Plan Your Visit and Mobile App
The C&O Canal National Historical Park is 184.5 miles long, running from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to Cumberland, MD, passing through urban, suburban, and rural landscapes and multiple small towns. Visitors needed easy-to-access trip-planning information in a digital format, and the National Park Service asked the C&O Canal Trust if this was a project we could tackle. As we evaluated the idea, we realized the tremendous opportunity that existed in helping visitors explore the length of the C&O Canal -- providing trip-planning information would enrich the visitors' experiences, drive economic development in the adjacent towns, counties, and heritage areas, and increase the Trust's visibility with the Park's 5 million yearly visitors. We decided this was an opportunity we had to pursue. The result was a new Plan Your Visit website section and C&O Canal Explorer mobile app.
I led a team of staff members, vendors, freelancers, and volunteers in creating a searchable database of over 600 points of interest that provides content to the Plan Your Visit website and mobile app. Funding from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) allowed us to hire two copywriters on a freelance basis to research and write informational travel tips for approximately 200 points of interest, while volunteers photographed and collected GPS coordinates for every point, including parking lots, trailheads, rest rooms, water pumps, historic sites, lockhouses, and Canal Towns.
My role was to oversee the timeline and budget of this project, ensuring that the volunteers and freelancers were on target to complete their work in a timely fashion. I then coordinated with both Cermak Technologies, who did the backend programming for the website, and a freelance web content manager, who uploaded all of the content into the web database. The result was our Plan Your Visit website, which allows visitors to explore the Park by location and activity. The points of interest are mapped on a Google Maps interface and are also searchable, allowing users to quickly find hiking trails, historic sites, trailheads, parking, and more. The site launched in October, 2015, after 11 months of development.
We then received a second grant from MHAA to turn the website database into a mobile app for both iPhone and Android platforms. Cermak Technologies again did the development work, adding a few features that would make the app useful when used by visitors in the Park. It calculates the distance from a user’s location to nearby amenities and points of interest, and allows users to view what lies both upstream and downstream of their current location. The app, C&O Canal Explorer, launched in the summer of 2017.
A third MHAA grant is currently supporting the addition of new points of interest, an interactive itinerary builder, and the addition of trip-planning content in anticipation of the C&O Canal's upcoming 50th anniversary.
Project Manager: Heidi Glatfelter Schlag
Site/Database Design and Programming: Michael Cermak, Cermak Technologies
Funding: Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, Montgomery County Historic Preservation Council
Copywriters: Nicole Bruno, Melanie Draper, Brian Hayek, Christine Runion, Collin Campion, Charissa Hipp, Esther Herbers
Content Management: Tim Haines
Photo Management: Melanie Draper
GPS Data Collection: Jim Tomlin &
Potomac Appalachian Trail Club GPS Rangers
Photography: 60 volunteers
AWARDS & MEDIA COVERAGE
2018 Innovative Product Award, Public Lands Alliance
WTOP (Washington Metro Area)
WAMU (Washington Metro Area)
WUSA (Washington Metro Area)
WDVM and LocalDVM.com (Hagerstown)
The Plan Your Visit website has seen tremendous growth in unique visits since its launch, with a 303% increase during its first year, an 85% increase in its second, and 40% increase in its third. The mobile app has been downloaded 5,000 times since its release. These numbers are all the more impressive because there is no marketing budget for either of these products -- these results have been achieved via media placement, digital content marketing, organic web traffic, and word of mouth only, as well as through a Google AdGrant. We are also sure that the mobile app in particular is aiding us in gaining exposure with Park visitors who may not be familiar with the C&O Canal Trust. Approximately 25% of people who download the mobile app opt in to our email list and receive our monthly updates. We have heard from numerous people that it is a great tool for exploring the 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
In 2018, the C&O Canal Explorer mobile app was awarded the Innovative Product Partnership Award from the Public Lands Alliance. The award honors products that embody leading edge achievements in the preservation of public lands and the enrichment of visitors. “This mobile app incorporates both beautiful photos and design,” the judges stated. “The app solves a complicated issue that many large and diverse public lands sites face and is packed with every conceivable question answered to encourage the user to move on to the next site. It’s easily accessible, no matter where you start your tour and is an excellent use of multiple partners, each bringing their own expertise to tell the story.”
The mobile app is also being highlighted as a best practice in the tourism, preservation, and planning industries. Maryland's 2019 Update to their Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan features the C&O Canal Explorer as an Illustrative Project on page 34, stating "well-designed mobile computer applications help attract visitors by making it easier for them to find points of interest, plan trips, and find useful information to help guide their visits." The Maryland Historical Trust also featured the mobile app as a best practice in its report Preserve Maryland II - The Statewide Preservation Plan 2019-2023.
The C&O Canal Trust has included the continued development of the Plan Your Visit website and mobile app in its 2019-2023 Strategic Plan in recognition of its importance in wayfinding and interpretation for Park visitors, outreach to younger audiences, and awareness of the C&O Canal Trust to all visitors who use the app. A third grant from MHAA is supporting the following work:
Expanding landing pages with themed categories, photos, and text to aid visitors in exploring the site and planning their visits.
Adding merchants in our ten Canal Towns, so visitors can access hotels, restaurants, shops, and more.
Creating trip-planning itineraries, especially for bikers planning the ride the entire 184.5 miles.
Creating a "Trip Planner" interface that would allow visitors to save points of interest to their own itineraries.
Encouraging community partners to use the calendar interface.
Introducing web visitors to the work of the Trust through strategically placed stories.
A page from the Plan Your Visit website, showing search results for "Point of Rocks". Icons mark the locations of points of interest on the map, and users can click on a photo to learn more about each point. Search options appear on each page in a yellow block.
Images from the C&O Canal Explorer mobile app. Clockwise from top left:
C&O Canal Explorer icon.
Map with points of interest pinpointed. Blue dot indicates user's location.
Points nearest the user, sorted by distance. Each links to a page with more information.
Search screen, which allows for searches by amenities, activities, towns, counties, heritage areas, and trails.
A point of interest page. Further scrolling reveals a list of nearby points of interest and their distance upstream or downstream.
Zoomed in map of pinpoints in Williamsport. The blue dot indicates the user's location.