It’s not just international tourism that is making its mark on the web. The inbound tourist boards have also experienced success through online campaigns, video clips and itinerary planning. Linda Fox finds out how the UK and Ireland are getting in on the act.
The local tourist board may not be the first place you’d look for a date but, between February and April this year, VisitScotland ran an online Date A Hot Scot campaign and six women around the world landed themselves a kilted wonder for a day. The initiative was aimed at women, aged 20 and over and the competition received 20,000 votes.
However, the campaign was far more significant than just the volume of votes because it got people around the world talking about Scotland.
VisitScotland assistant marketing manager for Benelux and Scandinavia, Aoife Desmond, says: “It gave us a chance to exploit blogging and viral marketing because it was picked up by bloggers in the US. It has also been picked up by Swiss Tourism – so it had a great public relations spin.”
The Scots aren’t the only ones to take advantage of local colour or a tradition and adapt it for the web. VisitWales used a viral campaign involving a sheepdog trials game in France as part of its spring promotion. Some 77,000 people participated resulting in 20,000 new contacts for the tourism organisation.
Eirlys Thomas, head of international marketing and sales development, says: “It’s the most successful online campaign we have ever done and it gives us a good starting point for the next one. We’ll also keep in touch with those people with quarterly newsletters.”
It’s too early to assess the return on investment but VisitWales will now go back to a sample of people who participated to find out whether they subsequently travelled to Wales.
These are just two of the examples of the types of online activities tourism organisations are employing to attract people to their websites, and subsequently to the country or region.
Far from being left behind as the Internet becomes a major distribution and transactional channel, tourist boards are making their own in-roads into the medium.
Unlike many online intermediaries who struggled to build up a brand and obtain travel content 10 years ago, these tourism organisations are ideally placed to act as an intermediary between local suppliers, such as hotels and smaller accommodation suppliers, tour operators in their target markets, and existing online travel agents and consumers.
In addition, they do not work in isolation, all separately targeting the same pool of people across Europe and internationally. They co-operate with each other on joint marketing initiatives to benefit several regions collectively or the UK and Ireland as a whole.
The Da Vinci Code Adventure campaign, launched on May 30 this year, was a classic example of such an initiative where VisitBritain, Maison de la France and VisitScotland collaborated to promote their destinations.
The promotion was initially e-mailed to 750,000 consumers on the databases of the three tourism organisations, and from there people were invited to get friends involved too.
Viral marketing campaigns and games are not the only tricks being used to attract people to tourist board websites – many also have online booking engines, downloadable video clips and itinerary planning tools.
All of the organisations are at different stages in their online development. VisitBritain launched a flight search engine a year ago while EnjoyEngland.com has just relaunched its latest version with a virtual assistant called Rosie, Google Maps and a Day Trip Planner enabling surfers to enter a postcode and receive ideas for a day out.
Tourism Ireland is taking a slightly different approach. A revamped DiscoverIreland.com website was unveiled in March with a better look and feel, good mapping functionality and a database of more than 30,000 tourism products. However, unlike most of its counterparts, the site has no booking engine and passes on accommodation referrals to suppliers such as the Irish Hotels Federation.
Zoe Redmond, head of e-marketing for Tourism Ireland, says: “We put up offers from suppliers because we want to be a one-stop shop for Ireland but if people want to book, we seamlessly pass them on. All these organisations have their own booking engines and it’s not our intention to compete with them.”
Redmond says it’s also about remaining an unbiased resource and offering as much information about as many providers as possible.
Despite not wanting its own online booking engine, Tourism Ireland does want the Discover Ireland website to have the look and feel of an online travel agent in every other aspect.
The current debate is about including user-generated content to make the site much more interactive in the next year.
“We want to have functionality such as video streaming but we have to get all our partners to buy into that and we’re dealing with a lot of stakeholders.”
Clearly the hype surrounding consumer reviews and other social media tricks is not unique to tour operators and other travel suppliers as all of the tourism organisations are debating the benefits of these sorts of tools and how best to harness them.
One of the difficulties they face is the balance between being an unbiased information resource and the need to keep up with the latest technology.
VisitScotland.com, the public-private partnership co-owned by VisitScotland and tourism website expert Tiscover, plans to introduce customer ratings on the site next year.
Business development director Paul Wedgwood says: “It will be based on average feedback driven by our transaction data. The evidence says that surfers do use customer-driven content to inform their decisions but the trick is to understand the crucial information that really makes a difference, and where they are most interested in searching for that information. The whole point of a site such as TripAdvisor is its sense of independence.”
VisitWales’ Thomas is having the same dilemma. “We are looking at the best use of blogging, message boards and citizen journalism, but we also have to be aware that we are a public body so it’s a balance between honesty and how much we can do,” he explains.
However, Wedgwood believes people are beginning to take customer-driven content with a ‘pinch of salt’.
“People are beginning to exploit it for commercial reasons, so we have to demonstrate it is objective but also make sure people accept and understand that in monitoring it we are not overly moderating it.”
Other factors tourism organisations have to consider are the available resources, both human and financial, specific target markets and the number of people with an interest in the website including suppliers, investors and consumers.
VisitBritain international online marketing manager, Vickie Birnage, says: “Everyone knows the importance of online but they are all at completely different stages as to how they have embraced it and it’s down to resources and what the customers are used to.”
She believes VisitBritain has made more progress online in the past year than ever before, and the organisation has “jumped some hurdles” to really embrace the Internet. Birnage says: “When the overseas offices used to submit business plans, online was part of it – now it is almost all of it.”
For VisitWales, which has about 17 sites, the current debate is about whether to continue with so many sites or try to find a way to integrate the information for different groups of people.
Thomas says: “Our main site reaches out globally but we also want to tailor sites to offer local information and it is having the resources to do that. There is no one single market view as to how people want to use the Internet so we have to be market specific within all that.”
VisitScotland also works hard to accommodate the differences between visitors from each country. Domestic tourists tend to have shorter breaks while US visitors are coming for a longer stay and the information on the websites has to reflect that. There is also an ancestral website for the US market, linked into VisitScotland.com, to enable visitors to trace their family.
The online future for all the tourism organisations will mean increased investment as they develop according to their target markets, while trying to stay ahead of technology development.
Tourism Ireland currently spends 10% of its total media budget on online marketing but Redmond acknowledges that this will increase with time.
She says: “Our organisation is only four years old and we have only got four people but they are putting the impetus behind it now.”
VisitScotland.com, with its new technology partner Tiscover, will further develop the accommodation side of the website and enable small suppliers to improve their own web strategies as well as the way they work with the tourism body.
Wedgwood says: “We’re introducing a whole new platform at the end of the year, powered by Tiscover. It will allow accommodation providers to be more e-enabled. The technology will also provide each accommodation supplier with its own micro site.”
VisitScotland.com is also working on bundling content together, such as multiple accommodation bookings or accommodation and ground arrangements.
Wedgwood says: “We have a small toe in the water with that at the moment but we want to give that capability to local suppliers who know the area and can bundle together what is right for the consumer.”
VisitBritain also has major plans for additional functionality, and the strategy to develop the site into a one-stop shop for holiday needs in Britain continues, enabling consumers to look, book, travel, stay and tell.
The organisation is currently building a new website to be launched in phases between this December and June 2007.
Birnage says: “It will give us better search engine optimisation and enable us to better harness all of these new offerings. The site we have got now was never built with the commercial side in mind and we have outgrown it quicker than we anticipated, but that’s good.”
The low cost of the Internet as an information and distribution channel makes it perfect for tourism organisations confined to tight budgets, but who are already in the business of providing rich information to consumers.
However, the fact state-backed tourist boards are on the fringes of commercialisation is not without controversy. A complaint made to the European Commission in November 2004 about the EnglandNet distribution system has yet to be resolved.
Still, today, six months after the end of the Date A Hot Scot campaign, if you type ‘hot scots’ into Google, the search engine will return many references to it, demonstrating the power of a good idea online compared to the relatively small investment. And, for the kilt-adoring ladies out there, there’s talk of another competition next year.