Ask anyone who has worked with a variety of tour and activity operators and they will probably tell you that there are as many ways of doing business as there are operators.
But why is this and why should it be considered status quo?
- It's true that the majority of operators working in this sector are small businesses.
- It's true that many built their businesses around a love for what they do, rather than based on business fundamentals.
That's part of the beauty and charm of the tourism industry. Entrepreneurs can find something they love to do and build a business around it.
As charming as this is, however, it does make it particularly hard to ensure consistency and quality in the development and delivery of products and services.
Tourism boards around the globe are recognizing that there needs to be quality standards in place for tourism businesses and they are starting to develop best practices programs for their stakeholders.
Many of these programs, like the one developed by the Australian Tourism Data Warehouse are focused on providing guidelines for marketing, sales, customer service, and technology.
Consulting companies targeting small business have also popped up building on the quality standards and online booking best practices.
These consulting companies, like UntangleMyWeb for example, are helping small businesses restructure their processes around best practices.
"What I find in the small tour business industry is that very few have anything different than a diary. The Ekit has raised awareness about online booking systems for tours and provided a solution that doesn't only offer online bookings but also back-end bookings to replace the diary.
"I also believe that there are many more affordable accommodation booking systems than there are affordable tour booking systems.
"Thanks to the Ekit and the industry training that UntangleMyWeb provides I feel that operators are now aware of alternatives to the legacy systems. Such alternatives offer excellent value for money and a very simple DIY interface."
The challenge is that there are simply too many small businesses out there that require best practices but don't know it. The question then becomes, how do we as technologists and innovators help small businesses adopt best practices?
Understanding tourism best practices
It's not enough to build solutions for an industry without understanding the requirements of that industry. Just as applications like Quickbooks were developed to serve accounting needs and are built off of decades of accounting best practices, so too should reservation and distribution systems.
Defining best practices is not an easy thing to do and it cannot be done solely by industry, especially industry providers like reservation system developers.
Why? Because there are too many conflicting interests.
The best practices are best defined by organizations like the tourism boards who work for the whole industry or in the case of data and messaging standards, associations like the OpenTravel Alliance.
Before developing, or in some cases re-developing, a system for the tourism space, consider whether or not the system is supporting business best practices or perpetuating the status quo.
Built-in best practices
Once an understanding of tourism best practices is reached, the systems need to be built to enforce best practices. A good example of enforcing best practices is PCI compliance and support for payment systems.
Whether the business is selling tickets, t-shirts, or shoes, if they are selling and taking payment online, they are considered an ecommerce merchant and should be following PCI (Payment Card Industry) best practices.
The challenge of course is that many small businesses don't understand or abide by PCI as a natural course of business. Building PCI best practices into systems makes it easier for small businesses to follow best practices because they will do so by default.
The same could be said for product, distribution, accounting, and even customer management.
Best practices and innovation
I can imagine that many would see best practices as a limiting factor or a constraint, much the same as the argument that standards are a constraint. But I disagree.
I see best practices as an opportunity to level the playing field in terms of HOW rather than WHAT products and services are developed and delivered. The tools and processes that go into the development and delivery of the product or service are different from the product itself.
What innovators need to understand is that constraints are good, they feed creativity and foster out of the box thinking. It's hard to think out of the box, if the box is not defined.
Small tourism businesses make up the vast majority of businesses that deliver services to tourists in any destination. Across the board, 90% of businesses are small (US Stat), so extrapolating that to include the tourism sector is not a stretch.
What is concerning is that the turnover of these companies is very high, as high as 50% after five years.
Although there are numerous factors that could lead to the failure of a business, a lack of available best practices should not be one of them. As the recent level of technical innovation in the in-destination tour and activity segment has shown, there is a thriving opportunity within the sector.
The question is whether or not those of us who build systems for the sector will help lead these businesses with best practices or cater to the status quo.
NB:Web practices and via Shutterstock.