Groups spent $11,000 for a one-year subscription.
During a joint meeting between Franklin's Tourism Development Authority (TDA) and Macon County's Tourism Development Commission (TDC) members expressed discontent in the investment made by both entities in April 2011 in a regional tourism phone app.
Pitched by members of the Smoky Mountain Host, the app – called “Ugo Tour NC Mountains” – was pitched to be the first of its kind in North Carolina. Smoky Mountain Host partnered with Asheville-based Story Point Media to develop the content for the app, which purportedly created rich content totaling more than 200 videos and included informative text, photos, video, web links, phone links and GPS mapping locators for Western North Carolina.
The TDA invested $5,500, the Franklin TDC invested $3,250 and the Nantahala TDC contributed $2,250 to the project, putting Macon County's financial commitment to the project at $11,000. “The money invested was for a one year subscription to the Ugo Tour App with 10 story points beginning July 1, 2011 and ending July 1, 2012.
During the joint meeting, members of both organizations stated they were unsatisfied with the app and would be interested in seeking a refund or other legal action from the app's creator/ owner, Jon Menick. While members on both boards have changed since the project began, the general consensus is still that of disappointment.
"I think we should explore the possibilities of using the videos for something positive. The videos are high quality and contain great content that could be beneficial to tourism in the area," said TDA member Matt Bateman. Bateman was not on the TDA when the Ugo Tour project began, but is working to find a solution now. "The app has had functionality issues in the past, and if the TDA/TDC isn't behind this app 100 percent, we should at least see what can still be utilized for promotion of tourism per Macon County's original investment.”
Members of both the TDC and TDA said since the app was first launched, it has had content gaps, has not been user-friendly, and has not been up to par in the overall functionality. Because of the frustration with the app since its inception, members of the boards expressed interest in pursuing other avenues to make the $11,000 contribution worthwhile. “The TDC members have been very disappointed with the project. Most of them could not open the app on their phones,” said Linda Harbuck, member of the TDC.
During a follow-up meeting of the TDA, members asked attorney John Henning Jr. to begin exploring legal options to gain access to the content featured on the app.
Despite discontent from the TDC and TDA, David Huskins with the Smoky Mountain Host says despite a few setbacks, the app serves a great purpose for tourism in the area. “Just like with any technology, we have had a few glitches in the launching project and even had some down time when Menick, the owner of the app, switched companies that helped provide the app,” said Huskins. “But now, the app is up and running great and is continuing to expand and improve.”
Huskins, who served as a facilitator between the app's investors and Story Point Median and Menick, says that after the glitches were worked out, the app was re-launched and continues to be a great asset to the area.
According to Menick, he came up with the idea for the app right in Macon County. “The idea really started for me one day when I was illegally standing on top of the Nikwasi Mound in downtown Franklin,” he said. “I noticed all of these people driving by and no one was stopping at that mound even though it’s one of the great archaeological areas in this part of the state. I wanted to create something that would provide people with easy access to information about Western North Carolina.”
Menick, who hails from Los Angeles said that the creation of the Ugo Tour app is a labor of love and is fired by his passion for the raw natural beauty of Western North Carolina. “I wanted to give something to the area and contribute to the tourism that this place could have if properly advertised,” he said.
When the app was first launched, the algorithm was rented from a third party company for one year. “We rented the algorithm versus creating one because that way we could focus on creating incredible content, which we new was going to be cumbersome,” said Menick. “After our year subscription was over, we had down time on the app. We decided to not go with the company we rented the algorithm with anymore and were not able to get everything switched over and working in time, so there was about three weeks when the app went off line in July of 2012.”
During the app's first year, it had more than 5,000 downloads and generated interest from people all over Western North Carolina. The Department of Transportation has since partnered with Menick to create dozens of additional video footage for the regions scenic byways. “We have filmed all of those videos and are editing them now, they will be up later this year,” he said.
While he has continued to work to improve the app, he said support from individual counties has stopped all together. Despite support from Graham County and Fontana Village, original investors, including the TDA and TDC, have let the app fall flat and have lost interest. “It is like I built a Porsche and gave them the keys,” said Menick. “It would be really nice if they would put the keys in the ignition and drive it away, but they just won't.”
Menick stated that even after money from entities such as the TDA and TDC dried up, he continued the upkeep of the app because he was invested in it personally. With the app being a free download, he says he has no monetary incentive for the app’s creation and just wants to give something to the region to help publicize it.
“There is no money in it for me,” said Menick. “I did it and will continue to keep the app up because I wanted to provide something to the area. I created the app, but I am not a marketing company. I had envisioned the TDA or TDC taking the app and marketing it to visitors to the area. I created it and gave it to them, but they refuse to use it.”
Menick said he has tried to work with Macon County on low to no cost marketing strategies to make Ugo Tour more well known, but has gotten little to no response from the parties involved.
The Smoky Mountain Host continues to use Ugo Tour information on promotional materials and on their websites, as does the TDC. “We have it on the homepage of our website www.visitfranklinnc.com with a link to the app,” said Harbuck. “We have also displayed the tent cards they provided for us in our Visitor Center. We did an article in a Chamber News when it was first done but have not done anything since then.”
Summer Woodard, who serves on both the TDA and TDC said that the TDA was under the impression that Menick would handle the marketing of the app as well. “To my understanding the TDA and TDC were under the impression that Ugo Tour and or Story Point media were going to promote the app,” said Woodard. “However, this has been the big debate because in recent months representatives from Ugo Tour met with both the TDA and TDC and informed both groups that it was up to the TDA and TDC to promote the app.”
According to Menick, he plans to continue working on bettering the app with the hopes of creating an innovative tourism resource for Western North Carolina that counties will want to take advantage of in the future.