Business

Insta-worthy destinations: How businesses are creating experiences for the selfie fan

A growing number of companies are building their business models around the selfie, attracting people with destinations that beg visitors to take out the phone and snap away.

Instagram playgrounds can be ‘educational’ as well as inviting photo opportunities

The Happy Place, which recently finished a two-month run in Toronto, is one of several new Instagram destinations that feature colourful, playful environments ideal for taking selfies to post on social media. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A growing number of companies are building their business models around the selfie, attracting people with destinations that beg visitors to take out the phone and snap away.

Instagram playgrounds, as some people are calling them, are a new type of destination where consumers pay between $25 and $50 to experience a creative, themed environment, custom-designed to make their next self-portrait stand out on social media.  

One of these playgrounds is the Museum of Illusions in Toronto, which features specially constructed rooms that use a combination of painted walls, tilted floors, mirrors and other devices to give visitors the sense they're off balance, or make them appear larger than they are or as though they are hanging from the ceiling.

Picture-taking is encouraged — markers on the floor show the precise spot to stand in order to capture the best angle on the illusion.

Michaela Radman bought the Canadian franchise rights to the Museum of Illusions from a company in Croatia that originated the concept in 2015. The chain has 15 locations around the world, with Toronto as the first in Canada.

Michaela Radman, owner of the Museum of Illusions in Toronto, is a first-time entrepreneur. She says the museum is educational as well as fun. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

"I've been lucky to have travelled quite a bit for my job, and as I went to Asia and other places in the U.S. like Los Angeles, I saw other brands that were emerging and saw the growth that was happening for them," she said.

Educational value

Radman, who still works a day job as a marketing executive while her husband manages the museum, is sensitive to the suggestion that her venture is has no purpose other than as a backdrop for selfies. 

"There are obviously really Instagram-worthy pictures you can take here, but the underlying element that's of real value here is that it's educational," she says.

One of the rooms at the Museum of Illusions is designed to make it appear you're hanging from the ceiling. (Laura MacNaughton/CBC)

She says the illusions teach visitors about optics, sensory perception and how the brain works. Since it opened in October, students from about 60 schools have visited, and Radman hopes to attract many more.

While some may joke about or even ridicule the "selfie" generation, that negative reputation isn't really deserved, says Richard Lachman, who teaches digital storytelling at Ryerson University.

"We get caught up in the fact that it just looks like everyone is staring at their screens, alone — that's a negative dynamic," he says. "But that's not what's happening. It's a social experience."

Like any other social activity

Lachman says visiting an Instagram playground falls into the same category as going to a bar or a movie with friends, or visiting another new type of destination in the amusement business, the escape room. In his view, the playgrounds offer a way to have fun and experience something new.

"When my teenager is doing this, she's talking to her friends," he says, looking down at his own smartphone. "I used to talk to my friends for six hours on the telephone. She's not doing that, but she's still engaging with her friends."

Several Instagram playground concepts are on the rise:

  • The Color Factory in New York City, a 20,000-square-foot "celebration of colour and creativity" with a rainbow palette of colourful installations.
  • Happy Place, which recently finished a two-month run in Toronto, featured 13 rooms variously decorated with disco balls, rubber ducks, confetti, flowers and more.
  • The Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco, billed as a "magical candy garden," with exhibits like a Push Pop installation and a Pop Rocks-themed cave.
  • Candytopia in Atlanta, moving soon to Minneapolis, is a "sprawling sanctuary of confectionery bliss" with a dragon made of licorice, chocolate clocks and a fox made of jelly beans.

Virtually every visitor at the Museum of Illusions on a recent Saturday was taking pictures. Those who spoke to CBC News appear to support Lachman's perspective.  

Anita Corsi was loading up her smartphone with shots of herself. "I'll just share with my friends the experience that I had here, and hopefully just show them they can come and experience this, too," she said.

Christine Moreira had a similar plan. "I want to show people there's lots of fun to do here, even in the cold weather."

Mental health advocates have been critical of social media in recent years, pointing to the unrealistic standards it promotes when users only share the best, most exciting moments of their lives.

"There are some dynamics there that are not beneficial," Lachman acknowledges.

But he also thinks older people can be too judgmental of the selfie generation.  

"If we're pretending that 30 years ago all of us spent our time in the art museum, and culture was so wonderful and we were discussing the finer things in life.... I lived in that time — that is not true. People are going out, taking photographs in these places, and even if they are not engaging with the greater challenges in the world, I don't think that's a new trend in society."

Will interest last?

But he's not sure if a permanent installation like Radman's museum will sustain interest over time. Most Instagram playgrounds are temporary pop-ups, able to create big consumer demand because they won't be in town for long. Lineups for tickets are common.

"There's a bubble of this kind of thing, a lot of people are getting into this," he says. "I think we'll need to wait and see if the fast-moving internet culture supports a longer-term installation. It's an experiment."

Radman is all in, financially. In addition to the $1 million she spent to build the Toronto location, she pays a monthly fee to the Croatian franchisor.  

"This is my first venture as an entrepreneur," she said. "There's always a risk." ​

She's optimistic, though, saying that ticket sales so far have been strong. She's looking at possible expansion to Montreal and Vancouver.

"It was definitely a big commitment, but we've seen a great return on investment immediately and we're able to sleep a little bit better at night."

As for the trendy nature of her business, she's confident that consumers' current obsession with smartphone photography will last. "Instagram — I mean, it's a whole other business. I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon," she said. "It's becoming more relevant."

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.