The card also enables users to skip lines at tourist attractions, says CEO and founder Kevin McLaughlin. That, and the one-stop-shopping aspect give it the amusement park pass feel.

“It makes it really easy for families to go to big cities,” he says.

McLaughlin recognizes that not every customer may be looking for a 72-hour-straight, nonstop tourist-attraction-hopping vacation, though. Smart Destinations also offers a Go Select pass, with which consumers can pick certain spots they’d like to see. For each attraction they add to the pass, the amount of the discount at each individual spot grows.

McLaughlin started the company with travel industry veteran Cecilia Dahl in 2003. The inspiration came from a Paris tourist service, which sells a card giving visitors access to all of the city’s museums. This is McLaughlin’s sixth tech startup. His past ventures include Delphi Internet (acquired by News Corporation), Netspoke (acquired by Premiere Conferencing), and (acquired by Amazon). Smart Destinations is now up to around 32 employees, and has raised three rounds of funding from investors such as North Hill Ventures.

Smart Destinations is now making a bigger push into the mobile sphere, says McLaughlin.The company started by selling physical cards with a smart chip through its website. Consumers can get still get that card via snail mail or participating kiosks in their destination cities, or they can access it via their mobile phones. Starting first quarter of this year, consumers can also create, purchase, and customize the Go Select pass right from their phones, adding tourist destinations and racking up discounts as they make their way through a city. A small piece of equipment that resembles a credit card machine can read the Go Cards, smart phones, and QR codes for Smart Destinations customers at each tourist site.

Smart Destinations’ approach is saving through bulk, as it can negotiate the discounts with tourist attractions by getting them high customer volume in exchange, says McLaughlin. “We don’t devalue them,” he says. “We help get people to the door.”

And, of course, Smart Destinations’ cards work as a marketing service for the tourist sites, most of which don’t have big enough budgets to do big advertising campaigns on their own, says McLaughlin.

“We’re an interesting business in a part of the travel industry that flies under the radar,” he says.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is how the company blends local marketing with the travel demographic through a simple user interface. We’ll see if it stays under the radar for much longer.

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2 responses to “Smart Destinations Out to Make Big City Tourist Travel Family-Friendly”

  1. jazzy says:

    Too bad that one quarter of the Smart Destination cities are no longer selling Go-card as of December 2011. What does that say about the business model?

  2. I would love to be able to visit Boston and buy myself a Go-card. It’s great that for only $109, you’ll get to visit 70 smart destination cities. I wonder how the new england aquarium looks like.