Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Wikipedia Walking With Elvis

About ten years ago I found myself working in Little Rock, Arkansas.  At the weekends I found myself a little at a loose end - don't get me wrong, Little Rock is a personable enough city with some cracking music bars and real friendly locals, but I was already availing myself of the local hospitality during the week.  And it's not a thousand miles from other notable attractions.

So I found myself in Memphis one cold January Saturday morning - yes, it does get cold in Memphis some of the time - standing in BB King's club, in the store in Beale Street buying merchandise. Other attractions in the vicinity include the Sun Records Studios and, of course, Gracelands.

I don't know how much it costs for the full tour of Gracelands today, but back then it was $25, which given that my employer had paid for me to fly to Little Rock and had provided me with a car to drive anywhere I desired, made it a real bargain.  I'm no Elvis fan - I don't mind the King's singing but he isn't my go-to music when I'm searching for something to listen to - however I'd strongly recommend that anyone who found themselves anywhere near Gracelands seriously considers this attraction.

Now when you pitch up and buy your ticket you book a time slot - bear in mind this was ten years ago and they may just have changed the process since then, so please do check - and at the appointed time you wander outside to pick up a minibus.  On the bus you find yourself sat with seven or nine other people and if you're like I was that day, you won't know any of them.  Of course, if you're with a friend then great.  Anyway, also on the bus is a headset for every occupant, which you pick up on the way off the bus and return when you finish the tour.

Don't get any ideas about walking into Gracelands as the house itself is across the street from the visitor centre where you park, and given that we're talking about American streets that's like a hike across the Gobi Desert with maniacal cars bearing down on you.  Plus they close the gates to Gracelands and you're not getting in unless you're on the bus.  The bus drops you off at the front of the house, which everyone seems surprised to find isn't that big, and you're given instructions on how to proceed. Which means you're told to stay downstairs, presumably because Elvis still lives upstairs.  That's what pretty much every busload concludes, anyway.

Here's my top tip, assuming they still run the tours this way.  Once you've had your briefing, hang back, pretend to be interested in the exterior architecture or something.  Basically let the remainder of the group go ahead because it's going to be five to ten minutes before the next group and if you go in with the main bunch you'll be competing for a place to look at things.  The group'll spread out over the tour, anyway, so you may as well start the process off in the beginning.  You see, I'm not a big fan of tourists, especially when they get in my way.

Anyway, I soon came to two conclusions on that tour.  The first was that Elvis didn't have a whole lot of taste but the second is that whoever put the tour together did.  So on the whole it's a pleasurable and fulfilling experience.  You wear the headphones and dial in numbers you see near exhibits and wirelessly you receive commentary about what you're looking at.  I'm sure the technology they're using now is more advanced than I used in 2003, but I expect the experience to still be as good.

Now I live near a heritage city, Chester, in the north west of England, just near the Welsh border which I scoot across twice a day. Chester's famous for its mock Tudor facades and multi-level shops, visited by folk from the US, Japan and pretty much everywhere in-between.  Wouldn't it useful to don a set of headphones and let a tour guide provide information about the shop you are stood outside, its architecture, history and whether it sells over-priced skinny latte, just like the Gracelands tour?

Well  Wikipedia thinks it would be good to do that and is launching Wikipedia Nearby, an App that runs on your mobile phone and gives you the lowdown on where you are right now.  It also allows you to upload photos to the program so that users can help build the richness of it up - all so very Wikipedia.  Let's face it, if you're actually there and finding that the images you are looking at don't do the location justice, surely you are, by default, in the right place to do something about it? 

If this isn't reason enough for towns and cities everywhere struggling to pull the tourists in to put a workable WiFi system together that doesn't require constant signing in activity and avoids adverts then I don't know what is.  I think I'd love to use something like Wikipedia Nearby when in Chester, my own home town, any other location I visit in the UK or abroad, but I'd really rather not eat up my meagre 3g allowance in the process.  So I think because we need a good reason to choose one town or city over another and a good guide provided for free by Wikipedia is a good start, but hassle free WiFi would clinch the deal.

If any town or city councillors are reading this, maybe you ought to talk to your ICT department and commission a feasibility study.  I don't know if the new App lets you drill down to individual shops as well as points of interest, but if it does, I can see one way of raising funds for the project.

And perhaps if I find myself near Memphis sometime soon and decide to revisit Elvis then maybe I'll be using my mobile phone and Wikipedia to follow the tour instead of headsets.  I'm still hanging back, though.  Bloody tourists.


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