Landscapes, virtual and real

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannIt's an interesting byproduct of our times that, regardless of the theme of a meeting, it will be, in part, a technology conference.

At the two-day Australia Tourism Summit held earlier this month in Los Angeles, the split between destination-focused sessions and ones that were arguably technology-centered was about 50/50.

Market research about North American traveler preferences was discussed, as was development of cities and other attractions (Sydney's renaissance and plans for expansion are nothing short of amazing). But before lunch had finished on Day 1, three of the seven presentations had technology-driven topics: a presentation by Dave Pavelko, who heads up travel at Google; a look at distribution by Hudson Crossing's Henry Harteveldt; and a panel that spent most of its time addressing the effectiveness of social media.

Before the conference would conclude, attendees would also hear from Lee McCabe, head of travel for Facebook; Porter Gale, an author and "digital expert"; Lisa Wooldridge, Tourism Australia's marketing director for the Americas, on digital marketing; Rich Beattie, executive digital editor of TravelandLeisure.com, talking about user-generated content; and Andrew Wiens of TripAdvisor, addressing online reputation management.

Many of the speakers were evangelists for one aspect of technology or another, and I found most of the sessions interesting. But the clearest perspective I heard was from a speaker who is not a technologist but a marketer who, faced with a quickly changing digital landscape and real-world profit-and-loss concerns, reported his experiences in realspeak.

That was Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar USA, who acknowledged that his tour operation is "very traditional" and relies heavily on travel agents but said he had built out a robust website relatively early.

"Finally," he said, "our website is worth the money we have invested in it. The bad news is that research indicates customers are fragmenting in the ways they access information, so we have to work three times harder to manage several different channels, without a [commensurate] level of reward."

In the face of channel fragmentation, cost management becomes a real issue, Wiseman said. He hasn't seen a fundamental change in the way Trafalgar communicates with travel agents, but he said he must respond to "the quantum shift I've seen in the way that customers interact with travel agents."

"Upwards of 75% of clients have never met their travel agent face to face. So it's our responsibility to develop content so agents can package it in ways customers want to see it. E-brochures are slowly gaining, and paper is slowly falling."

As regards social media, "the reality is that, from a marketing perspective, it's the exciting unknown," he said. "In 15 years, I may be able to justify the expense, but today, it's a resource drain.

"I make sure I do the minimum required, but then again, we've run an interactive forum for Trafalgar customers for 15 years, and it's never made any money, never even generated leads. It primarily helps us with research, to know what's on our customers' minds."

The advent of social media has created a paradigm change that affects marketing and customer service, Wiseman believes. "These used to be two departments, but marketing people are monitoring social media for customer service issues. I've got a cross management issue.

"But beyond that, I do think there are opportunities to generate leads through social media," he said. "Facebook advertising is potentially as good as any other marketing we do. What we don't know is how scalable it is, but a lot of time and money is being spent looking into that."

I think Wiseman's mix of excitement and skepticism about fragmentation is felt by many executives, in the travel industry and beyond.

There's little question in most marketers' minds that they must work to explore and exploit the digital opportunities represented on the Australia Tourism Summit's agenda: paid search, social media, GDS distribution, website development, user-generated content and online reputation management.

But digital development can be expensive and demand a significant amount of an enterprise's focus and energy. The payoff can be slow in coming (if it comes at all) and difficult to measure. The rapid rate at which new development comes means there's a never-ending investment cycle.

This is why every conference has become a technology conference. The Australia Tourism Summit examined parallel landscapes, one real and one virtual, both mysterious and equally worthy of exploration to anyone involved in selling destinations.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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