Chicago’s Lurie Garden Engages Mobile Technology to Enhance Visitor Experience

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This article written by Lynn Petrak was originally published in Public Garden Magazine. It appeared in Volume 32, Issue 1, 2017.  Published with permission from the APGA.

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The Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park has been a beacon for four-season beauty and sustainability since 2004. Now, the Lurie Garden is using beacon technology—an inexpensive piece of hardware attached to a fixed object transmits information to smartphones and tablets via geo-location technology—to engage and educate visitors within its five-acre site, which is teeming with hundreds of varieties of perennial plants and woody plants.

Several unobtrusive beacons have been added to the garden over the past several months to enable information sharing via the GrowIt! social mobile app. Through this technology, users can click on the app’s Explore and Search features to see what plants are growing around them and get plant details by following the Information tab that features thousands of plant descriptions and other information. To help them “garden socially,” as GrowIt! likes to say, the app also lets users link to special events nearby and share plant photos with others to show them what works or, perhaps, what doesn’t work in that area.

SEEDLINGS OF AN IDEA
Scott Stewart, Director of the Lurie Garden, had heard good things about GrowIt!. The app was developed by Mason Day and Seth Reed, two self-described “plant nerds” who met while working for Ball Horticulture Company. They thought such an app could help them share the joy of growing, via a social community.

“It really started with a conversation between Seth and me during the very early launch phase of GrowIt!. We both like to push the front edge of how technology is used in how people interpret gardens,” explains Stewart.
“By reaching visitors through their devices, the Lurie Garden can communicate with them regularly,” adds Stewart. “GrowIt! plays well into the fact that the Lurie Garden is a true four-season garden. It’s a way to engage our visitors through the year,” he notes.
That includes the times between late September and early May when Lurie Garden volunteers aren’t out in the garden. As Reed recalls, “Scott was hoping that a GrowIt! experience could be a stand-in while the docent program was inactive. This was very easy, as visitors have access to the GrowIt! tour whenever they are in the garden.”
Having the app complement important aspects of the garden was pivotal for Stewart. “We told our volunteers,
‘This doesn’t replace you—it adds to you and augments the experience’,” he says. “Also, the platform allows a user to click over to the Lurie Garden web page and find information or get contact information for our staff.”

THE PILOT TAKES OFF
Installation was fairly simple. “We hid the beacons in our irrigation caps, so we are utilizing something already in the garden without adding any overhead or extra cost. In addition, it has no negative effect on the plants, soil, organisms, or birds,” remarks Stewart, who says the small plastic beacons are simple to install and can be easily tucked out of sight. Although the beacon technology is designed to withstand the outdoors, a particularly snowy and frigid winter in Chicago will be the ultimate test, he adds.

During the first few months after the installation, Stewart and his team regularly observed visitors pulling out their smartphones to download or use the app. Day and Reed also came out to the garden to check on its use. “Sometimes we just go to scope out what people are really looking to get out of an experience at the Lurie Garden. That way, we can cater what we are doing more to the actual visitors,” reports Reed.

A GrowIt! user agrees that it provides helpful information. “It was like going on a garden flower hunt. Visitors will be able to see and learn about the plants that are in bloom throughout the entire year. It makes you want to come back to see the new blooms of those you found interesting,” says NZingha Ra’in, a 2016 visitor to the Lurie Garden.

The beacon technology has provided key analytics for the garden, such as the use of the app by Millennials as well as other generational users. “It’s only been out one summer, but we have a preliminary data set now,” says Stewart.
The GrowIt! founders learned some key lessons, too. “We knew this would be a great solution for those people who were avid plant fans, but we also found that people strolling through the garden on a lunch break also have questions, and the app gives them a better way to connect than they’ve had before,” observes Reed.

As with almost all pilot programs, some issues emerged.
“We think it’s a good idea now to have a designated staff member spend fifteen to thirty minutes a week to update the plant lists based on what’s in bloom and to take photos,” reports Stewart.
Stewart says that Lurie Garden is well served by this kind of public-private partnership. “It expanded opportunities to create collaboration and partnerships, without overhead,” says Stewart, adding that the app connects users to the Lurie Garden and also connects the garden with other public gardens and partners in the industry.
Ultimately, the technology fits into the Lurie Garden’s mission. “What we do is all for the public; and we’re here
to engage people in the broadest possible way,”
Stewart declares.

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For More Information on GrowIt!’s Tours To-Go program go to: http://growitmobile.com/tourstogo/

Or contact Chelsey Groh at cgroh@growitmobile.com

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