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Facebook is not a book with your face on it, Tweeting is not the sound of a bird in the early hours of the day, blogging is not something which is related to loggers in a forest; but who would have said that these terms would have actually revolutionised the world that we live in?
Social media has had an imperative influence upon the social structure of most individuals. Even though many might utilise such web based tools for personal amusement, the vast marketing opportunities offered by these systems has been increasingly recognised in various industries, amongst which one finds the tourism industry.
Technology and Tourism
Growth within the travel and tourism industry is driven by a multitude of factors. These factors are determinants towards the practice of tourism and are categorised as four distinct but yet interrelated environments. These environments are the competitive environment, socio-cultural environment, political environment and technological environment.
One can say that the tourism and travel industry has been one of the most successful in utilizing the Internet to market its products. Reaching out to possible consumers through the use of the internet has significantly changed the purchase of tourism services and products and changes in technology have created new opportunities for leisure and tourism organizations. Nowadays it is not simply about having an updated website with information on it, but we have moved on to another level whereby tourism destinations, organisations and companies utilise social networks and e-tourism to promote, advertise, showcase and most of all keep consumers abreast of any updated information in seconds.
Whilst offering the possibility to provide new products and re-enforce markets, the use of technology has also led to substantial cost reductions when marketing a product or service. As a result of improved technological systems, one is to consider the benefits various components in the tourism supply chain have achieved: Central reservation systems in hotels; accounting programs and yield management services allowing accommodation providers to compare actual demand with predicted demand; Online transportation booking systems are some examples of these advancements made possible through the creation of online software and programmes. But a current issue which will be addressed in this assignment is the use of social media and networking within the tourism industry.
Over the past four years the University of Wollongong in Australia has conducted a series of research studies on the subject of travellers and the internet. Featured on their Facebook webpage, an interview with associate Professor Ulrike Gretzel, from The Institute for Innovation in Business and Social Research (IIBSoR) at the Faculty of Commerce, discusses how social media has influenced travel decisions and the marketing perspectives of destinations.
“Our studies find that a majority of travellers think that social media contents are more up-to-date, more fun to read, more interesting, more relevant, more comprehensive, more specific and more helpful in making decisions than information provided by tourism marketers”
Featured as one of the sections in the ITB World Travel Trends Report 2010/2011, Social Media is signalled as one of the current travel and tourism trends. Earlier in 2009, Ms. Isabel Bommer, amongst other key note speakers at ITB Berlin had addressed the topic of ‘Market and technology trends in digital travel sales' and explained how:
“...in the main travel markets, the Internet is a targeted way of becoming the most important channel for holiday sales, information and recommendations”
And further describes that "nowadays, two out of five reservations are completed online and more than half of all European travellers (55 %) uses the Internet for information about their travel destination, travel providers and special offers”.
The development of Web 2.0 has facilitated communication, sharing of information and enhanced collaboration over the World Wide Web. This phenomenon engages participation from viewers and internet users on a free cost basis and thus there are no restrictions as to who can use these channels, when and how.
In the article titled ‘The Challenge of Social Networking for Associations' by Peter Jackson and Michael Collins, what is referred to as the ‘Digital/Online evolution' is described as having taken place in defined stages over the last decade. First ‘the need for a website' and ‘email communication' was embraced, second was to ‘offer online services such as e-commerce and booking online', third the surfacing of Web 2.0, and now the Social Networking phenomenon. This change has allowed business and objectives to be measurable. This in turn has aided towards analysing, learning and executing demand strategies within the work field.
During this year's ITB fair ,Rohit Talwar, CEO for Fast Future Research, described in his presentation titled ‘The Future of the Travel Industry-Scenarios for 2020' that there will be an evolution towards “deliver(ing) personalised service choices through immersive, tactile and Multi-dimensional technology interfaces”. Thus technology will continue to play an important role within the tourism field and a new platform for destination or tourism marketing and branding is being built through the development of social media and enhanced social networking.
Defining Social Networking and identifying the technological mediums through which Tourism providers and their products are showcased
“Social networking is the grouping of individuals into specific groups, like small rural communities or a neighbourhood subdivision, if you will...”
I consider this particular definition as being relevant to the tourism industry due to its reference to the word ‘communities'. Tourism is, in itself, a practice which involves individuals. Whether you are a tourism provider or consumer, the human resource is at the basis of this industry and community relationships are created and nurtured through its practice.
Through social networking, one is given the opportunity to participate in gaining information, whilst being entertained. If we are to consider the various programs or channels through which social networking takes place, the following medium have gained recognised importance for potential tourists as well as tourism providers around the globe.
Review Sites are an example of a user garneted content (UGC), more commonly referred to as a Consumer Generated Content. Consumers are given the opportunity to share their brand experiences and in so doing assist others into making more informed decisions and recommendations. An example related to the tourism industry is TripAdvisor, an online review site which features advice on hotels, flights, travel guides amongst other things. Individuals submitting reviews can upload their images of their vacation, write personal opinions about a hotel, restaurant or establishment visited, whilst portraying their views. Even though one can argue that there is no ‘filtering' of reviews submitted, and that certain reviews might be more to the detriment of the provider rather than to their gain. For over ten years, TripAdvisor has earned the reputation of being an invaluable resource for travellers; enabling online users to rate and review travel related experiences and assist prospective travellers to make informed decisions. High rankings also result in an achievement for the particular provider and certificates such as the ‘Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence' which was given to the Grand Hotel Excelsior in 2010 make viewers acknowledge that the hotel is trustworthy when it comes to customer expectations. Another hotel which has been awarded the prestigious 4.5 stars out of five for excellence by this same review site is the Hilton Malta. These achievements are newsworthy as hotels, such as both the Hilton Malta and the Grand Hotel Excelsior help raise Malta's international reputation as a tourist destination in the world wide scenario.
Blogs are a vehicle for marketing and advertising an event or ‘happening'. Through the exposure of information, customers are allowed to interact by providing their comments and suggestions. In the tourism industry, blogs can be utilised to inform viewers about successful accomplishments. A case we could use for this particular example is the blog of the Excelsior Grand Hotel utilised to inform viewers about their award from Trip Advisor, whilst thanking their customers for their loyalty and belief in them.
Informing customers and potential customers about new events, promotional activities, special offers ,amongst other things, can lead to repeat business and also new business alike .The possibility of uploading images and videos, as in the case of review sites allows the destination or tourism product to become more visual and thus appealing.
In an article titled ‘The Social Revolution', journalist Sarah Lee explores how the growth in the social networking arena is leading to an online marketing revolution diversifying the channels and methods through which marketing takes place. Lee lists social networking sites such as ‘...Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, LinkedIn, Plaxo, YouTube, Twitter, WAYN, and Flickr.'as being the most popular types of Web 2.0 websites falling under the ‘Social Networking' framework. She also shares the views of various hoteliers and industry advisors on this topic and quotes one of the directors of Turner PR, Ms. Angela Berardino as stating that “In travel, social networking evens the playing field so small hotels can compete with bigger brands. Small hotels can perform better on social networks as they tend to have more personality and are unrestricted by the confines of the corporate marketing strategies of larger brands.”
The article goes on to explain how hotels should view their reviews and what is being said about them over these sites. It is now no longer possible to base customer ratings upon hotel room questionnaires since most visitors resort to social networking sites to post their photos, share experiences (whether good or bad) and showcase what their holiday was all about. So hotels, as mentioned in the article, can improve their operations and develop a better knowledge and understanding of their services and products through these reviews.
Understanding the importance of Social Media in the tourism field
So far, we have identified and listed the various channels through which social media takes place. As associations, organisations, and destinations recognise the importance of keeping abreast with this new opportunity within the marketing field of tourism, it is important to outline the constraints of such medium alike.
Social media is ultimately about a service; a service which incorporates information, contact and transactions, entertainment and the creation of relationships. This idea was outlined during a workshop held in February 2010 by the MICE segment within the Malta Tourism Authority. Ms. Karin Elgin-Nijhuis, from TEAM Tourism Consulting, headed a two day workshop programme which was aimed at informing the hoteliers about the subject of Social Media.
The over ruling challenge described by Elgin-Nijhuis is that people's travel decisions are not only structured by a destinations brand image, but also by the recommendations which are spread through word of mouth or ‘mouse'. Opportunities will arise as more potential travellers will learn about one's product. So whilst we are seeing a shift in the ‘traditional' sales and marketing methods, online e-tourism is offering travellers a primary source of information. Demand patterns are changing as knowledge of destinations and tourism and travel options are increasing and being showcased. Thus destinations and tourism providers have to adapt and develop new skills towards using technology to their benefit.
To conclude, it is important that we acknowledge that marketing tourism or a destination brand is not solely about positioning, but rather a practice that requires specialisation, efficiency and effectiveness in order to improve the possibilities within the tourism field which are now limit-less.