Thursday, November 09, 2006

Building Local Tourism

Note to readers: Regional development is a key area of interest for a number of Ndarala professionals. This 2004 article by Jim Belshaw focuses on ways of improving tourism performance, one area where most local communities have a chance to build an external income source while also enriching life for themselves. Further writing by Jim relating to tourism issues can be found on the New England, Australia and Regional Living Australia blogs.

This article focuses on ways of improving tourism performance, one area where most local communities have a chance to build an external income source while also enriching life for themselves.

Tourism performance is normally measured in three linked ways: number of visitors plus average stay plus average spend. So if you are going to increase your revenue from tourism, you have to increase the number of visitors and/or the stay and/or the money spent.

Who Comes Now

Understanding existing visitor traffic is an obvious starting point. This includes not just those who stop or stay, but also those who pass but do not stop. Who comes, why do they come, why don't they stop?

Then look at their points of contact with you. What do they do there, what information do they get, what perception will be formed of our community?

These points of contact are not always obvious. Let me take an example on a road I know quite well, Thunderbolt's Way.

At Nowendoc there is a little bush style public toilet next to the hall. A number of visitors stop there because it is well maintained and clean. Yet there is no information about Nowendoc or the surrounding region, one of the most beautiful if relatively unknown parts of the New England. A public notice board plus a stand for brochures would have a small but useful impact.

Perhaps the best way of establishing points of contact is via a simple mapping exercise. Look at traffic patterns and then travel the routes, identifying decision and contact points. Check what information is available at each point.

In doing this, look at the way patterns vary over the day. On a Sunday morning for example, where do people stop for coffee? If there is only one place open in town, then you need visitor material there.

The Visitor Experience

The next step is to look at improving visitor experience. Improve this and you build length of stay plus average spend. Then those visitors who are already coming give you more cash by recommending your area to others.

Improving Visitor Experience: Information

The easiest starting point in improving visitor experience is to give the visitor more information. The more things a visitor has to do, the more things that a visitor has to learn, the more interested he/she will be.

Visitors like things that are different, that will add to their experience in a particular area. Now there is a real problem here. Because we know our own area, we do not think of things as something a visitor might like. We ignore obvious possibilities.

Worse at times, we focus on things that we are proud of but which are not necessarily important to the visitor.

To address these problems, start by listing just what information is in fact already available for visitors in brochures or in electronic form. In doing so, identify material that is out of date or incorrect.
Then look at just what events, attractions or potential attractions you have. A brainstorming workshop can help here.

In carrying this step out, look also at attractions/features in your immediate region that might be packaged with local attractions/features. Too many communities think just in terms of their own immediate attractions and may be jealous of and even in competition with adjacent areas. One outcome here is that the visitor experience is fragmented into small and ineffective packages.

You should also do some web searches on your area to find out just what comes up. Search first on the name, then combine the name with various terms relevant to your area. This will tell you just what the external electronic world sees of you.

But do not stop there. Also look at equivalent places in Australia and overseas. What do they feature, how do they feature it, what might be relevant to you, what can you learn?

You now have a list of ideas and possibilities that you can compare with already available material. From this, you can generate a list of material that you might prepare to enhance the visitor experience.

A journey starts with a single step. Most communities do not have a lot of promotional dollars. So start by preparing the easiest material first, adding to it over time.

Improving the Visitor Experience: Service

If you understand your existing visitor patterns, have mapped the key contact or decision points, know just what you have and have a plan in place to extend visitor information, then you are already a long way down track.

But you also need to improve the visitor experience through improved service.

One part of this is to make things as easy and pleasant as possible for the visitor.
Placing relevant information at key contact/decision points is an important first step here. As part of your initial mapping exercise, you should also have looked at things such as cleanliness, opening hours. What can be done to improve things?

Then there is the broader question of the standard of service experienced by visitors whether in shops, motels, cafes etc. What need to be done to improve this?

This can be a very difficult area because it may require behavior changes. For that reason, community support is very important. A visitor welcomed as a guest by the community is much more likely to return and to recommend the place to others.

Marketing your Community: Initial Analysis

Many of the things already discussed will contribute directly to marketing focused especially on developing the existing visitor flow. Marketing beyond this point depends upon your own unique circumstances. However, there are some general principles that you can use to guide your thinking.

To begin with, how you market and to whom depends on what you have to sell and to whom. This may seem self-evident, but the reality is that it is often over-looked.

To take a simple example, if your primary focus lies in capturing passing trade, there is probably not much point in investing time and effort in things such as tourism trade shows. Instead, you are better off focusing on:

  • Cooperative action to promote the particular route or routes.
  • Together with actions such as those already described designed to increase gains from existing traffic.
If, however, you want to attract people to your community as either an end-point destination or at least a stop-over on a bigger trip, then your approach has to be different.

The starting point here is to work out just how much you hope to gain.

Start with the average spare bed capacity since this determines the size of your marketplace. Is it 6.5 or 65 or 650 or 6,500? There is not much point in aiming to attract 3,000 bed nights over twelve months if your projected bed availability is only 600. Instead, you have to focus on the day visitor.

Then move to the messages you want to put across. As a general statement, most tourism marketing suffers from blurred messages. Yes, your community may have a whole range of things to sell. But if you try to promote too much, then the image will become blurred and will be largely lost. You are much better off concentrating on a small number of flagships.

This holds true even for larger communities. Take Tamworth and country music as an example. When Tamworth first started in this area, no one could have foreseen that the Country Music Festival would become an international success. Now country music provides a central platform supporting a whole range of visitor activities.

Now in thinking about messages you have a choice. Do you want to focus on an image for your community as the central message (hard) or do you want to promote specific activities (much easier)?

Recently I listened to a Wilcannia community forum broadcast on ABC. I have always known about and wanted to visit Wilcannia. Listening to the forum I decided that I really must visit the district.

Forget about the town problems canvassed at the forum. From a tourism perspective, Wilcannia (or so it seemed to me) had to do two things. Problem one was to increase the number of visitor stop-overs along the existing highway route. Problem two was to find a special identifier to get people to visit the town in its own right. And here the combination of the history of the Darling with the aboriginal heritage provided a potential solution.

Marketing your Community: Revisit the Visitor Experience

In thinking about your core messages, look again at the visitor experience. Will it actually support what you want to do?

Here you have to put yourself in the shoes of the visitor.

The starting point here is obviously the flagship experience(s). How well developed is this/they? How much choice is there for the visitor? What might be done to extend it?

The next point is just what other attractions you have that might be packaged in some way with the flagship experience. Just because visitors have come for one experience does not mean that they won't want to taste other things. Choice is all important.

Then look at the things that support the visitor: accommodation, meals, sport, souvenirs etc. What is available here, how might you add to it, how do you tell the visitor about it?

Let me take a very simple example. Take tennis.

Parents travelling with children may be looking for something to do with them. In the case of my own family, we always play tennis on holidays whether in South West Rocks, Port Douglas or Armidale. How often have we found that while tennis is listed as a local facility, there is in fact no easy way for the visitor to access the courts. No contact telephone number, or a number that does not answer! So do not list a feature if the visitor cannot in fact access it.

Marketing your Community: Select Your Marketing Channels

Once you have decided on your core messages, you then have to decide how to get them across. Here the channel depends upon the message. By channel, I simply mean the specific marketing path required to reach the target audience. So you have to select those channels that best fit your message.

There is a real problem here in that tourism, like most areas, has developed its own marketing jargon. I simply do not find terms like empty nesters to be of much practical use.
This means that you have to dig down below the conventional terms to first define and then target the market you are aiming for. This takes a fair bit of thought and some lateral thinking, especially for smaller communities with limited resources.

Again to illustrate by example. Say that you want to make your aboriginal heritage and experience a central attraction.

Step one is to get information into the readily available general channels such as those offered by Tourism NSW. Certainly useful, but here you may be one of many. So you need to do more.
Step two is to look at your web presence to ensure that your community appears towards the top of any web search on terms such as Aborigines, Australian Aborigines, Aboriginal heritage, Aboriginal history, Aboriginal tourism. This may involve paying a search engine so that your site appears as a feature.

Better, in that you are now reaching people with specific interest in the subject. But wait, in terms of a famous ad, there is more.

Look beyond this to specific groups.

For example, all schools now incorporate material on Aboriginal life and experience in their teaching. Many Sydney schools organise excursions to reinforce this. So put together a package and send it to selected Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane schools inviting them to visit and also asking them to put material on notice boards, tell parents about it in a school circular.

The Role of the Tourism Plan

As you develop your ideas, you should put them into some form of tourism plan.
This need not be complex.

The key thing about planning is not the plan itself, but the process involved in creating it and then monitoring progress against plan. This helps us identify and capture lessons from experience, to learn by doing.

Persistent and Consistent

The key to success in tourism development is to be both persistent and consistent. It just takes time to develop new things, get a message across and to learn from experience.

One of the real tragedies in tourism promotion, at least in NSW, is the way in which constant organisational changes at state and local level lead to changes in tourism boundaries, promotion messages and activities.

This may not matter for a city such as Sydney that already has a huge national and international footprint. However, it can be absolutely devastating for a region or community trying to get its message above the static in a crowded marketplace.

The New England region can be taken as an example. Sixty years ago this was one of Australia's best known regions. By the mid nineties, after multiple changes in tourism boundaries and messages, Tourism NSW market research showed a fundamental collapse in market awareness of both name and regional attractions.

The bottom line in all this is that you must adopt a longer term focus in planning for tourism development. Results will come, but only if you allow the necessary time.

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