Feature Article - January 2017
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Go! Tech-Enabled Parks

From Pokemon GO to Geocaching and Beyond

By Dave Ramont

Go! Geocaching

Another extremely popular activity involving geo-location is geocaching, in which participants use a GPS receiver or mobile device with a GPS app to find geocaches at specific locations marked by coordinates that they've downloaded. Geocaching combines the high-tech feel of online games with getting outdoors and treasure hunting. It's estimated that more than 2 million geocaches exist worldwide. A typical cache is a waterproof container which holds, first and foremost, a logbook containing information from the cache's founder and notes from the cache's visitors. The visitor should sign and date the logbook—which might contain information on local attractions, coordinates to other caches, anecdotes or other messages—then place it back exactly where it was found. They also record their exploits online, typically at geocaching.com.

The cache also might hold treasures or prizes, which could be small toys, coins or currency, ornamental buttons, CDs, books, maps, software, jewelry, tickets, tools or games. Players may take objects in exchange for leaving something of similar value. Disposable cameras are popular as they allow visitors to take a picture, to be eventually uploaded to a geocaching website. Also common are objects to be moved from cache to cache—called hitchhikers, Geocoins, Travelbugs or Pathtags—whose travels may be logged and followed online. These trackable caches are sometimes assigned specific goals, such as being placed in a specific geocache far away, or traveling faster and farther than other hitchhikers in a race. Each cache has a terrain and difficulty rating of one to five stars, with one star meaning the cache can be found quickly, and five stars meaning the cache is hard to find or open. They can be located under a tree stump, on the side of a rocky cliff, underwater or in cities both above and below ground, inside or outside of buildings.

Geocaching has proved to be a compelling way to get folks outdoors and explore places they wouldn't normally have visited. And the Pokemon craze caused more people than ever to sign up for geocaching, since media outlets often used it as a reference point when describing Pokemon Go. Therefore many local and state parks have embraced geocaching, while also stressing that participants need to be respectful of flora, fauna and park rules. Rogers said they have a very active geocaching community in and around Arlington. "Recently, we've partnered with these groups in hosting a Cache-In-Trash-Out day at Lake Arlington, where the groups collected trash and debris around the lake while also collecting caches. It's a win-win for all involved."

Geocaching is one of the most popular activities in Georgia State Parks, with more than 60 parks and historic sites containing hidden caches. "We've introduced state parks to a whole new group of people, from longtime enthusiasts to people just learning how to geocache," said Kim Hatcher, who works for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), adding that they couldn't have started the program and had such success without the volunteers who help place and maintain the caches.

The Georgia DNR built on this enthusiasm by introducing various Geo-Adventures, including the History Trail GeoChallenge, where players had to visit 14 historic sites, answer questions related to each site, and solve a padlock code to open the 14 caches, where prizes awaited. And to celebrate their 85th anniversary, Georgia State Parks sponsored the Birthday Bash Geocache, which involved not only finding limited-edition trackable Geocoins, but also spending at least one night in a State Park campsite, yurt or cabin, or attending a Georgia Geo-Camper event in 2016.

Go! Social

Hatcher said that Facebook is a great tool for sharing information and feedback between visitors and park staff, with many state parks having their own Facebook pages to post events and photos, which are also shared on the main Facebook page for the Georgia State Parks division. "Instagram is a valuable tool as well because it allows us to introduce visitors to beautiful new locations, especially lesser-known state parks. It's amazing how many people react to a gorgeous photograph," Hatcher said, adding that they're also able to showcase new facilities such as cottage renovations or large group shelters.

Rogers said they also maintain an active presence on social media including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, with more than 9 million impressions between Twitter and Facebook last year alone. "The key is crafting a unique message for each platform, as our demographic/psychographic profiles of our users differ dramatically between them. We've also started using Snapchat, and the Geofilters, for our special events."

Facebook is a great tool for sharing information and feedback between visitors and park staff.

Rogers also explained how a sizeable portion of their marketing budget is allocated on social media advertising as opposed to traditional advertising methods, to better tailor their advertising to certain demographics or geographical areas.

Paul Holtan works for the Wisconsin DNR, and said their Facebook page has more than 80,000 followers. They also have Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Flickr accounts. He described successes they've had with their Facebook campaigns, including a "Hidden Treasures" contest, which was run in a sort of "March Madness" format. "We selected 16 of our lesser-known, lesser-visited parks and put them into brackets and allowed people to vote for their favorite park in each bracket. We moved up the brackets each week, just as a basketball tournament bracket would work," he explained. The contest was highly successful, bringing attention to parks that people were not as aware of. Almost 24,000 votes were cast.

They also held the "Twelve Gem Challenge," asking people to submit selfies taken at designated sites within 12 park properties. An online storyboard was created, and participants could upload the selfies to a photo album on the TravelWisconsin.com website. Another success was the "Fall in Love with Wisconsin State Parks" contest, where people were invited to send in photos of their favorite fall colors at park properties, with almost 4,500 votes being cast for favorites.