Cell phone data gives Virginia Beach tourism office a peek into visitors’ travels

VIRGINIA BEACH – The city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau contracted with a company that has access to data from 100 million cell phones in the United States to see what it could learn about where tourists go when they get here.

Thousands of people, including attendees of a national cheer competition, an art show and the Shamrock Marathon, had their locations tracked, unbeknownst to them, via the data points that were given by their phones and captured by cellular networks. The data was stripped of all identifying details about the user except for the home zip code attached to the phone, said Chuck Applebach, vice president of marketing and research for the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Applebach said Wednesday that the visitors bureau hired Atlanta-based AirSage Inc. to carry out the research as a test case after learning about the company’s services from a representative at a conference. The work cost $41,176.45, according to the visitor’s bureau.

“We really didn’t go into this looking to solve a problem,” Applebach said.

Rather, staff was curious to try a new technology and see what value it might add to existing research efforts. There are currently no plans to do more cell phone tracking, although the visitors bureau is only beginning to share the results, and Applebach said he could see other city departments, such those in public safety, and neighboring localities being interested in exploring it themselves.

And what did they learn?

There were not many surprises. For the most part, the data strongly corroborated what old-fashioned surveys of people on the street have told the city, Applebach said. For example, it found that the resort area in July draws heavily from greater Richmond, Northern Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, with an average stay by guests of four days.

One outlier came from the tracking of visitors to the Boardwalk Art Show in June. AirSage found a hotspot of activity from Pittsburgh. It was just one year of data, so it could have been a fluke, but the visitors bureau will add that city to its marketing plan for that event next year, Applebach said.

“We probably would not have thought of Pittsburgh,” he said.

To gather the data, the city identified geographic boundaries and a timeframe for an event. When a cell phone entered that area and stayed their for at least five minutes, it was “pinged” and became part of AirSage’s data gathering. The company pays cellular carries for the data it uses, but the data is stripped of personal identifiers before it gets to AirSage, Applebach said.

The home zip code is left, however. That allows the company to cross-check that information with Census data associated with that zip code and create a likely income profile for the unidentified visitor.

AirSage also does not have partnerships with all cellular carriers, so some visitors do not show up in the company’s research. As a result, Applebach said, the data is indicative but not precise.

In addition to the main venue location the city targeted, staff picked other spots for AirSage to monitor to see where the people who attended a targeted event went during their stay, such as Town Center, the city’s ViBe Creative District or Norfolk.

The information can be valuable to marketing plans by showing what secondary attractions are drawing visitors, Applebach said. Then, for example, if the city were to create a website to publicize the event, it might devote space to those popular secondary attractions, he said.

“We know they like that, so we’re going to talk about it,” he said.

Asked about potential privacy concerns with such research, Appleback said he did not figure that to be an issue, as marketing is already so highly targeted with personal information, and because the data AirSage compiles is anonymous.

“We don’t know anything more about these people than we did before,” he said.

Other than their zip code, he added.

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