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Why Tourism’s Revolution will not be Televised

If there is one thing that shocks me about the tourism industry it’s the lack of information professionals use to take big decisions. Considering 2.1 trillion dollars get flung around the planet to create, promote and produce travel experiences, there are very few places where evidence to support bullet proof marketing decisions can be found. Millions of USD are spent on color-saturated-video placements on CNN or Tokyo subway wall-to-wall ads promoting paradise. Who are the men and women behind tourism marketing campaigns? What’s the decision making process that justifies the latter type of spend? What tourism technology do they use for taking decisions?

While working in the tourism industry I have attended countless networking events, marched up and down trade fair floors, organized workshops and spent millions (of tax payer’s money) on digital and then some more on OOH. Sadly, the be-all and end-all KPI any boss in the tourism industry cares about is … (drum roll)… tourist arrivals. How and on what tourists spend? That’s a luxury for the very successful and rich products and destinations. Tourists are the air that products, services and destinations need to live. The more the better.

I spent some of my professional career at the Tourism Federation in Chile (FEDETUR). I burnt my eyelids analyzing foreign credit card spend. Countless hours of eternal Excel sheet scrolling and analyzing allowed me to single out what travelers were spending on with their plastic. What did they spend on Pablo? Tell us! I could but I would have to kill you (and I need you to continue reading this blog and leave a cool message at the bottom about how it changed your life, made you settle down, have kids, buy a Volvo). I looked at foreign credit card spend and compared it to Chile’s foreign tourist arrivals. Soon enough I managed to make pretty graphs pop-up all over the place. I made a series of reasonable assumptions about travel consumer behavior. I informed the Federation’s board members about my findings. They had the Executive VP tell the media (with a press release I drafted) about the discovery. TV stations, radio and daily newspapers flocked to our office. It amazed me how quick the media were to publish information about Argentines spending more on flat screens then on hotels (Ok, now I must kill you) when they travel to Chile. We did this type of news piece every two to three months. If there was a lack of media results, the killer 100% get-media-coverage tactic was put into action, “Top 5 products Argentine tourists spend on”. Boom! Headline news.

Fact: Argentines make up 43% of Chile’s foreign annual visits.

After my time at FEDETUR I headed Long Haul Markets at Chile’s promotional entity, Turismo Chile. I was amazed by how little information was required to spend millions of USD on marketing campaigns, events and promtional activity. On my first day at work I was told there is no silver bullet, “You are responsible for making sure more Asians and Australians come to Chile, here’s a million USD, spend it wisely.” Yeah, no pressure there! I mentioned the tool I was using at the Federation but nobody seemed to care. I asked for some kind of market intelligence and there was none. I had to find my own.

There is one thing you absolutely must have in the tourism industry (apart from mucho cashola) if you want to promote a destination. Intelligence, raw data, stats, figures? Not even close. Experience and quick decisive action is king. I soon came to realize that thinking and analyzing in the tourism industry comes after you dive into the deep end. You listen to your gut, react (its quicker then thinking), act before the competition, throw the die and hope to make it big. Once high season is over you look at tourist arrivals. If the numbers are on the up you’ll probably have time to analyze them. If not, start polishing up the good’ole CV.

Considering all the marketing campaign money, infrastructure development, travel bloggers being flown east to west and sales executives leaping from Berlin to Singapore, you would have thought the trends and numbers where commercially backed-up. I always imagined the tourism industry had some crazy-cool-amazing software helping professionals ensure their ROI. After all, SABRE was invented in the 1950’s! I asked around, other NTO’s never told me (so I assumed they were too competitive), airlines said they had their internal “systems” and no DMC, regardless of how big or important, ever came remotely close to providing a satisfying answer. The common denominator all decision makers that spend marketing budgets have in the tourism industry is experience. They know their stuff via trial-and-error and have been one, two and possibly three times around the block more then anybody else. I was expecting something more complex. I imagined a sort of tourism industry Bloomberg Terminal (Bloomberg’s computer system users can monitor and analyze real-time financial market data and place trades). Unfortunately, I never came across sophisticated tourism technology. Excel sheets, calculators and access to Internet and e-mail topped my list.

How come the richest industry on the planet does not need sophisticated technology? First of all, that is not true; it badly does! In second place, my opinion is that the reason it has not developed adequate technology is because tourism is based on selling to consumer’s emotions. The art of selling an experience before living it. Photography, creative writing and film go a long way in helping the future tourist imagine, dream and develop a need to travel. B2B industry relations that lead to consumer travel campaigns are pre-empted by copious amounts of networking events usually sponsored by NTO’s, airlines or wholesalers. Trade fairs, workshops, presentations, familiarization trips and press trips that bring buyers, sellers and promoters to get all chummy with each other. There is no question that the easiest way to get friendly and seal deals is face-to-face. Therefore, networking is at the core of the industry’s business making process.

Imagine you are in the 1980’s. No Internet or email. How would you network with a large number of tourism industry professionals? Fly across the planet to a massive fair attended by important tourism industry players, meet or create your own events and invite tourism professionals to them? Sounds very reasonable. Now forward to the 1990’s. Enter the age of e-mail and Internet. Is that a game changer for tourism networking? It’s an important advance but no. E-mail still can’t come close to replacing the value of meeting someone in person. Then came 2004 and the invention of Facebook. It massified globally by 2008 (maybe even a little later actually). Why am I talking about Facebook? Because the invention of social media is in my opinion intrinsically connected to how humans network today. The key to creating the type of technology tourism industry needs to evolve.

As we have noticed in the last decade, social media platforms have allowed humans to express their feelings, life events and latest achievements or worries to the people they care about with one click. In the 1990’s they could do this but it meant sending e-mails to their entire network and a lot of bilateral digital conversations. Social media allows us to continually network in a time efficient way. Now that Internet penetration is stronger then ever, humans have the ability to network on two levels simultaneously; virtually and in the “real world”(face-to-face).

I realize now that I was hoping for the wrong technology when I wished for tourism Bloomberg terminal. It’s actually quite clunky and expensive hardware. The tourism industry needs a social media platform where communications are multilateral but stay industry-focused and professional (Facebook can’t do that). Where products and destinations are virtually accessible and where meeting people from various markets to start business relationships does not imply getting on a plane. I do not need a “terminal” to do this. It is 2016! I want an APP, on my phone, tablet and desktop. I want a place where I can find tourism professionals, inform myself and promote myself for free. I might be asking for too much, I know. However, I just met a group of tourism professionals who want all these things. They invited me to be a part of the adventure and to “ build it”. The best-hottest-coolest-bit-of-revolutionary-B2B-serving tourism technology the industry has seen.

3BaysOver is already bringing digital networking solutions to every tourism professional. I feel we need a revolution within the industry. Gil Scott-Heron was right when he said that the revolution will not be televised, it will not be heard on radio either and it will definitely not be started by a multi-million dollar marketing campaign.

Humans and especially tourism professionals are social beings that need to build networks. A technological shift towards digital technologies has already taken over how the industry communicates to its consumers. Now, the tourism industry needs to begin digitally networking with appropriately designed technology. 3BaysOver facilitates B2B networking by providing free technology developed for and by the tourism industry.

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