Fifty years ago if I offered you the chance to go on holiday almost anywhere, you'd grasp the opportunity. A 'holiday' meant relaxation, the chance to see something new. Today's tourists want something different, and they're much more choosy.
For a start, they don't want to be seen as 'tourists'. They want to be seen as individuals, to have 'authentic experiences', to discover something different, perhaps enjoy a challenge or learn a new skill. Today's visitors want 'instagramable' moments, to make memories, to dig deeper and get under the skin of a place. Many want to see as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Others are determined to dig deeper, and explore more slowly.
Tourism marketing has got much harder since I started doing it thirty years ago. It's also much easier, cheaper and more enjoyable, more variable.
Visitors are more interesting. Anyone working in tourism has tools and opportunities open to them they never had before.
So why are we still using outdated marketing methods and not taking advantage of some simple ways to make visitors happier, and to develop more profitable businesses?
The majority of tourism businesses are quite small. Many feel like they're in the shadow of bigger, better-known businesses, or places that attract more visitors.
For years, tourism businesses have handed over their marketing to others. They're paid a fee to a tourist board, or pay a hefty fee to advertise somewhere. Marketing was something others did.
Fortunately the world has changed. Thank you internet, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Tripadvisor and email.
We no longer value 'official'. We believe in word of mouth, reviews and recommendations from people like us.
We don't need a huge marketing budget anymore. Pride and passion are really powerful. Visitors want genuine local knowledge.
Big name destinations and major events do attract visitors. But so do smaller, lesser-known, off-the-beaten track places. Quirky sells. 'Different' and 'better' attract.
Some time ago Chris Anderson wrote about the "Long Tail"*. He related it to retail but it's equally valid in tourism marketing.
Before the internet, retailers could only sell what they could fit on their shelves. In the case of a book seller, this meant the block busters would be prominently displayed because they sold in large numbers, generating the biggest income. It was harder to get hold of more niche publications. Along came the internet and retailers like Amazon found that while their sales were driven by big names, it was much easier to sell small numbers of many other niche publications, which collectively accounted for high revenue.
The same can happen in tourism but we haven't quite taken advantage of the power of niche, and tailoring our messages to appeal in different markets.
I used to tell my clients that niches had to be easy to define, target and reach.
Pre-internet, a niche had to be sizeable to make it worthwhile. Social media, websites and email marketing now make it easy to reach even the smallest niche. More than that - if you find the right niches for your business, other people will do your marketing for you.
The world is now full of small tribes, people who have an interest, who know other people who share their interest. They all talk to each other. Excite one person and they'll happily tell others, using social media to enhance the power of word of mouth. It could be people who share a situation such as having young children. It might be a hobby. It could be a passion for a place. Things like beer or cake attract a strong following - mention them and you instantly grab attention.
How can we use all the power of the long tail, niches and tribes?
Let's take a simple example.
Once upon a time, if I wanted to promote the Yorkshire Dales and to attract a high number of visitors I'd have to use 'honeypots' such as the Wensleydale Creamery, Malham's limestone pavement, Bolton Abbey Estate, and walks around the Three Peaks. Together such places would account for the lion's share of visitors.
Now I can write short blogs every day, writing about more niche activities. Topics can include anything from paragliding in the Dales, the story behind a beer, where to see red squirrels, bluebell woods and Elaine's Tearooms.
Individually each of these are niche, but collectively they attract a large number of visitors. It costs me practically nothing to write the blogs and share them on social media. Others share them on social media and talk about them within their tribe. If I mention a good place to take young children on social media, people instantly tag others with young ones and arrange outings together. Accommodation providers link to the blogs and use them in their own marketing.
And so it goes - anarchic, people's power marketing. Credible because it's unofficial, and based on local knowledge.
Gone are the vague and meaningless strap-lines about "so much to see and discover"
Instead we're able to direct visitors to places they'll enjoy, things to do that they'll recommend to others.
Even better, this kind of long tail tourism means fewer crowds in any single area. We can suggest different reasons to visit and attract people year round. The financial benefits of tourism are spread more widely.
Visitors are happier. They're able to discover new places, get information directly from the people who live in the area. They're not trying to take pictures of places everyone else has heard of so their instagram feed stands out.
Tourism marketing used to be about spending pounds, handing over our cash to someone else to do it for us.
Now we can all promote the places we love. Passion and local pride make us all into experts. We're more powerful than we perhaps realise, especially when we join together in shared activity.
Any good marketing just needs a catalyst, a facilitator to make it easier for others to improve their own marketing. If we get that right, visitors and other locals will do the rest. Recommendations and creativity are the keys to today's marketing, fuelled by pride and passion, not pounds and pounds of big marketing budgets.
* The chart above is an example of the long tail. The honeypot destination might account for 300 visitors or £300k of revenue. Well known destinations might account for 200, and lesser known ones for 150. Then come all the niche destinations and niche activities, individually maybe accounting for only 20 - 60. However when the 'long tail' of all these niche destinations and activities are taken together, they can account for more than the the honeypot destination, and the benefits are more equally distributed.
I've worked in tourism marketing for over 30 years, developing strategies & practical solutions for accommodation, attractions, activity providers, food & drink businesses. These are some of the tourism industry issues I'm concerned about. I'm writing here about Yorkshire but most of the issues are relevant elsewhere.