Q Media: Audio Tour Experts

Delivering your goals, to your visitors, within your budget.

Audio guides in an iPod world. Are they still relevant?

“Audio guides are dead. Passe. Old news. Too expensive. Too creatively restrictive. Too… too…  yesterday.”
Fantasy of Flight; a unique experience!

Fantasy of Flight; a unique experience!


Before I start a non-professional rant, let me make a couple of clear points:

First, audio guides and audio tours are not the same thing. An “audio guide” is a device, an “audio tour” is an experience. You can experience an outstanding audio tour on a number of different devices — e.g. audio guides, cell phones, iPods, pdas — which may or may not have been designed and developed as a way strictly to present an audio tour. An audio guide, on the other hand, is a type of hardware that was designed, developed, and deployed with one purpose in mind, to deliver audio tours to the general public. 

Second, there are two sides to an audio tour (you will see this point made over and over in this blog), “what you’re listening to” and “how you’re listening to it.” An audio guide is simply another “how”, another way to get the “what,” — that is, the message — to the ear of your visitor.

Keeping those two points in mind, the question then becomes, do audio guides still have a place in today’s artistic, historical, and cultural organizations? The answer is “yes” provided that for the individual organization the pluses outweigh the minuses.

Like every other technical item, audio guides have pluses and minuses that may or may not suit your organization. Let’s start by listing some advantages:

  1. Audio guides are made for one purpose: to deliver audio tours. This seems obvious, but often times it is the most important and valuable reason for choosing an audio guide option over other delivery devices. First they are generally hardy and rugged; built to take the abuse that visitors dish out. Second, they are developed to be easy for the staff to distribute and maintain. Third, they usually include features like statistics gathering, infrared and radio frequency triggering, GPS capability, etc. that make them especially valuable depending on the project. Finally, they are easy, easy, easy for our beloved visitors and guests.
  2. Audio guides work on a stable platform – mp3 technology. New delivery methods are exciting and are indeed providing options that for many museums have been out of reach. But the new technology also changes rapidly. What works today may not work tomorrow or may be out of date tomorrow. Mp3 on the other hand has advanced to a stable, useful point that can safely be invested in without worrying about the “latest, greatest thing” just over the horizon.
  3. Audio guide manufacturers support their products. Here at Q Media we work with the Orpheo brand which I truly believe is currently the best on the market in terms of audio guide price to value. That said, ALL of the manufacturers are proud of their product and if the truth is told, are all offering essentially the same thing — a hyped up mp3 player. The differences between the various manufacturer at this point are price, extra features, and service. The price is easy to compare, the usefulness of the various features depends entirely on the needs of the organization, and the quality of service is strictly dependent on the character and commitment of the company you go with.
  4. At this point audio guides (and some multi-media type players) are the only platforms that have been shown to increase revenue through optional distribution. At this point, I know of no organization that has successfully increased revenue through downloads or cellphone distribution.
  5. The visitor does not have to provide their own audio guide device. In the case of cell phones and other personal property, there is still a significant number of patrons who either do not have or do not want to use their own devices. Times are a changin’, but they haven’t yet reached the point where every man, woman, and child on the planet has access to personal communication devices.
  6. The organization controls the message. There are some cases when an organization decides it is is not in their best interest to have their audio tour on-line. Once content is on line, it is out of the control or the organization.
  7. There are multiple ways to pay for an audio tour – purchase, lease/rental, and revenue share.

Of course, there are some downsides as well:

  1. Yes, it generally costs more than other delivery choices. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing when you keep in mind the old adage that “you get what you pay for.” Also, some positions about costs are based on old information when there were only one or two manufacturers of audio guide equipment and could therefore charge higher prices. With more manufacturers and distributors in the market, obviously, prices are more competitive. It is important therefore to compare prices. (Always ask Q Media! There, shameless invitation to bid on your project! Bring it on!)
  2. Because of distribution challenges, audio guides are often more trouble than they’re worth for organizations that have the following conditions: limited public operating hours, exclusively dependent on v0lunteer distribution, lack of controlled entrance and exit points (city walking tours for example).

Seriously, on the downside, that’s about it.

If anything, one of the most important things to understand about the increase in technology options as they relate to audio tours is that it is no longer a “take it or leave it” situation. Furthermore, not only do organizations have more options, they can mix and match distribution methods in order to make the best use of their resources (time, money, and skill) while at the same time extending the reach of their message. For example, there are probably only a handful of organizations that really “need” hundreds of traditional audio guides. Those organizations have high visitations rates, may or may not charge admission and/or rental, have motivated and skilled staff, and want to maintain control of their message (e.g. MillerCoors Brewery, Empire State Building, Kennedy Space Center). Mid-sized organizations will opt for fewer units, around 100 or so, to meet their needs (e.g. St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, Hancock Shaker Village) but still maintain revenue generating potential and message delivery options.  Still other organizations may have lower visitor attendance and warrant fewer units OR will use audio guide units to supplement a broader program by having units available for people who do not have another device (e.g. World Golf Hall of Fame, Fantasy of Flight.)

To me, one of the most important things an organization considering audio tours should ask themselves is “how are we planning to measure success?” If you are looking for an increase in revenue, then audio guides are really your best option IF you are prepared to do the sales and marketing work needed to ensure the increase. If you want to decrease staff/docent costs while maintaining tour operations then audio guides are probably still the best option. If you want to extend the reach of your message to as many visitors as possible then downloads with an audio guide back up may be your best solution.  If you want to provide an interpretive option where one hasn’t been available in the past then cell phones alone may do the trick.

As you can see, audio guides still have a place in the museum world. As I mentioned earlier, I think the brand we currently carry is the best on the market but I welcome the opportunity make that case WHEN it suits your greater needs. As I’ve mentioned before, we have clients that use every type of device and I have in the past not recommended audio guides when they didn’t meet the client’s stated goals. In fact, the only caveat to audio guides I have is this — if the company you are querying for information makes the bulk of their profit from selling only one solution (e.g. hardware, cell phones, pda devices) AND those same companies pooh-pooh other delivery device options, then I suggest you take their advice with a grain of salt. I’m sure their experiences are still valuable as you gather information, but having too much of a vested interest in any one type of device will hamper their objectivity.

Sorry ’bout that folks, but that’s just the way it is.

If you have any questions about whether on not audio guides are right for you please comment below, send me an email (stasha@qmediaproductions.com) or give me a call (407-654-7067). I’d be delighted to put my experience to work on your unique situation and at the very least offer something to think about. Of course, I also suggest calling around. Some call it arrogance and some call it confidence… but I call it honestly working hard to help people find the right solution to a problem.


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