Should I buy or build a mobile app for my attraction?

Trying to weigh up your app development options? Here’s what to consider when it comes to buying and building attractions software.
Ellen Wilkinson
May 2021

So you've done your research, aligned your stakeholders and agreed that you need a mobile application to enhance your guest experience and start influencing on-site behaviour. That's the tricky bit over, right? 

Not quite. When it comes to apps for attractions, the options aren't just black and white. From custom-built to SaaS solutions, there are several ways to get your attraction a spot in the App store. Over the years, we've spoken to hundreds of attractions struggling to weigh up their options so now, we're going to put that stored up knowledge to good use. 

We've put together this guide to help you navigate the world of app development and make the right choice for your attraction. Read on to discover the different services available to you and the pros and cons of each.

What are my options?

When buyers first start searching for a mobile application, the first port of call is often to get in touch with an agency that can handle the development process for you. We totally get it- they speak your language, don't drown you in jargon and free you up to focus on your day job. But there are other more effective options out there. Below we've summarised your main buying routes:

Build your own

The DIY option is a popular route for enterprise attractions with the digital infrastructure and financial clout (more on that later) to support an in-house, end-to-end development process. 

If you're considering building a bespoke application, you'll need an internal development team experienced in mobile development. Note that the programming languages used are vastly different to web development, so even if your web team are total rockstars, developing a high-quality mobile application that's smooth, debugged, and quality assured might not be their forte.

Ready-made SaaS solutions

Next up are ready-made, software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions, like the Attractions.io platform. When you purchase a SaaS solution, you're effectively leasing a ready-made app loaded up with features, customisable elements and personalised branding. For a set yearly fee, you’ll have access to all the tools you need to take your attraction mobile, plus automatic software and feature upgrades. The beauty is that it's already been tried, tested and approved by other attractions around the world. 

We'll be honest here and admit that you're not going to have total control of a SaaS product's roadmap like you might if you build your own, but you'll likely get close to 100% of what you need without the time, resource and energy it takes to develop independently. However, not all SaaS solutions are created equal, so during your research look for providers that offer a branded app (rather than a generic, one-size fits all approach), a rich set of features and integration capabilities with EPOS, ticketing and other essential tools.

Agency building custom app

Agency / Custom build

Of course, you can still go down the agency route. Under an agency model, you'll brief developers and designers on your desired goals and outcomes, and they'll then create a custom-built application according to your specification. Pricing will depend on the platforms you want to use and the features you require. 

And remember- just because your existing digital marketing agency lists development on their website doesn't necessarily make them the best fit for the job. Marketing agencies often draft consultants in for apps, which essentially puts a very expensive go-between between you and your end product. If you're considering the agency approach, do your homework and find a partner dedicated to app development with a proven track record of success.

What type of development path is right for me?

Now that you know the options available to you, let's weigh up the pros and cons of each. When it comes to buying or building a mobile application, there are several factors to consider, including:

  • Cost
  • Ongoing Maintenance
  • Speed of Delivery 
  • Customisation
  • Quality and Performance
My disney experience in app store

Cost 

When it comes to cost, custom building an app is the most expensive option to pursue. With custom builds, you need to cover the costs of scoping, design, development, testing, security, compliance and ongoing maintenance. Whereas a SaaS provider handles these costs for you in the case of a ready-made app. 

Disney reportedly injected $1 billion into the internal development of their magic+ platforms, with Accenture alone billing around $100 million for their role in helping the attractions giant go ticketless. Even if this is an extreme example, just taking salaries into account, you can expect to pay around $90,000-$150,000 a year for a skilled app developer- and to build a great app, you're going to need a whole team! Hiring product owners, designers and QA analysts can cost tens of thousands of dollars each year.   

In total, an entry level application for your attraction, built to a good standard will set you back between $100,000 to $1 million. However, if you require complex features like mobile payments, location services, push notifications, wayfinding and integrations with your EPOS or ticketing systems, expect to pay more. An enterprise grade application, of a comparable quality to a SaaS solution costs significantly more than $1 million, as evidenced by Disney’s huge magic+ bill. 

Investing in a ready-made platform will set you back far less. SaaS developers leverage scale and shared demand to create attractions software solutions that cater to businesses within specific industries. For example, here at Attractions.io, we're here to help Zoos, Theme Parks and Resorts nail their CX. You'll still be able to customise and brand your app if you choose an out of the box solution, but you'll eliminate scoping and development costs and this reflects in the price you pay. Our ready-made app solutions start from just $14,000 a year!

Paultons Park and ZooTampa opt-in screens

Ongoing Maintenance

Buyers often overlook ongoing maintenance when considering how to approach their zoo or theme park app and it’s a huge mistake to make. To build an app successfully, it’s crucial that you keep up to date with the latest trends, requirements and regulations. This means continuously optimising for new devices and updating your apps to comply with regulatory changes, or new legislation such as COPPA.

From our experience, most issues come to light after the launch of your app, due to bugs, glitches and unexpected maintenance costs. And if you’re building your own app, you can quickly end up with a backlog of issues, with little time to dedicate to fixing them. In contrast, when you purchase a SaaS solution, you’ll benefit from automatic updates, fixes and new feature launches without needing to lift a finger. An agency can provide ongoing maintenance like this, but they’ll charge a retainer fee, which is often higher than the cost of an annual SaaS subscription by itself.

Whatsmore, because SaaS platforms like Attractions.io power multiple parks and reach millions of guests worldwide, developers can leverage high volumes of user data to refine the app experience and fix bugs, so the end solution is incredibly stable and optimised for users. 

SaaS developers invest millions into developing an app so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. By building your own app, either internally or with an agency, you need to be prepared to do exactly that- you’ll start from scratch without having data on what’s worked for similar attractions to inform your development process.

Attractions.io branded apps

Customisation

One of the undeniable benefits of building your own application is getting a unique, business-centred app that's designed specifically with your target user in mind. You can tailor features to your target users and, with the right expertise, customise the back-end of your app according to your business needs. 

So what about ready-made solutions? We'll admit that you'll be able to customise more of your application if you build or commission it yourself. And if you're operating within a niche attraction, that might be exactly what you need. But for everyone else, knowing what to build and why can be a challenge of its own.

SaaS providers have years of expertise developing solutions for the zoo and theme parks industry, and that insight results in product roadmaps that cater to the both current and future business needs. In this capacity, your SaaS provider acts like a consultant, providing ways of improving your business operations and user experience that you might not have even considered! If you're looking for a platform that automatically keeps you up-to-date with user and industry trends for a lower cost, then a ready-made solution might be just what you need.

Delivery speed

It's probably unsurprising to discover that a ready-made solution will have the fastest impact on your business. With a platform like Attractions.io, the building blocks of your solution are already in place. All you need to do is add your branding and points of interest, and you're ready to launch, so your lead time can be as short as eight weeks!

With agency development, this time to value is much longer. Developing quality mobile apps from scratch can take over a year, and you're unlikely to be the only project the agency’s working on, which could cause further delays. Developing internally is a similar story. By the time you've built the foundations of your app and started work on your unique features, you could be well over a year into the project. And with both options, you've got to leave plenty of time for thorough quality assurance testing before launch to ensure you deliver a great experience for users.

bug control keyboard

Quality & Performance

Whichever route you choose, the last thing you want to do is finalise your app, only to find out that it's slow, clunky and riddled with bugs. A major advantage of a SaaS solution or ready-made app is that you can see the final product before committing your PO. You can schedule live demos with your account manager and perhaps access a trial version to see how the app performs for other attractions like yours. This helps you visualise the final product and ultimately provides peace of mind to you and your stakeholders, who can gauge the app's performance upfront. You can then back this up with case studies and reviews from existing customers to make 100% sure you've found the right technology partner.

If you're building an app from scratch, whether internally or through an agency, you won't have the same luxury. Although agencies will have case studies from previous customers, they're unlikely to be experts in your industry and won't have developed a comparable solution before. This means you'll need to get comfortable signing a PO using prototypes and wireframes of your app, rather than seeing the real deal in action. 

Our opinion? When it comes to quality, we've seen some tremendous custom-built apps in the past. But we've also seen a whole host of glitchy apps that don't deliver the best UX for guests. A significant factor here is budget. If you want a custom-built app that performs as well as a commercially developed solution you've got to pay upwards of $1 million to mirror the rigorous testing and development that goes into an enterprise solution. 

The takeaway: is it better to buy or build apps for attractions?

If money is no object, hiring a team of developers to build a highly customisable, bespoke app for your attraction could be a valuable way forward. With the right budget, you'll get a high-quality app that sits within your IP asset portfolio and is uniquely aligned with your target consumer. The drawback? You'll be waiting upwards of a year to see the final result, and an application with comparable functionality to a SaaS solution will set you back well over $1 million – and that's before recurring maintenance fees enter the mix. So unless you have the clout of Disney, it's unlikely to be a wise investment option.

A tried and tested SaaS solution, on the other hand, outshines the competition when it comes to cost, performance, reliability and delivery speed. Making buying the ideal option for attractions looking to get a high-quality app whilst keeping both CAPEX and OPEX costs down. 

Interested in learning more? We can help you roll out a guest attractions app in less than eight weeks. Get in touch here

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Ellen Wilkinson

Content Specialist, zoo enthusiast and french bulldog [s]mother
May 2021

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