To buy or to build: How to choose the right guest experience platform for your enterprise attraction

Trying to weigh up your app development options? Here’s what to consider when it comes to buying and building your guest experience platform.
Adam Catterall
May 2023

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

Not quite. Now you’re faced with a difficult decision. Do you buy an existing guest experience platform, work with an agency, or build your own from scratch? On the one hand, you’re eager to protect your brand, but you’re also conscious of keeping costs down.

To help you make the right decision for your attraction, we've put together this guide to lead you through the world of app development and help you understand your unique requirements.

So, where should you start? Before you do anything, it's important to plan ahead.

Conduct a planning exercise

It’s difficult to make such a significant decision for your attraction without running an in-depth planning exercise. This will help you draw out the key outcomes of your guest experience project–both in terms of the benefits to your guests, and to yourself regarding the actual functionality. During your planning exercise, think about:

  • What your digital guest experience platform needs to deliver: Start by focusing on your outcomes. This might include things like increasing your guest satisfaction, influencing spending to other revenue channels, and gathering behavioural insights from across the guest journey.
  • The features it needs to have: Next, try to picture your perfect platform. What things can it do to improve the lives of your guests and operators? Whether it’s digital wayfinding, mobile food ordering, or in-app photos, draw up all the features in your dream platform. Note down your must-haves, as well as your nice-to-haves and work out your priority list for the development and adoption process.
  • What your timeline is: Time-to-market is an important factor in any software project. And when it comes to buying vs building, it’s even more influential. If you’re working with strict deployment deadlines, this will impact your decision-making on which development route is right for you.
  • What resources you have: Whether you tilt one way or another on the buy vs build scale will heavily depend on the resources you have available to you. Do you have an experienced development team that can work with both iOS and Android? Do you have project managers with a history in product development? Rolling out a large guest experience platform takes a variety of skills. If you’re not confident you have the right talent in house, consider what your hiring budgets are.
  • What your budget is: In the end, it all comes down to finances. Knowing how much you want to spend to breathe life into your guest experience platform will determine the option that works for you. Can you manage large upfront capital expenditures? Or would a subscription-style pricing model suit you better?
moodboard on how to build out a mobile app

Remember, when you’re going through these questions, ensure you’ve got buy-in from all of your stakeholders. Everyone should have an input. It’s likely that other teams will have different priorities to your own. The CFO of your attraction, for example, will be more concerned with pricing, costs, and return on investment. Your operations team might be more concerned with how this affects your guests and your teams on the ground.

Once you’ve mapped out your project goals and main priorities, it’s time to explore the options you have:

DIY development: Building in-house

Everyone loves a bit of DIY. If you’re an enterprise attraction with the right digital infrastructure in place and the funds to back it up, you’re probably exploring the idea of building your own digital guest experience platform. There are a few obvious benefits to taking the app development into your own hands:

  • You get exactly what you want. You’re building for you. There’s no cookie-cutter solution that might not quite hit your requirements. You can build each feature bespoke to your park, tailored to the needs of your guests and operators.
  • You’ve got full ownership. Owning intellectual property and protecting your brand is probably high on your list. Building in-house, the product is entirely yours and control stays firmly in your hands. You won’t be dealing with licence fees or software usage rules.
  • You can scale easily if you need to. Attractions are constantly responding to shifts in the market. Having your own guest experience platform offers you the flexibility to scale up or down as you need.

To reap those benefits, however, you need the right people on hand. Building your own software takes a dedicated and experienced team that includes:

list of team members needed to start building an app

And that’s just a top-level view of the roles involved. Getting a piece of software to market takes a whole host of hard and soft skills. But, if you have those on hand, or you’re willing to get the right people in, the returns on your investment can be huge.

Take Disney as an example. They 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.

If you’ve got a team of superstar developers who are each on $100k/year salaries, you’ll be looking at several hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a minimum viable product (MVP) off the ground. However, this price will jump up quickly if you require complex features, such as:

  • Mobile payments
  • Location services
  • Push notifications
  • Wayfinding
  • Integrations with your EPOS or ticketing systems

It’s a large upfront cost. But, when you consider that Disney World welcomes around 60 million guests a year across their parks, those costs start to look a little more realistic. Not to mention Disney’s Genie+ service which starts at $15 per day at Walt Disney World Resort and $25 per ticket per day at Disneyland Resort. Even if only a small percentage of the annual guests choose to upgrade their guest experience, Disney are quickly making that money back.

disney genie mobile app builder and design agency

Working with an agency

You might also think about handing your development over to an agency. We understand they speak your language and free you up to focus on your day job. 

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.

But 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.

If you’re not quite ready to let go of such a high capital expenditure, you might want to investigate SaaS solutions instead.

SaaS: Ready-made software out of the box

SaaS (software-as-a-service) companies provide you with a service using their software. For attractions, this means the SaaS company hosts your guest experience platform and provides you with top-notch customer support to keep it running.

It’s a popular route for businesses of all sizes to take. In fact, companies are now spending 20% more on these cloud technologies than they did just a year ago. The world is growing more and more reliant on SaaS.

attractions.io mobile app platform

But why does that make it a good choice for your attraction? Well, the benefits of SaaS include:

  • Fast time-to-market. If you’re working to tight deadlines, the SaaS option means you can get your guest experience platform off the ground in far less time than if you were to do the development yourself. Think back to the reasons you’re implementing a guest experience platform in the first place. Faster time-to-market means you’ll see these results in less time.
  • A head start on your development. With SaaS, you don’t have to worry about finding the right people to make your guest experience dreams a reality. And you don’t have to think about keeping them employed. SaaS gives you the goodies right away.
  • Benefitting from other people’s investment. Every customer that chooses SaaS contributes towards a better end product. This leads to more feedback and insight, resulting in platform improvements. This might make you think, ‘But I don’t want the same tools as my competitors!’ That’s understandable, but it’s not the tools that make the difference. It’s what you do with them.
  • Years of expertise. SaaS companies have been in this game for a while. Your chosen vendor has surely been toiling away at building the perfect solution for a decade or more. By going down the SaaS route, you’ll lean on all this expertise. There’s no quicker way to gain that amount of technical knowledge and understanding.

SaaS gives you a ready-made app loaded with features, customisable elements and personalised branding. All the tricky backend infrastructure is already in place, and everything’s been tried, tested, and approved by attractions around the world.

“It’s not necessarily about the tools you use to make your guest experience platform. It’s about how they’re integrated into everything you do. Just because you’ve got the same hammer as someone else doesn’t mean you’ll build exactly the same house.” - Peter O’Dare, Head of Product at Attractions.io.

The downside here is that you won’t have control of a SaaS product roadmap like you might if you build your own. But you’ll be getting close to your perfect app without the years of development time, the high overheads, and the prospect of long-term maintenance. Some platforms, like Attractions.io, can also build on top to meet bespoke requirements and offer more flexibility than would traditionally be possible.

It’s true that not all SaaS solutions are created equal. Make sure during your research you look for providers that offer a branded app (rather than a generic, one-size fits all approach), and a rich set of features and integration capabilities.

Review your choices

Let’s take a moment to look over the choices. We’ve broken down the ins and outs of each route below:

mobile app chat debating custom builds, agency, and SaaS solution builds

Make the right choice for your attraction

Knowing the options and having a rock-solid plan for your guest experience platform is a strong place to be. It helps you understand your unique requirements for your attraction, and what you can realistically expect with the capital you have on hand. Your choice will come down to your unique requirements and how well you can integrate your new guest experience platform into your current systems. 

Choosing whether to buy or build your guest experience platform is a big decision, and we’ve only scratched the surface in this article. If you’re eager to learn more and want to know exactly what goes into each development route, check out our in-depth guide. It’s got all the facts, figures, and costs you need to know to make an informed decision and kickstart your guest experience project.

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Adam Catterall

Roller coaster buff and black belt content writer
May 2023

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