As Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) were busy putting the finishing touches on glossy brochures, preparing press trips and setting up pavilions at yet another travel show, along came a bunch of bespectacled tech troublemakers disrupting the entire market. That may be a bit of an exaggeration – not all sport glasses – but they certainly cast the first stones in the battle for mobile travelers.
This summer, social travel and destination guide apps have arrived in droves, and they pose a perilous challenge to the traditional destination-marketing model. The influence of a shared Instagram photo, Facebook like, Foursquare check-in, Groupon daily deal purchase, tweet, TripAdvisor review, Pinterest pin or blog post is spreading to the far reaches of the world. When that quaint little gem of a neighbourhood cafe down the block is overrun with busloads of rowdy tourists because some schmuck tweeted about their amazing cupcakes, well it’s suddenly hard to ignore the effect of user-generated content.
The Times They Are a Changin’
Over the past decades, enormous effort has gone into ensuring official DMO-branded websites ranked prominently in search results and provided a rich user experience. Stunning visual ads and feature write-ups on the pages of magazines and web sites helped to keep the allure of destinations alive. As long as DMOs controlled the content production and distribution, they were able to control their branding.
Over time, however, budgets swelled as competition from new destinations rose and as consumers began to demand increasingly unique experiences. Year-over-year growth in tourism revenue at the destination meant that most never had to account for these tremendous expenditures, especially while global tourism on the whole was on the rise.
A Challenge to the Status Quo
The first challenge to this stale DMO marketing model arrived with the introduction of user-generated review sites, TripAdvisor being the 500-pound gorilla. The power of mass social commentary (user reviews) raised the stature of some destinations, while others sank with far less fanfare than the Titanic. Control over destination marketing had begun to shift into the hands of the public. With the rise of mobile, that shift has become even more dramatic.
There are already more than 1 billion smart mobile devices in use worldwide, yet most DMOs are just now beginning to explore mobile strategies. Granted, each organisation wrestles with its own budgetary and resource constraints, cautious optimism in a sluggish economy and a lot of trepidation about introducing innovations. But at the same time, how do you remain viable in a mobile economy without a mobile solution? Borders Books, Tower Records, Blockbuster and Virgin Megastore answered that question long ago.
Regardless of what statistics you wish to believe, at least half of U.S. travellers are using their mobile devices at destinations for finding activities, events and points of interest. The other half are more obvious: they’re the ones juggling laminated maps, brochures, guidebooks and printed web pages. The irony of it all is that in the absence of offering their own branded mobile solutions, DMOs are increasingly detached from their consumers when these very consumers arrive at the destination.
Travel is inherently mobile and travelers today are increasingly tapped into the entire digital ecosystem of data and services for a given destination. The motivation for developing an appropriate digital-marketing strategy should therefore be rooted in acquiring an understanding of how to engage with tech-savvy travelers at every stage of their travel experience.
In this mobile economy, a DMO’s success is measured by how effectively it engages and delivers value to visitors before, during and after their travel experience. And unlike in the past, this can now be measured with certainty. With an effective mobile strategy, a DMO can determine when a consumer has actually arrived at the destination and what they do. The DMO can maintain ongoing communication with that consumer, offering value-added services and delivering critical information directly to the user’s device. With a bit of effort and investment, the DMO can again reestablish its prominent role in helping define the entire consumer travel experience.
The App Craze – Is Just That
“We need an app!” is what many DMOs often conclude before ever asking why or evaluating other alternatives for establishing a mobile presence. Just look at how many applications already reside on our mobile devices and how many we actually use with regularity. Visitors to the official New York City tourism website will find 57 different mobile applications being promoted. Thailand is promoting 18, while Hong Kong and London each promote another 10 apps. Perhaps the hope is consumers will spend more time at the destination in search of useful information from amongst the massive number of digital offerings? One can only assume.
Information Being Outcome Driven
If dating sites worked like many DMO sites do, you would see stunning pictures and read short bios that stimulated intense attraction and desire, but offered no means of arranging an actual date. It no longer suffices for content to be solely informational; it must also be actionable.
When consumers read about a restaurant, they should be able to make reservations; when they read about a museum, they should be able to purchase tickets; and when they read about a historic site, they should be able to book a guided tour. What is too often missed is that actionable information can easily be converted into transactional revenue. Considering that these types of transactions are increasingly taking pace on mobile devices, you can just imagine how much of this revenue potential is lost by DMOs.
Aside from wearing brightly ornamented “I [Heart] NY” t-shirts, consumers are empowered to share their travel experiences in other highly visual, descriptive and influential ways. Those ways are digital, mobile and real-time. By inserting themselves into this social dialogue, DMOs can assert their brand while being far more influential in how their destinations are presented on these social platforms. Offering an integrated social forum through which consumers can share their advice, sentiment and experiences, hand in hand with rich media (photos and videos) at every stage of the travel experience, could give rise to a potent new legion of global brand ambassadors.
Print As a Mobile Solution?
Amongst top ranking official DMO destination web sites, the more forward thinking offer tools that allow consumers to plan their travel itinerary online before departing. And just in case you did not have enough to remember to do before embarking on your travels, DMOs advocate a more reliable, easy to remember and fun format than digital – print!
“Print details and directions for your trip…oh yeah, and have fun!“ (http://www.tourismvancouver.com/)
“…select the print option so you don’t forget a thing when you get to town.” (http://www.visitlasvegas.com)
“…email or print your favorites and plan your visit today.” (http://www.nycgo.com)
“And don’t forget to email your list, or print out a PDF copy to bring with you!” (http://www.visitcalifornia.com)
One shining exception, with an apparent sensitivity to the environmental impact of deforestation, is Puerto Rico that allows you to take your itinerary on your handheld device in their branded mobile application (http://www.seepuertorico.com/).
The Bottom Line
It is difficult to say which is worse, not doing anything or not doing anything right. In either case, the end result is that travellers are frustrated and they are turning to other resources to fill the voids left by DMOs. By acquiring an understanding of what drives today’s sophisticated consumer behaviour in the digital mobile economy – what expectations have arisen with the proliferation of location-based mobile technologies and what utility can be delivered to this market throughout the entire travel experience, DMOs have an opportunity to create a defensible long-term competitive advantage.
What does this look like? Imagine a traveller conducts all their destination research and planning from the DMO web site, able to create an informed (travel advisories, social commentary, ratings and reviews) cohesive itinerary and transact for the local services (ground transportation, event ticketing, dining reservations, venue access, tour guides) they desire. The travel itinerary and scheduling all appears on their mobile devices as well, so the user can hit the ground running with fully navigational offline maps, an integrated calendar, local weather and real-time critical alerts. At the destination the user can discover new experiences that are relevant to their distinct tastes and can continue to transact for the services that are essential to the journey. Throughout, experiences can all be captured and shared from the very same mobile solution, integrated with the user’s social media platforms. And finally when the use returns back home, they can continue to share their photos, videos and impressions, as well provide valued advice to the DMO’s community to help inspire and assist new prospective visitors.
On web and mobile, DMOS must be engaging with their consumers and delivering value every step of the way through a single integrated solution. After all, if DMOs are no longer the primary source for trusted, engaging, targeted and actionable information about unique destination experiences, what are they?