In today’s digital world, offering free Wi-Fi to tourists could make a real difference to their overall experience of your destination.

 I’ve been to many cities across Europe where the disparity in both Wi-Fi accessibility and quality is huge. It makes a real difference in your overall experience if you can access the internet when walking down a high street or in a local park, rather than having to hang about outside a cafe or searching for the nearest McDonald’s!

It’s no secret that we’re becoming increasingly reliant on our smartphones across all aspects of our day-to-day lives. And one of the most prominent functions of our phones is the internet access that they provide, allowing us to easily browse the web and use dedicated mobile applications.

With tourism in mind, it’s important that visitors to your city or region are able to access the internet as seamlessly as possible. They’ll want to be able to obtain important information on-the-go, as well being able to access social media in order to share their experience.

This is especially important for international visitors to your destination, who will not want to run-up expensive roaming charges or may not have the luxury of being able to buy an international data packages (i.e. those now currently being offered by UK providers). Domestic visitors, while being able to use their own allowance without incurring any extra charges, may also prefer to use Wi-Fi in order to reduce data usage.

How it’ll benefit both you and your visitors

There are some fairly obvious benefits of affording international travellers access to free Wi-Fi; as well as ensuring that they don’t incur expensive data usage charges, they’ll be able to retrieve useful information – travel times, directions, weather forecast, etc. – in order to truly maximise their experience and enjoyment of your destination.

They’ll also be able to access your website, and any complimentary apps, in order to retrieve further information and insight about the region. Driving visitors to your website, while they’re ‘on the ground’, is also a great way to maximise commercial opportunities through promotion of certain attractions, venues, restaurants, etc. and also encouraging engagement.

Having access to social media on-the-go will also encourage visitors to maximise direct engagement with you, while allowing users to share their experience ‘as it's happening’ (i.e. by creating a ‘watching this great sunset’ post, or broadcasting through Facebook Live) is likely to add plenty of value, and engagement, to a user’s post.

How free, city-wide Wi-Fi works

In a city, for example, multiple ‘hotspots’ are installed and joined together to create a large area of Wi-Fi access. They operate across the same publically-visible network, which users will be able to access through their smartphone, tablet or laptop. The more hotspots you have, the further the reach of the Wi-Fi area. Think of it as a sort of ‘blanket’ of free Wi-Fi that covers different areas, if not all, of a city.

Users are able to connect by identifying the correct network name; this could be made publically available on small signs that indicate that the individual is in the vicinity of a hotspot. The most common way to have users connect is by asking them to agree to a set of T&Cs which will appear once they’ve selected the network. Clicking an ‘OK’ or ‘Agree’ button will the allow connection, providing the conditions you’ve set out are agreed with (and include no nasty surprises!).

What if it’s needed outside a city centre?

It’s obviously a lot easier to create a large area of Wi-Fi accessibility in a city - as opposed to more rural spots - due to the multiple hotspots that can be installed. In a city, you’ll know that these hotspots will be used on a regular basis. In more rural locations, however, usage may be a lot less frequent and, therefore, it may hard to justify the cost for such a move.

Instead of looking to ‘blanket’ rural areas in free Wi-Fi, a better option may be to ensure that popular attractions and points-of-interest offer it. With attractions, both private and publically-funded, it’s likely that Wi-Fi will now be offered on premises for visitors as part of the network that’s used internally.

Managing bandwidth and connection speeds

Offering free Wi-Fi across large areas, especially in city centres, is likely to put considerable strain on bandwidth and connection speeds. This can be managed in a number of ways; limiting download and upload speeds is a good start, as is prohibiting the downloading of large files. Having more hotspots in place will also help to further the area of accessibility and, therefore, spread connectivity more evenly.

While limiting download speeds ultimately affects the quality of your offering, users generally expect that publically-accessible Wi-Fi may not perform as quickly as their 4G or private home connections. Some providers choose to impose a time-sensitive cap (one hour, for example), then charge for additional usage; this, however, may then contradict the very concept of ‘free Wi-Fi’ offering.

Creating long-term advocates for your destination

Ensuring visitors are able to maximise their experience of your destination is paramount, and affording them access to free Wi-Fi is now a necessity; not a luxury. Allowing tourists to seamlessly access desired information will help to create a more enjoyable and memorable experience; this, in turn, will create long-term advocates of your destination, who will tell their friends and family and their trip, encourage them to visit and, ultimately, return themselves.

And remember, it’s not just tourists that will benefit from being able to access free Wi-Fi. The benefits it’ll offer your city or region with regards to residents and local business are countless, so any investment made will help multiple audiences. Creating a network to simply benefit tourists may not be at the top of a list of commercial justification, but it will go an extremely long way in helping to maximise their experience of your offering.

In my next piece, I’ll be looking at the destinations that offer free Wi-Fi best and how they’ve become leaders within the industry.