Arts & Entertainment and Technology

Local businesses strike Pokémon gold

Game blending digital and real worlds comes with promise — and pitfalls.

July 22, 2016
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PokémonGo? Yes, as a business community we have to talk about it, because — well, believe it or not, it’s making local businesses money.

The augmented reality game, launched July 6, has become a national craze and is drawing thousands to downtown Grand Rapids to walk around in droves, glued to their smartphones while they “catch” animated Pokémon characters in real-life locations.

Players can find their Pokémon around designated PokéStops, and here’s where the game gets economically interesting (and also somewhat risky depending on the player’s own sense of judgment).  A PokéStop is an earmarked location that can be just about any kind of landmark one might find in a public place. 

In Grand Rapids, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has become such a site and is seeing lots of gameplay — and with it, paying customers. 

“It’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s absolutely crazy. A lot of groups of people are coming in, wandering around, playing the game,” said John VanderHaagen, public relations manager at the gardens. “We are encouraging people to come and play. We love that we’re part of this game. We didn’t do anything to get into it. We didn’t know about it until we blew up last weekend.” 

VanderHaagen said his team hasn’t calculated all the numbers yet, but he’s positive the facility has experienced an increase in business possibly in the thousands of dollars thanks to the game. He wants to harness its popularity as a way to draw more interest in the gardens’ collection, particularly with younger visitors. 

“The coolest story I heard was one kid came and in three hours he caught 200 Pokémon. He maxed out the amount he could catch in one location, and then he said was excited to come back and do it again,” VanderHaagen said. 

“The biggest point I want to get across is we’re really excited this game is exposing a different audience to our park. We really want to get millennials in, and as long as people are respecting the rules, we’re thrilled to have people.” 

But, alas, not everyone has been respecting the rules. VanderHaagen said the gardens also has seen more and more PokémonGo groups trying to sneak in after hours to keep playing. He’s worried those individuals might break something in the gardens’ priceless collection or accidentally hurt themselves. The gardens have security 24/7, he said, and those individuals have been peacefully escorted out. 

John Ball Zoo, home to the city’s most fantastic non-digital creatures, has also become a PokéStop and seen an increase in business, said Marketing Manager Krys Bylund. The zoo hasn’t had the same break-in problems as Meijer Gardens, she said.

“The good news is it would pretty much be impossible to get where the lions are,” she said. 

“If this is sustainable, absolutely (it’ll be a financial profit for us). It’ll introduce a bunch of people who don’t typically go to the zoo, and then we’d hope they’d come back and enjoy the animals. I just started playing the game, and I’m really inexperienced with it, but apparently we have some really rare Pokémonat our location.” 

Not everyone is thrilled by the idea of PokémonGo players running loose all over the world. In national news, there have been reports of car crashes due to drivers playing the game, thieves using the game to lure unsuspecting players to remote locations, and people trying to catch Pokémon in hallowed places like churches, mosques and even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

At times like this, Lisa Cooper, business partner at HR Collaborative, becomes a much needed resource for employers who want to figure out what the game could mean for their businesses and workplace productivity. 

In Cooper’s opinion, the game “could potentially be one of the best marketing tools that’s come along in years.” 

Cooper acknowledged that any sort of workplace distraction isn’t good, but there are also some positives to PokémonGo. 

“The first thing I hear of is more from a marketing side. There are PokéStops in the game, and if those are near your business, you can use that to draw traffic. Capitalize on it and increase the amount of business,” she said. 

“(This will help) anybody with a retail storefront that is looking to increase foot traffic, whether you’re selling a service or an experience. Any time you have a chance to showcase what you’re selling — what a win! Those are people that might have never come in your store otherwise.”

Employers also can embrace this as a new cultural water cooler or happy hour, she said, adding that the game has a March Madness feel that could really unite a team, which is always good for the workplace. 

Cooper encourages employers to turn it into a competition and make it fun, a good stress reliever that can also connect a company with its community.

“Just getting people to get out and take a break (is valuable). We’re all connected 24/7. Taking a walk to play Pokémon is probably good,” she said, adding that some companies might want to review their social media policies with regard to the game. 

“I think it really just comes down to the amount of distraction it provides. Employers are providing more flexibility to when, where and how people work, and that’s great, but at the end of the day, we all still have jobs we have to get done.”

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