2021: the year of tourism’s digital revolution

Roger Riera

26 February 2021

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In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on one of the most important sectors of the Spanish economy: tourism. This 2020 has left Spain with only 20 million foreign tourists, a decrease of 76% compared to the previous year (83.5 million foreign tourists arrived in 2019). This implies major losses for one of the sectors that was hit hardest by the pandemic. 

Against this bleak backdrop, and if the vaccine progresses as planned, in 2021 tourist destinations will be fighting to attract as many tourists as possible, and the battle will take place mostly online. By “destinations” we are referring to all those cities or areas that compete with each other for the attention of travellers. In order to achieve this goal, they  will have to define a joint strategy with other players -such as restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, residents or public bodies.

We predicted almost a year ago that superdigitalization would sweep all industries. The tourism sector is no exception, especially not in 2021,  when different players will have to join the wave of digital transformation if they don’t want to be left behind. 

“If a destination is unable to develop an  innovative management  model, it will probably encounter certain difficulties in the future. In fact, some destinations have already realised that traditional marketing techniques are no longer valid. Everything has changed. Agents, channels, consumers, etc. Destinations are now forced to adapt to the current situation and go digital in order to remain competitive,” says David Giner, Project Coordinator at the Valencian Institute of Tourism Technologies (Invat·tur). For this reason, destinations must be ready to fight for the attention of the maximum possible volume of tourists.

In this context, last year Invat·tur asked us to develop a study on  “New marketing management models in tourism destinations.” The aim of the research was to shed light on the transformations that destinations have undergone with regards to the management processes of their marketing strategies, especially concerning superdigitalization. The study aimed at defining future challenges, both in strategic and operational terms, as well as at analysing industry best practices and establishing a roadmap for destinations to evolve towards intelligent tourism marketing management. 

A 100% digital tourist

Over the past few years, the journey of the digital tourist has been in constant evolution. This is not only due to the emergence of new channels, but mostly due to the development of new technological devices that have become indispensable in our day to day, such as smartphones, tablets and wearables. 

These devices significantly modify the last stage of the traveller’s journey (enjoyment stage), which takes place once they arrive at their destination. At this stage, tourists are looking forward to implementing the plans they designed before their trip: from visiting the spots on their bucket list to signing up for that special activity.

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Source: Good Rebels & Invat·tur, from Google’s ‘5 stages of travel’ study.

However, even if they have a very detailed travel plan, tourists are making more and more unplanned decisions, such as picking a restaurant. Those kinds of decisions are usually made on the spot, based on what tourists fancy the most at a given moment or on the recommendations of other travellers, and are always highly influenced by the information users look for online or by the impacts they receive through digital channels. 

These decisions, which at first glance seem spontaneous and somewhat random, are becoming less and less so. Using their smartphones, travellers search for the option that best suits their needs before making any decision. This change is creating a new travel experience that is increasingly personalised, flexible and adaptable at all times, thus reducing the frictions and barriers that could limit or hinder the trip.

Destinations are usually pretty sure of how to manage the stages of the customer journey that take place before and after the trip, but the key lies in the stages that take place during the trip: that is, indeed, the perfect moment to win travellers’ loyalty. Digitalising that stage is absolutely crucial, and that ‘s why we need interconnected devices and monitoring tools in order to track the steps of visitors during their stay. Paper leaflets and maps are obsolete, they cannot be the only touchpoint between a traveller and a destination.” – David Giner, Project Coordinator at the Valencian Institute of Tourism Technologies (Invat·tur)

But the enjoyment stage is not the only one experiencing transformation. The last stage of the traveller’s journey, which focuses on sharing experiences, has also changed due to the democratisation of internet access through WiFi and 4G and 5G networks. Tourists no longer wait until they are back from their holidays to share their experiences, they share them in real time by posting images, videos or reviews on social media throughout the whole travel cycle. 

With this new journey in mind, in which new technologies are particularly relevant, tourist destinations are forced to update their roadmaps in order to optimise destination marketing and adapt to this new, more complex scenario. In this way, they will ensure that travellers have a satisfactory experience, while also improving their reputation by turning tourists into their greatest spokespersons and ambassadors. 

To this end, Good Rebels and Invat-tur have developed a new tourism destination management model based on three main elements: the skills of tourism technicians, the technology and coordination with relevant stakeholders in order to improve tourists’ satisfaction, and the destination’s reputation. 

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Source: Good Rebels & Invat·tur

Technicians’ skills

This new scenario implies a brand new destination management model based on generating a digital culture and building digital skills among technicians in destination management institutions. As Giner puts it, “tourism destinations’ managers need to stop fearing digital transformation. This is why it’s crucial to train and guide professionals, as well as to bring new talent on board.

A digital culture is characterised by structured knowledge-sharing, transparency, asynchronous operational collaboration and a shared purpose. That is, indeed, the aim of digital capacity building: developing and fostering a digital culture among co-workers that boosts and eases the digital transformation of their organisation.

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Source: Compilation based on data by the World Tourism Organisation 

In an increasingly volatile and changing market, industry professionals need to constantly update their skills to be able to cope with digital transformation and design the most appropriate strategies. This involves gaining expertise in areas such as digital marketing, digital business and productivity, and new skills.

Adoption of new technologies

Tourist destinations and their teams must have a broad knowledge of technologies that can improve the traveller’s experience. Therefore, they must apply the technologies, tools, methodologies and techniques that best adapt to the needs of tourists depending on their stage of the journey:

  • The use of QR Codes has increased as a consequence of the pandemic, according to a survey carried out by Statista in September 2020.
  • Wearables are also becoming more prevalent in the everyday lives of tourists. The use of these products is expected to grow by around 17.65% by 2026. 
  • This growth will also have an impact on the increased use of voice technology. Nearly seven out of ten US citizens say they have used voice search while making travel arrangements and, according to Apple, there are already more than 500 million customers worldwide using their voice assistant Siri.
  • Another relevant aspect on which destinations should focus is the analysis of data captured by public Wi-Fi, sensors, websites or social media, among others. These data would allow them to make specific and high-impact decisions, both within the organisation and for tourists. There are two types of data that can be analysed: 
    • Big Data: in destinations with high volume of data which is often not connected, and needs to go through a long standardisation process carried out by an expert data scientist. 
    • Small Data: which focuses on the acquisition and analysis of specific data that requires less operational effort, as it does not involve specific processing systems nor expert data scientists. An example of small data is the analysis of social media metrics, such as the impacts achieved, website analytics or the treatment of user information.

In this regard, Giner emphasises on the importance of  knowing the most relevant touchpoints with tourists, as well as of measuring impact and results.

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Management and coordination

But it is not only Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) that have to evolve, they must also encourage change among all the different stakeholders with whom tourists interact throughout their journey. This forces DMOs to become Integrated Destination Management Organisations in order to foster cooperation and define an appropriate management structure with all stakeholders, including public authorities, private entities and residents. 

These bodies will also have to align the needs of all parties, establish objectives and define the most appropriate strategies to achieve them. In this way, the different actors will work in a collaborative manner to present themselves to tourists as a coordinated and organised entity working in the same direction to guarantee their satisfaction and thus improve the destination’s reputation.

There are different coordination structures. These range from models where a single public body leads, defines and coordinates the strategy, to models that seek to establish a relationship between public and private agents, creating a new body in which both parties lead and agree on a strategy. Each tourist destination will have to evaluate which system is the best fit according to the characteristics of its environment.

At what point your destination is and how to move forward

In our study on New marketing management models in tourist destinations, we analysed each of the destinations in the Valencia Region, in order to identify how each of them was performing based on the self-diagnosis of three variables: the coordination of the destination, the degree of innovation of the technologies implemented and the digital culture of the organisation. 

Our findings allowed us to establish two different roadmaps for tourism destinations to implement, in order to develop their own destination marketing management model and prepare for the next industry battle. 

  • Minimum viable destination roadmap, which covers the basic and crucial aspects that destinations in a competitive scenario and with an underdeveloped marketing management model should implement in order to evolve and grow.
  • Advanced destination roadmap, which includes the aspects that should be developed once all the goals in the minimum viable destination roadmap have been achieved, in order to continue walking towards the digital transformation of destination marketing. Destinations whose level of development is medium-high should continue to evolve using this approach as reference. 

There is no doubt: superdigitalisation has completely transformed the traveller’s journey, and only destinations who adapt to this new environment will be able to overcome the challenge facing the tourism sector and attract a high number of visitors. 

We are now entering the take-off runway of digital transformation. Have a safe flight!