In a world in which the words “Google” and “Maps” are inextricably linked in the minds of many travelers, is there a space for a small player promising a more social, more immersive navigational experience?
Elliot Cohen, founder and CEO of New York-based Citymaps, believes there is and that his 16-person company is the one to fill it.
“The incumbent players [e.g., Google Maps and Apple Maps] are designed for one thing, to get you from Point A to Point B, and they do that terrifically well. We wanted to create an interface that uses maps as a discovery tool.”
To that end, Citymaps — available via app, mobile browser and desktop website — takes a more dynamic approach. On the back end, it aggregates information from several dozen sources, including Wikitravel, Viator, OpenTable, Groupon, and Travelzoo (for deals) and Songkick and Ticketmaster (for events and performances).
On the user side, that translates into a more immersive experience. When a user brings up a map, nearby Points of Interest (POIs) are indicated by photos or logos, rather than just business names.
When tapped, each one brings up more detailed information, including, among other things, additional photos, insights and reviews from other users and a button that invites the user to save POIs they’re interested in via a so-called “Map Collection,” i.e., a personalized map.
“We all ask friends for insights, read blogs and jot down favorite places,” says Cohen. “Personal collections are a way to create locally based stories.”
Adding a social component, the company encourages users to make their collections public, which are incorporated into POIs’ “View more details” pages and then get surfaced when another user taps the icon.
The company also works with 200-plus publishers, ranging from Buzzfeed to Travel + Leisure, allowing them to create maps of their own curated suggestions.
Currently, the site has more than 1 million users and generates revenue through a variety of channels, including partnerships, advertising, bookings and licensing deals.
Put it all together and the result is a multi-layered interface that combines navigation, practical details, reviews from other travelers and professional insights from the likes of Michelin Guides and Anthony Bourdain.
Tap on the icon for New York City’s High Line park, for example, and it’ll bring up a page with a map, photos, contact information and links to 87 other users’ collections, including ones created by individual travelers, Travel + Leisure magazine and the nearby Gansevoort Hotel.
In fact, it could all be a bit overwhelming — the app/website incorporates 40 million POIs from around the world — if not for one, well, two things. First, tabs on the homepage allow users to filter by categories, such as hotels, bars, shopping and art venues. Second, the software analyzes user behavior to determine what POIs to show.
“The idea is that maps look different for different users. If you follow foodies, it will surface more restaurants; if you follow mommy bloggers, it will show you places with changing tables.”
Meanwhile, the company continues to roll out new features. In March, it unveiled new functionality that allows users to download maps for offline use (no wifi or mobile data plan required).
Available for more than 5,000 cities around the world, the service lets users explore their surroundings even when they don’t have a mobile data plan, thus eliminating roaming fees, or wifi.
The company’s latest effort builds on that and, in a sense, brings it full circle. Until now, travelers using Citymaps for actual navigation were directed to either Google Maps or Apple Maps.
With the new update, navigation has been brought in-house using a combination of open source and proprietary routing capabilities. Users can not only download the service’s full-featured maps but also use them for turn-by-turn navigation because GPS doesn’t require an Internet connection.
It should be noted that Google and Apple also offer offline navigation of sorts although the former is not particularly intuitive and the latter relies on cached data. And neither incorporates the immersive elements — visual, curated and social — that differentiate Citymaps.
“Google and Apple are essentially digitized atlases. We’re more like tourist maps, the ones you see in small towns. We want to highlight all of the POIs in the world.”