I was privileged to be invited along to participate on the NZ Tourism 2050 Future Maker project and workshop to discuss themes and issues that NZ will face in the next 40 years. I was in the unfortunate position to be a technologist trying to predict trends 40 years out. Lucky me. I pick… tele-porters… and Mars tourism? 40 years is an eternity. I don’t think 40 years ago my parents thought their grandchildren would be tweeting and FaceBooking from things called iPhones.
Interestingly there were two strong themes that came up time and time again in the discussions. They were quite different but I saw them to be critically intertwined.
The first issue is the broad one of technology, and everything got lumped in together in this one from the social web, mobile payments, augmented reality, connectivity and mobile information tools. The one thing everyone agreed is that technology is changing the way people interact and make decisions when they travel. Interestingly one of the greatest fears/opportunities was the power of social networks, social communication and viral ideas. I say this is both a fear and an opportunity as clearly the affect can be either positive or negative.
The other top issue was on of our image as 100% pure, clean and green and preserving this and leveraging more off our natural beauty in a world where the environment is going to hell in a handbasket.
Why are these intertwined? Well once upon a time you used the glossiest of brochure with the most stunning of photos promising the best experiences in all your tourism marketing, and then hoped, when the traveller arrives, to deliver on the experience. Today there is a fear of social media within tourism, and I don’t expect this is limited to NZ tourism operators. What if we say we are 100% pure and the world discovers we are not quite 100%, perhaps only 85%, but worse, tweets, blogs and tells all their friends and followers. What if someone has a bad time? What if the next viral thing is a video of a bad experience or image that breaks the illusion of our 100% clean and green image. This image is our marketing capital.
The reality is with more and more people using their social web connections as their primary source of information, this image could be damaged if we as a whole can not live up to what we are promising. Driven from the Auckland Airport into the city before? Been discussing high intensity beef farming lately? Shipped any coal to china lately? Okay you cant expect everything to be 100% squeaky clean and I don’t think that our 100% pure image is so misleading that an angry internet mob will develop and something viral will spread tarnishing our image and turning the world off of visiting our shores. Of course New Zealand is a beautiful and amazing place. Some of our less cellubrious “scenes” are so so. But today is there is a risk of painting a perfect image to sells plane tickets and beds, and have people picking on all the bad images around NZ that are in direct contrast and have this influence the way they talk about and describe New Zealand socially? Like I say if expectations are consistently not met, there will be negative comments and these will turn off others. Nothing has changed here, it is the age old power of word of mouth, it is just that technology allows people to share this information more readily.
So forgetting the 100% pure image for now, this marketing campaign has worked well for us for so long but it may be up for an overhaul soon. The pervasiveness of technology in our lives today and the ability for people to enable others to vicariously share their experiences means that whatever our strategy is, we have to be somewhat genuine in how we promote anything online, whether it is NZ as a whole, a bed and breakfast, or a scenic walk. But don’t fear being caught out for not living up to expectations (I think it is in our national psyche to underrate ourselves) but even better than that focus on making sure the traveller gets the best experience they can possibly have and then enable them to use the social web to do all the good marketing for you. You can’t control what people say, but you sure can positively influence it.
So one asset we have got is our natural beauty. Another asset is our people. Nobody is more passionate about New Zealand than New Zealanders. What if we connected travellers to New Zealand with kiwis online? What if we got kiwis to describe places in blog posts. Share trip ideas “If you are coming to Auckland then you NEED to do …”. Share their own views, photos or videos of their New Zealand. This would create an opportunity for travellers to see NZ through our eyes before they come.
What if tourism operators participated in FourSquare, new checkins today get a complimentary coffee with breakfast, 10% off a bungee. What if we really engaged as a country with visitors online socially? No not just a FaceBook page, something smarter and engaging. Travel is all about seeing new things and meeting new people, and sharing the experience with others. We can make it easier for visitors to connect both with New Zealanders and their own friends back home.
We need to find ways to enable all the organizations tasked with promoting New Zealand as a whole, or particular districts, to engage with travelers online and encourage them to share their experiences while they are here and still on the buzz of jumping off a bridge with a bungee around their ankles. Let them tell the world NZ is 100% cool, 100% awesome, 100% the best country they have ever visited, in their own words. Enable people to have genuine positive conversations. The technology is there so what’s the hold up?
The first barrier, as I talk about above, is the willingness of the tourism industry to engage, but I think we can overcome that. There is a second major barrier. We need to find ways to let tourists connect online while they travel without crippling data roaming costs or oppressive WIFI fees. Right now tourists don’t often tweet, and post up photos on the go while they are actually feeling the buzz because to do so would make them broke. Free or cheap ubiquitous WIFI is unheard of. We need to make it easier for travellers to remain connected while they are here.
Here are some ideas:
- Telecom/Vodafone partner with Tourism NZ to offer tourist SIMs with prepaid data and calls. Sure you can do this now but it is not at the front of a travellers mind to have to go out of their way to source a prepaid SIM for their phone. These should be on sale at the airport and at the reception of their accommodation packaged up in deals specially for tourists. It should be cheap and accessible.
- A partnership with a national WIFI network. What if Tomizone was packaged up to tourists and gave the traveller special online discounts for accommodation and activities only available through the Tomizone network? There is benefit for all there.
- The i-SITEs. What is their future? Well one thing to make them more valid is to offer free WIFI for travellers. Perhaps even serve drinks and evolve into a travellers meeting place.
- At the very least accommodation providers need to offer their WIFI for free.
I think the fear of bad exposure through social media is not 100% justified. NZ really is a great destination (not that I am biased or anything) and for the most part I am sure everyone has an awesome time. The real fear, I believe, is that we are not able to capitalize off of the power of the social web. If we fear that people will say bad things to their friends then will will only discover that yes some people say bad things. But what if we could facilitate travellers to share all their great comments and experiences? One thing is for sure, a country our size and with our marketing budget, we need to maximize any opportunity the Internet and technology provides. Pioneering an integrated approach of new technology and social media into our national tourism strategy may not be a bad start.