In a resource constrained world, tourism, like all sectors, will have to deliver an honest return on the use of precious resources i.e., pay the true and total cost of operations.
In the long run, cheap travel cheapens everything. The supplier sees his already thin margins evaporate and has to slash costs, standardize, homogenize and automate. Travelers’ experiences deteriorate and the host community ends up picking the tab – to cover increased costs of handling waste, congestion, economic and social dislocation (see earlier post on the new Death in Venice).
Cheap travel is neither good business (prone to boom and bust and dependent on volume growth) nor sustainable.
If a destination is talking about being sustainable, it has to escape the commoditization trap. Here are three ways out of this nightmare – to start:
1. stage experiences unique to a place and time;
2. engage and enable customers to personalise their own experiences in meaningful ways; and
3. enable the customer to have a transformative experience – ie, experience an inner change of perspective, being or value.
1. Stage Experiences unique in place and time
What’s so sad is that tourism didn’t have to fall into the commoditization trap. Suppliers sell something that’s scarce. Three factors make each person’s experience unique: the place, the time and the person.
While Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy, identified all three steps over 10 years ago, relatively few destinations have invested time and energy in applying these antidotes. The Scandinavians are an exception. In Lapland, they have created LEO, a National Centre of Excellence on Experience Design – as applied to the tourism sector. An interview I conducted with them is here.
Thanks to LEO, I was fortunate last month to spend some time with Joe Pine and hear his thoughts first hand. I admire his patience – he’s had to repeat his message over again for ten years or more but it still sounds fresh. Here he is addressing owners at the Rovaniemi Santa Park just over the Arctic Circle.
Under the able leadership of Sannu Tarsannen, LEO has developed the Experience Pyramid, based on Pine and Gilmore, which incorporates six key elements of a meaningful experience (individuality, authenticity, story, multi sensory perception, contrast and interaction).
While an academic rigour has been applied to the development of the programme, it is also considered highly practical and valuable by those SMEs who enjoy significant improvements to their margins as a result of this shift in thinking and practice. Graduates who deliver high value and high priced experiences of a unique Finnish winter include the operators of Santamus and Prosanta.
2. Enable customers to personalise their own experiences in meaningful and effective ways.
The personalisation of experiences can only occur when individual consumers can access, assemble and manipulate various elements of their desired vacation experience prior to and during their trip and then create suitable memories to make the experience last after they have gone home. Since two-thirds of the visitor experience (the fantasy and the memory) take a virtual form and can be emulated through digital replicas, revolutions in the digitisation of “content” need to be applied.
Over the past decade, a preoccupation with transactions has resulted in an obsession with bookings by DMOs and tour operators and online travel agencies have focused on dynamic packages and product control. It still remains very difficult for customers to access all the information they could use to plan their fantasy trip, enrich its experience and create entertaining memories that won’t bore their family and friends. This frontier of customer-oriented usability is still rich with possibility. Thanks to the emergence interoperability standards and open source, it’s becoming increasingly easy for either a supplier or a customer to assemble lego-style elements of a vacation into a tailored experience, captured online for easy referral and sharing.
Another person who understands the power of content to enrich experience and expand marketing reach is Stephen Joyce, one of the most articulate and lucid computer programmers I have had the pleasure of meeting. Despite our both originating from Vancouver, we also first met under the northern lights in Lapland! Stephen, whose RezGo system enables activity and attraction providers to distribute their experiences online, has written a great post on the value of “supplier generated content” here.
But how can you personalize an experience if you don’t know what the customer is seeking and cares about? This is where my former colleagues at the Canadian Tourism Commission are leading the way with effective application of their Explorer Quotient – an attractive tool that encourages the web visitor to reveal more of their values and preferences. The CTC is using this data to present vacation ideas that might be perceived as relevant and attractive. See their UK site. Parks Canada, their partner, are using these insights to stage park experiences that touch the inner hot buttons of the visitor’s psyche.
3. Enable the customer to have a transformative experience.
The last chapter of Pine and Gilmore's seminal work is devoted to those “transformative experiences” that occur when the customer experiences an inner change of being and perception that has enormous personal value – it could be overcoming a fear by taking that bungee jump; or rediscovering a sense of wonder; or feeling one with the universe. These kinds of experiences are important simply because they are so personal and subjective that they cannot be turned into commodities for others to consume. I commented on this important contribution in my agents of change blog back in 2006.
Some of these transformative experiences can be staged (bungee jumping seems to take people out of themselves;) some emerge through personal experimentation and are copied, then offered by others: the new wing suit flying in Norway blows away the cobwebbed thoughts of what is conventional - for proof see this video.
Events like The Burning Man in Nevada can also be life changing. (Maureen Goodell from BM was also in Rovaniemi in April – her interview. Maureen tells of the power of a unique event (it occurs for a short period once a year in Nevada) in a very specialplace (a boundary is artificially created to “contain” the space and energy) and its management (with associated rituals and protocols that emerged over time) transforms the lives of participants and organizers.
To conclude....Sustainability is not just about reducing carbon and ecological footprints but reversing the trend toward homogenization and commoditization to generate real value and and honest return. To do it you need to hang out with the creative community who tell stories and stage experiences; and the IT community who can do that in the online, virtual space as well as the real world. Watch out for all the new exciting jobs in tourism – are our educational institutions ready? Are the DMOs into this revolution?
This is just a taster - I know there are more good examples out here (GMIST are doing great work). PLease send and or comment!