Tourism field has been levelled by the advent of social media

Social media has levelled the
playing field between small operations and corporate entities in the tourism
industry, said leaders in the sector.

During a well-attended Caribbean
Tourism Organisation seminar at the Hilton, Barbados, the concepts behind
social media and Internet marketing and the practical sides of operating online
were dissected by a panel of experts.

Moderator Jim Brody of TripAdvisor
said that online, budgets do not matter as much and that feedback from
customers can be instantaneous. It is essential for destinations, hotels and
tourism entities to talk to their customers about what they want. The keywords
are response, engagement, support and criticism, with constant monitoring
vital.

Longevity on the net means having a
presence that people can not only find, but add to, he noted.

Rules changed

John Runberg, the director of
digital strategy at Brand Communications Firm, noted that while the consumer
marketing process has not changed because of the Internet, the rules have
permanently changed.

Traditional elements including
generation of product awareness, persuading and convincing the consumer to
purchase products, transactions and following through to the vacation itself
are still part of strategy. A destination’s job is to create a memory for the
visitor.

“Memories are incredibly powerful,
which leads to advocacy,” said Mr. Runberg, who said that tourists who have
positive memories will tell others, and therefore the process would repeat
itself.

Independent hotelier Richard
Dourneng, managing director of Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas, said the
Internet has enabled him to survive and thrive. The resort beats bigger chain
hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton or Marriott because it can react much faster in
the online marketplace.  Online distribution
is cost-effective and booking statistics can be checked instantly, so embracing
social media is key.

He said that while people may give
a destination or tourism product negative reviews on a site like TripAdvisor,
he never responds to the comments because other satisfied customers fill that
role for him. He estimated that 90 per cent of his Facebook fans are people who
have already been to the hotel, with others being fans of the hotel prior to
their holiday. They often asked previous guests questions about what to do,
where to go and so on. It is important that the hotel makes time to bring the
human element to online presence and also engage with guests, he said.

Fundamentally, social media isn’t
an advertising medium, but a public relations initiative, added Mr. Runburg. He
said Facebook allows a message to go to fans instantly, but that scaling a page
and gathering fans requires an investment of time. Growing things organically
and waiting for people to find your business would be a very slow process, he
said. Blogging assists in spreading the word about what’s unique and special
about the location or product, and cheaply-made Youtube videos of a destination
or product are significantly more effective in enlightening people than a traditional
brochure.

Multi-channel strategy

Richard Tams of British Airways
added that as a large organisation, things are slightly different for BA, which
pursued a multi-channel strategy. Less than half of the company’s bookings are
taken online, with 46 per cent of all Caribbean bookings done online. It is in
part a cost issue, since operating online is cheaper, and the ability to market
and retail to the database is also a valuable element.

He noted that 30 per cent of those
who booked through ba.com also bought anciliary products, including booking
hotels, cars and other add-ons. That brought important additional revenue, he
said.

Mr. Tams drew on figures to
illustrate the importance of online media. He said that 50 per cent of the
world’s population is under 30 years old and 96 per cent of those have joined a
social network. He put the number of blogs online at 200 million, 30 per cent
of which posted about products and brands. This is important because statistics
from a report by researchers CAP Gemini show that 78 per cent of people trust
peer recommendations, but only 14 per cent trust advertisements.

As consumer opinion is expressed
24/7, it is important to allocate resources accordingly. It’s a mistake to
ignore negative threads because there is an opportunity to engage online, and
maybe win some ground. Above all, giving people a reason to engage with your
tourism product online is important. As a large brand, Twitter is most
effective for BA, which also runs several other social media sites of their
own.

“Social media is not a fad, it’s a
fundamental shift in the way we communicate,”
he said.

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