Tourist boards, CVB’s and other public and private tourism entities are increasingly struggling with this dilemma—how do you serve the growing information needs and demands of travelers while still effectively serving the needs of your members and constituents? All too often, these tourism organizations are mandated to be equitable in their approach, equally promoting or highlighting their paid or designated membership. Nowhere is this more apparent than on their websites, where they intentionally shy away from discriminating in any way, never presenting information in a manner that might favor one member or region over another.
The challenge is that, in today’s information-glutted world, treating all your constituents equally isn’t going to be helpful to travelers, who are increasingly looking for guidance and advice. They don’t want to know every hotel in your city—they only want to know the ones that might be right for them (based on price, location, amenities, etc.) And once those are identified, they want a way to more effectively validate their options and buying decisions through reviews and other ratings which, by their very nature, fly in the face of this concept of equality adhered to by so many tourism boards.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a brand like Best Western (which is actually an association that has been known to work hard to present all of its properties equally) include TripAdvisor reviews into the newest version of its website. Clearly, it recognizes that just serving up a list of all its hotels isn’t serving the needs of the customer. For a brand known to deliver some pretty inconsistent experiences among its thousands of properties, adding the reviews actually helps the brand to better manage customer expectations property by property, and it allows the customer to make a much more informed buying decision.
So, too, must tourism boards and related entities start to add these kinds of unbiased reviews to their website and develop content and tools that will inevitably need to discriminate among member entities if they are going to effectively meet the needs and desires of today’s travelers. It has to be about what customers want to buy and how they want to be informed, not simply about who or what a tourism entity wants to sell.
Several years ago, we were working with a tourism board in the Caribbean that was reticent to rate its restaurants or attractions because it was fraught with politics and the reality that some businesses would be rated higher than others. Everyone agreed that helping visitors discover the best experiences on the island was paramount and that optimizing the quality of the visitor experience would ultimately translate into positive word-of-mouth and more visitors. However, those positive benefits were in direct conflict with the tourism board’s need to remain neutral among its members. To overcome this dilemma, we were able to convince the tourism board to contract with Zagat and conduct a third-party assessment using the input of locals and travelers to the region. The resulting reviews were available in a printed guide and on the website and provided a way to not only help direct visitors to high-quality experiences, but to steer them away from the mediocre ones. Just as importantly, it was a tool to provide the members of the tourism board with a consumer-centric view of its product and created a benchmark from which it could understand and measure the need for improvement.
Of course, the key to adding this kind of information or discriminating what information you do serve up is that it must be guided by consumer needs. After all, the only reason to do this is so that it might translate into better serving the public, making your content richer and more useful. The end goal is to drive more visitors to your site and, ultimately, to your destination.
When the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) recently announced the re-launch of Caribbeantravel.com, it built it around the idea that every destination would be given a baseline of content common to all, but it would then use a “pay-to-play” model to create richer content for those destinations willing to invest. It’s easy to understand why it has taken the approach—getting every Caribbean island to agree to the same standards and levels of funding is virtually impossible—but the approach seems to fly in the face of this need to create a consumer-centric site that pays off the whole region. The customer isn’t interested in your funding challenges and the shortcomings it might create. They have too many other resources for information. How can a consumer make useful comparisons across the region if the content varies so much island to island? As a user, how do I trust a site with an uneven user experience that varies from island to island? If I start my search at an island that hasn’t “paid to play” and I found the experience lacking, why would I be motivated to continue to search for other islands within the site?
The problems and challenges are myriad, and I empathize with CHTA’s frustrations and need to do something, but a modern approach to consumer marketing requires you to think of the traveler first and your membership second.
So what can you do?
It’s not about telling people where not to go. It’s about showcasing your destination in the best light possible and helping consumers understand where they should go based on their interests. Consumers are going to search out and find these curatorial tools and recommendations somewhere else, so why not make your content more useful and make it easy for travelers to find what they’re looking for?
The better you serve your customers, the better you serve your constituents.
Perhaps this isn’t a dilemma at all.