Ask any tourism business what's their most effective, lowest cost marketing method and they'll almost certainly answer 'word of mouth'. It's easy, it's free - and it 'just happens'. Or does it?
Most businesses just hope for word of mouth publicity and recommendations from satisfied customers. They do a good job, and hope word of mouth referrals will follow. Now we have 'word of mouth on steroids', in the form of social media so it's become even more important to impress.
Surprisingly few people actually set out to do anything in particular to stimulate word of mouth publicity. In theory if you do a good job, people will recommend you to others, yet it might be worth thinking about ways you can make word of mouth publicity more likely?
Some businesses spend very little on any other marketing methods because they're perfected the art of 'surprise and delight'. There's an American restaurant that uses a very simple tool to encourage diners to talk about them - a joker card. Instead of allocating table numbers, diners are asked to choose a random card from a large deck and use that. If they draw a Joker card, their order is free of charge. When it happens, it creates quite a stir, with other diners celebrating with the winners. Naturally the winners share the story of good fortune with many others. This simple technique has ensured queues out of the door.
Many years ago when Richard Branson set out to create 'six star' hotels and resorts he needed something that differentiated them from other properties. Making people smile is an easy way to delight. Branson wanted to go beyond beautiful settings, and excellent service from friendly staff. How could he make his resorts really memorable? At the luxury level a new trouser press probably isn't going to differentiate one hotel from another.
So what was his way to surprise and delight? A rubber duck was placed in every bathroom. No one else did it, and it was bright and colourful enough to stand out. It acted as a 'talk trigger', something people talked about before going on to describe the other features that made for a good time. Google 'Richard Branson Rubber Ducks' and you'll see they've even become collectible items, for sale on ebay.
Years ago I had a client, Ian who ran a hotel in Kings Cross, London. At that time the area had a terrible reputation and many of the local hotels were badly run and often filthy. Ian wanted to differentiate his hotel from the others and ensured his hotel was scrupulously clean. It was a good idea, and many visitors returned again and again, but Ian wanted to take it a step further and find a way to stand out more. The trouble with telling people that your hotel is clean is that it's really just what's expected. How do people really know it's clean? Photos of gleaming surfaces on Ian's website just looked 'normal'. Instead he put on a mop cap, pinny, Marigold gloves and posed in every room with a feather duster or mop. The photos were eye-catching and made people smile. Bookings went up. To make people smile when they checked in, Ian also had a colourful display of his collection of fancy rubber gloves at reception. His hotel was by far the most popular in the area, and he was soon able to raise his rates.
Last Christmas I did a lot of online shopping. Most of the presents I ordered arrived on time and were what I expected. There was no reason, good or bad to talk about any of the businesses I bought from. Except one. That company still sticks out in my mind, because they did a very simple thing. I ordered some stationery and earrings from Oliver Bonas. They arrived quickly and with an unexpected addition - two Lindt chocolates. I still remember the nice surprise I got when I opened that particular package. And I've told a lot of people.
One of my clients had a hotel in an area of London where competition was really strong. There were many similar hotels with similar prices and services. We struggled to find an angle that would make her hotel different. She simply offered bed and breakfast in a fairly simple room, so the options felt very limited. Our light bulb moment came when we realised everyone also offered breakfast at similar times - from about 7.30 - 10. My client started to offer breakfast from 6.00 - 10 and publicised that fact. It was a small detail but worked amazingly well. Some visitors were jet-lagged and desperate for breakfast by 6, some wanted to start exploring as early as they could or be first in the queue at Madame Tussauds. They were always really pleased to be able to eat so early - and word of mouth publicity spread as a result.
You don't have to do anything major to surprise and delight. In fact it's often the small details that make the most difference. Outside a pub in Masham there's a tiny beer barrel with a tap and dish. It's marked 'dog rehydration station' and both drinkers and passers-by take and share photos of it.
You can influence visitors' minds even before they visit, by taking opportunities to build their anticipation. About two weeks before they arrive, I send my holiday cottage guests a long email with lots of local recommendations for things to do and places to go. It mentions local shops with information about their owners. Every guest says that they feel they know the area even before they get here, and look forward to meeting some of our local characters such as 'dancing Dave' the greengrocer. It's a small thing to do yet very effective.
Do you have a good way to surprise and delight your visitors? I'd love to hear about it.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a way to make visitors feel so enthused by your area that they want to stay for much longer, take loads of photos, share them with all their friends and tell everyone?
Ideally, it would be a way that costs very little, worked as well in Winter as in Summer. In an ideal world, it would also lesson the impact on the environment, perhaps encouraging visitors to explore on foot, and spend more money in local businesses too? For once the ideal isn't an impossible dream. It is possible. Let's take a fresh look at local distinctiveness and sense of place.
I'll offer some practical tips on how you can actually use local distinctiveness later in this article.
First though, what does local distinctiveness actually mean and why is it important?
It's what makes one place different from another. Major landmarks and famous sights can mark one place out against another but it’s not just big features that are important. It's often the small details that many of us take for granted. It's the 'essence' of a place, that tells you where you are. You can't feel it in a chain pub, even when they've put mass-produced pictures on the wall and bought in old books by the yard. It's hard to find in most newly built chain hotels. It's much easier to find in independent businesses. You can feel it in a forest, or at the top of a hill, in a tiny hamlet or a large town. Sometimes you notice local distinctiveness without really realising. Sense of place can be an instinctive feeling, which is all the more appealing to visitors once they've noticed it too. Survey after survey shows how much visitors enjoy 'savouring the ambience' of a place. This is largely down to local distinctiveness.
Our impressions are formed through so many aspects of an area’s character. Local distinctiveness is the combination of aspects that makes each place special. It’s the essential details, large and small, natural and man-made, that combine to create a sense of place. Local distinctiveness can be experienced and enjoyed with all our senses. Everyone appreciates something different, whether it's drinking beer in a cosy pub, overhearing snatches of conversation in a certain accent, hearing birdsong in a hidden valley or the nostalgic feeling of cobbles underfoot.
Features that you take for granted aren't necessarily obvious to everyone. They might be special and extraordinary for some visitors. So to take advantage of your local distinctiveness, you have to find it, describe it and make it more apparent, and easier to enjoy - without making it feel contrived, or taking away its authenticity.
Changing markets - the time is right to use local distinctiveness
Visitors are certainly changing. There’s growing interest in all things ‘local’. Visitors want to understand more, to experience places in different ways and to meet “real” people. They are ready to buy locally made products. They want to do as well as see. Visitors are increasingly interested in anything that helps them understand and appreciate the essential character of a place. Today’s visitors are looking for ‘something different’ from their normal life. They look for places with ambience, atmosphere and soul. They welcome in-depth experiences, opportunities to participate and chances to meet local people.
An opportunity to offer a different type of information
Traditionally in the tourism industry we’ve offered visitors lists and directories containing lots of information. The focus has been on covering everything, being neutral and leaving visitors to make their own decisions. This no longer works. Visitors increasingly use social media and websites like TripAdvisor for second and third opinions. They want insider tips and specific ideas for things to do. They've started to shy away from "official" in favour of more in-depth, personal recommendations.
How can you use local distinctiveness in your business or area, to attract longer staying, higher spending visitors?
Most tourism marketing talks about the highlights, the well-known, the headline-grabbers. This is important but as these images become more familiar, visitors mentally tick them off their list. They start to move from one 'big name' to another, barely noticing what's in between. When we only promote the honeypots, there's a tendency for visitors to move quickly between them and then think they know an area, without feeling inclined to visit again.
We need to slow visitors down, to help them see the undiscovered gems, the places that are special but often hidden or less obvious. Visitors who enjoy a different experience are more likely to stay longer and spend more. They have more of a story to tell so they recommend the area to others. They also realise that neighbouring areas are likely to be equally interesting and may come back to explore other places.
Here are 3 simple things you can do to use local distinctiveness right now:
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20 years ago I got involved in something that people thought was a bit odd. Most didn't understand what I was talking about or why they should join in.
It was called 'Considerate Hoteliers of Westminster', a group of hoteliers in London who wanted to reduce their environmental impact. I was supposed to promote the group's activities and recruit new members. At the time the main message seemed to be that they could save money if they saved water. This was the early days of those little cards encouraging guests to re-use their towels and putting 'hippos' in toilet cisterns. The hoteliers cared about the environment but they were mainly motivated by their bottom line.
I've no idea where the name of the group came from. 'Considerate' just made them all sound polite and well-mannered, which was largely true. Most of the members managed 4* and 5* hotels, older men dressed in impeccable Saville Row suits, incapable of walking past a cushion without plumping it. I'm not sure that we achieved a great deal but the meetings always included excellent cake. It was an uphill battle to involve others - there never seemed an easy way to explain what we were trying to do.
In the years since then the terminology has changed and responsible tourism has become more mainstream, The bottom line may still be the main motivation for some, but in the meantime the environment has come to the fore. Progress has been painfully slow. Many are only just starting to think about the connection between tourism and climate change.
There are many reasons why progress has been slow but there are two we can actually do something about right now
First of all - the waggy finger, the I-know-more-than-you terminology, and competitive environmentalism. I first heard the term 'waggy finger' from Tim Smit, creator of the Eden Project. He pointed out that many environmentalists were seen as hectoring, lecturing on what people 'should' do. Tim Smit preferred to bring the issues alive and give people a good time as they learnt about them at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Most of us switch off when someone says, 'you should...' whatever the topic.
What do you call 'good tourism' - the kind that respects the environment? The terminology has been problematic, and keeps changing. If you're not very sure how to talk about something without getting it wrong, what do you do? Exactly - you avoid it. So we've not talked about 'sustainable tourism', 'environmentally-friendly tourism', 'eco tourism', or 'responsible tourism' as much as we should (oops). I recently asked some industry colleagues how they now refer to it and there was no agreement on one specific term. In fact, additional terms like 'regenerative tourism' were even suggested. With this in mind, I'm going to stick to basics and refer to it as 'good tourism'.
But is it as 'good' as it could be? No. It could always be better. And that's part of the problem. I've noticed an increasing tendency towards competitive environmentalism. 'What, you only recycle those few materials? Oh, I do so much more'. 'You shouldn't buy fast fashion anymore. It's much better to simply not buy anything and re-wear your clothes more often. Or even better do as I do, and make your own on a hand-powered sewing machine using old newspapers and discarded sheep's wool.'
In the light of these kind of conversations, it can be tempting to just want to walk away. Knitting with yoghurt will only get you so far.
The second reason for slow progress is that many people want to do something but are not really sure what to do. They've been lectured, they've had fingers pointed at them, they feel they're using the wrong language, and they've been told they're not doing enough. But what can they actually do?
Five simple things every tourism business can do right now
I'm no expert but would like to suggest five very simple things every tourism business can do right now. They'll help save the planet and please many 'good' visitors.
1. Be aware of what makes your area different. That sounds obvious but not everyone can talk knowledgeably about their local distinctiveness and sense of place. We travel and go on holiday to relax, and to experience something different, so local distinctiveness is really important. It's the small details that mark one place out from another. If we can encourage visitors to see those differences, they'll really appreciate our individual areas and be ready to spend more time, uncovering them.
Tell people about the quirky stories and details of local buildings, show them where the best walks are, point out the flowers or trees that others wonder at, explain local customs and traditions. Direct visitors to places where they can enjoy locally made food and drink, and see work by local artists and craftspeople. This might not sound like a big contribution to saving the planet, but you're helping others to appreciate your area, and cutting down on their travel.
2. What are your 'doorstep delights'? What are the special treasures and places of interest not far from where you are? Look at the bedroom browsers in accommodation and brochure display racks in many information centres, and attractions and you'll be able to pick up information and leaflets for places that are miles and miles away. Some may be worth the journey but there's equal validity in the places on your doorstep that are less discovered. Add this information to your website - make it easier for visitors to find.
3. What local suppliers and environmentally friendly products do you use in your business? Can you list them? Drawing up a definitive list helps you think of other things you could do, and reassures visitors that you're trying to do all you can. Displaying this kind of information is already more popular, so it's going to become more expected.
4. Can you provide better information about car-free travel in your area? What other information will help visitors to cut down their carbon-footprint, without nagging them to do so? What activities would help visitors see and enjoy your area without getting in a car?
5. Some visitors like to be part of payback or carbon-offsetting schemes, or make a contribution towards local projects. What local options can you suggest?
Each of these suggestions will only have a small individual impact, yet taken together they all accumulate to lessen the impact of tourism on the environment - and make sure visitors enjoy their time spent in your area.
What other measures do you suggest, to encourage 'good tourism' and reduce the negative impacts of tourism?
Is a photo really worth a thousand words? Only if it's the right photo! There's no doubt that good images can be very powerful in helping to promote your tourism business.
How can you grab attention with images that stand out? What do you need to do to make your photos more impactful?
What can you do to make your pictures more memorable and persuasive so people actually want to visit you?
What simple tips can you use for stronger story-telling and awareness-building?
Whether you're a good photographer or not, these simple tips will help you create photography that grabs attention, persuades and sells.
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I'm writing this on the assumption that your marketing budget is much smaller than you'd like it to be? And that you don't have a great deal of time so whatever marketing you do has to be quick and effective? This is what the majority of tourism businesses and my clients tell me. Yet they miss out on a simple technique that could give their business a welcome boost. Piggybacking on current trends is a really easy way to get more attention.
For any marketing to work, the people you're targeting need to go through several stages. Some of these happen quickly almost without you or them realising, but they're still essential - unawareness, awareness, understanding (what you offer and how it can benefit them), conviction and then buying/booking.
One of the main reasons people don't book your accommodation or visit you is because they don't know about you. It's really hard to get attention from new potential customers. But if you use a hook that people are already aware of, or are paying attention to, it's much easier. You're effectively using someone else's marketing budget.
In this article I outlined some trends for 2020. Here are six easy ways to use the trends to build your business.
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Will 2020 be a good or bad year for tourism? How will market-place changes affect your business? Read on for my predictions, details of emerging trends and some opportunities for tourism businesses.
I'll start with some positives. When the world feels like an uncertain place many of us have an urge to run away, and that can be a good thing for tourism!
Here are some markets and niche opportunities you might be able to harness in your marketing. In next week's blog and tourism knowhow mailing, I'll give more details of how you can take advantage of these opportunities.
Family focus and time together: precious things that money supposedly can't buy, but we can offer the chance for people to come together and spend time in a beautiful place. Family gatherings and celebrations of big post 30-birthdays and anniversaries continue to be popular and are great for off-season tourism, and introducing new visitors to your area. One person decides where they want to spend their 'special day'/weekend and their families and friends are obliged to join them... What could be better? You only need to influence one person to make that initial booking and they bring many others, all in a celebratory frame of mind, pre-disposed to enjoy themselves, and usually with higher-than-average spend.
Along with greater appreciation of the benefits of spending time in nature and in the open air, more of us seem to be ready to enjoy simple pleasures and to notice the pleasant small details of daily life whether it's a great cake, beautiful flower or unexpected view. Probably fuelled by social media and the ease of phone camera filming, we're ready to take notice of simple pleasures - and to share them with others. What are the simple pleasures on your doorstep, that maybe you take for granted, but which visitors would love?
The beginning of a year is a good time to reflect and perhaps try a new skill. The market for experiences and learning something new or different while on a short break or holiday is still strong. Creative and spiritual retreats are becoming more popular. Quirky experiences, chances to develop artistic abilities, learn about nature, cook healthy or unusual food - these are all likely to prove popular in 2020. One caveat though - we need to make it easier for visitors to find and book such experiences and to combine them with accommodation, whether that's through established online channels or better direct marketing.
As the world gets crazier, chances to step off the hamster wheel of life, and simply relax and go a little off-grid will be important - but again, we need to appreciate that although there are plenty of opportunities to do this, visitors don't always find it easy to find the right places for them. We need to make it more obvious what's on offer, where it is, what there is to do (or not do) and how to get there.
I've started to notice the growth of a different kind of retreat: retreating from the everyday in order to work. Yes, that might sound odd. Yet there seems to be an off-season (very handy!) trend for people booking to go away, sometimes for an extended time, in order to work. The work might be different to usual, perhaps to do something like write or be more contemplative, and think differently. Thanks to digital communication it's also easier to just carry on working in a different place.
Going on holiday or enjoying a short break has always been seen as an opportunity to relax and perhaps to see something different. It's increasingly being used as a solution, an opportunity to 'find ourself'. Mindfulness, wellness, increased fitness, and re-invention are part of an increasing number of short breaks. Transformative tourism is definitely a 'thing', whether you set off to transform yourself or a community. Adventure travel is part of this - the chance to not just conquer a mountain, but your own mind too.
I think what I call the 'muddled middle' of accommodation will continue to struggle. There's growing interest in spartan and very simple accommodation and wild camping but there's also demand for luxury at every level, whether that's a five star castle or glamping. Distinctive accommodation will continue to do well. The novelty value of camping pods, shepherd's huts etc may diminish, but there will still be a demand for simple accommodation. Mainstream, middle-of-the-road accommodation will need to find a way to be different or better in someway, in order to stand out from a crowded market place.
Different is so much easier to sell, than muddled middle. In a mature tourism market, we're continually looking for something different. Travel journalists often do call outs for unusual, quirky, and distinctive - and receive surprisingly few usable responses. If you can create something that's a genuinely new and meaningful product, offering good value for money, beauty and intrigue - you'll go far.
TV programmes often have a strong influence on the tourism industry and what visitors enjoy. There's been a flurry of programmes offering the inside view on everything from the royal family to behind the scenes of supermarkets. The urge to look inside, find out the story behind places and people and to satisfy curiosity seems set to grow.
Another programme that's fuelled interest is Who do you think you are? leading to a growth of interest in genealogy and ancestry tourism. Some TV series take a while to build interest and then suddenly seem to be among the most popular. The Repair Shop has been described as 'the TV equivalent of sinking into a warm bath'. Along with other series on crafts and history there seems to be an increased appreciation for the handmade. Combined with a search for authenticity and visitors turning away from homogenous high streets, there's an opportunity for us all to showcase the individual, independent, different, handmade, local... But it's not enough to just say it's 'local' - you need to tell the story, show the evidence and provide chances to visit and experience.
Food is no-longer just fuel. It's part of our 'life-style', a choice, a way to express ourselves and our values. Again, it's not enough to simply tell visitors the food we offer is 'local' - people practically want to know the name of the pig from which the sausages are made. Or they don't want to know that at all, because they are vegan, vegetarian, pollotarian, or something else we're not yet heard of. One thing is for sure - in our privileged part of the world, food types, ethics, origin, farming methods and much more will continue to be discussed and debated. Some of us will get pickier. Some of us will get fatter or thinner. Some of us will just crave simple food.
I've talked about local distinctiveness and it's importance for the tourism industry for almost 20 years (I know). The words used to describe it vary but essentially, tourism wouldn't exist without 'sense of place'. It's not going away. The fact that we're still interested in all things local, handmade and carefully crafted, having new experiences and thinking much more about the environment and climate change suggests to me that local distinctiveness will become even more important to tourism in 2020. So please listen to me when I go on about it!
Many of us are discussing climate change but fewer of us are making the connection between tourism and the environment. I think climate change will have a far bigger impact on what we do, and the market for our services that we currently realise. 'Flight-shaming' has already had an impact in some parts of Scandinavia where holiday-makers are now looking at staycations or destinations to which they can travel by train instead of air. For years the tourism industry has had a growth mentality - more visitors, more spend. Now some destinations are starting to question the value of promoting to visitors a long haul flight away. Perhaps we'll all start to pay more attention to our 'doorstep delights' (remember how I mentioned local distinctiveness...)? Staying visitors have always been prized over day visitors but now they're set to become even more important.
We all need to get better at helping visitors to appreciate more of what's in one area before they move on to the next.
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Please note: all articles are copyrighted Susan Briggs