Meet Charles, an interactive tourism kiosk serving southern Beaufort County

dburley@islandpacket.comNovember 24, 2013 

A new tool for tourists has popped up next to the racks of brochures and visitor guides in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.

Its name: Charles.

Charles is an interactive visitor kiosk that allows users to browse and book restaurants, tours, hotels and other Lowcountry offerings.

"It's like a digital concierge," said Ken Finnegan, CEO of CityCorridor, a Charleston advertising firm that developed the device. "It's meant for convenience, for visitors to find out what's new or what's happening."

Six feet tall and a few hundred pounds, Charles works like a giant iPad. It has a touch screen and a smart camera and runs on Verizon's 4G LTE wireless network.

Tourists can print maps, book hotels, make reservations and buy tickets for sites and activities. They can swipe their credit card, and Charles will print their tickets.

Two years ago, CityCorridor rolled out Charles in Charleston and started plugging them in at hotels, grocery stores and the airport.

Soon the company contracted with Keith Bach, who publishes the annual Hilton Head Island Vacation Directory, to bring Charles to the island.

"We were searching for the same advertisers, so I figured I'd partner with them rather than fight them," Bach said.

In fall 2012, Bach pitched the concept to local advertisers familiar with his publication.

They bit, lured by Charles' touch-screen capability and vivid LED screen that advertises their brunch menu or boat tour.

"I had people say, 'I saw someone try that five years ago, but it was just too early,'" Bach said.

Now there are 15 kiosks on the island and in Bluffton, mostly in hotels such as The Beach House, Hilton Garden Inn and Candlewood Suites.

This year, the kiosks have received more than 450,000 visitor interactions, according to CityCorridor data. The kiosk displayed in the lobby of The Beach House gets the most clicks, Bach said.

"The product is very handy, especially during peak season," Beach House director of sales Mike DiLeone said. "It's fun and an alternative to guest services."

Part of advertisers' attraction to Charles is the kiosk's ability to customize advertisements.

Using a smart camera, Charles determines whether it's serving a family, a couple or one person. Its software tailors options for the user based on that information.

And if an advertisement or sale isn't working -- or is working too well -- businesses can ask CityCorridor to change its content from the firm's control room in Charleston.

"If there's an outdoor event planned but it's raining, a business can switch up its ads -- snap," Bach said.

He said he doesn't foresee more Charleses coming to the island. At $12,000 a unit, they aren't cheap.

But he's expanded to include an iPad application called "Chuck" and will soon sign deals with golf advertisers that enable the kiosk to book tee times, he said.

CityCorridor has bigger plans.

It wants kiosks in Savannah and also hopes to partner with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Finnegan said.

Charles is already at the Macy's in Herald Square in New York City. The company is working with the city's tourism bureau to have more there in coming months.

Asked if Charles could handle the rough-and-tumble New York City lifestyle, Bach said the kiosk would do just fine.

"The developers initially planned for the unit to sell tickets in the subways," he said. "Charles can withstand a power washer."

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