What Google analytics can't tell you

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Frank Belzer is the chief sales and marketing officer at Icon Park in Orlando and also serves on the board of the Grand Canyon Resort Corp. He was formerly a board member and advisor to Visit Florida and a senior vice president at Universal Parks. He is a regular speaker and panelist at travel trade conferences.

As our industry attempts to rebound and recoup losses from a pandemic that has lasted more than two years, it has encountered some unexpected headwinds: inflation, fallout from the Russian attack on Ukraine, soaring fuel costs, anxiety caused by political polarity.

Uncertainty is unavoidable, but the prolonged and heightened levels of uncertainty during the pandemic years has intensified our desire to understand how once-familiar paradigms in consumer behavior have changed so that we can adjust our businesses accordingly.

I watch with some dismay as my peers in the travel and tourism space increasingly rely primarily on Google or website analytics to set their marketing plans and strategies. They are, I believe, looking at a source that reveals only a partial, and ultimately distorted, piece of the story.

What's missing? According to research provided to me by clients, destinations and attractions source anywhere from 30% to 80% of their business through third-party providers in transactions that are not done through a website. This is business that's invisible to Google.

And of course, one of the most powerful influences on travel decisions, one that can drive business up or down precipitously, is word of mouth, which is likewise invisible to web analytics tools.

I'll share the experience of one of my clients as an illustration of how reliance on digital data almost led them astray.

Using data from the client's own website, it appeared that customers were disproportionately within a certain age range and resided heavily in certain geographic regions. It also indicated that they favored certain features of their destination over others. It appeared to be the type of data that could help any organization develop more specific and successful marketing plans. However, the data in fact reflected only 35% of their bookings. When we factored in data from their call center (another 30%) and third-party booking sources (the remaining 35%), we found an entirely different and often contradictory set of data points.

It would be wonderful if analytics were a silver bullet that saved us from the need to combine and analyze multiple data fragments. The reality is that, even with reliable data from multiple channels, one still needs to get out from behind a computer screen and talk to employees, listen to consumers and widen the net for insight.

Experience and reason need to be factored in, as well. Randy Styles, an associate vice president for analytics and institutional research at Grinnell College in Colorado, who has written several papers on the importance of blending human interaction with data, stated that, "Ultimately, even when the use of analytics does apply, the best decisions will be made by those who combine the science of quantitative analysis with the art of sound reasoning."

In the face of our still-uncertain future, our industry needs to go much deeper into our customers' preferences and behaviors to successfully understand and navigate our way forward. Tempting as it may be, we cannot outsource this to Google or even multiple data sets without having humans interpret the ultimate meaning of patterns.

Web analytics are certainly an important piece of the puzzle that lays before us. Learning more about how to factor the intelligence they provide into our larger analyses is an important component to help us make better decisions. As is often the case with complex problem-solving exercises, a hybrid approach is key. In our current state of prolonged uncertainty, it is our really the only path that can smooth our recovery.

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