The US government recently released its first progress report since launching its ambitious plan to brand America and grow visitor numbers to the country.
Overall the results are positive and intent to visit is up. This is the first time that the US has had a national marketing strategy and marks an interesting and exciting opportunity. But is something missing from the strategy?
The strategy outlined by Brand USA includes promoting the US, enabling travel into and within the US, providing world class customer service, coordinating across government, and conducting research.
The one key piece I see lacking in the strategy is a national product distribution strategy designed to promote small businesses who offer the bulk of the unique and interesting experiential offerings. A distribution strategy, however, is not an easy endeavour and takes a significant amount of work to develop and implement.
Getting it right?
One country that has shown leadership in the development of a national distribution strategy is Australia.
The Australian Tourism Data Warehouse (ATDW) and its distribution network, known as the Tourism Exchange Australia (TXA) Alliance, has been providing education, technology, and distribution for the Australian market since 2001.
The driving force behind TXA, a joint government and commercial partnership created in 2007, was a recognized need by Government to assist in providing online booking capabilities, in particular to the SME sector.
A secondary driver was to provide ATDW online distributors with additional revenue opportunities.
The strategy that led to the creation of the ATDW and TXA preceded the creation of either.
Wendy Smith, the TXA Project Manager explains:
"The State and Territory tourism organisations saw the benefits of a shared resource model, shared hosting and distribution on the national platform.
"Initially, its primary purpose was to collate and distribute tourism information to consumers, but this has grown to offer additional services and adding a booking component to this commercial offering was a logical step in response to consumer demand."
But should Governments be responsible for developing technology standards? As Wendy explains, the TXA is actually a partnership between Government and industry.
The XML standards used for distribution purposes was developed by the TXA's technology partner V3 (pronounced VCubed).
In absence of a recognized standard, this seems a reasonable solution, however, the OpenTravel Alliance has a number of schemas that support a variety of travel and tourism sectors. Using an open standard that is already supported by industry could make adoption by industry easier.
There are of course several challenges with developing a national strategy, besides just the technological ones.
Where to go from here?
Unlike Australia, the US has never had a national tourism organization to bring cohesion to the relative granularity that exists in the current US tourism landscape. State and city based DMO/CVBs all compete for eyeballs online, in print, and other media sources.
The concept of having a singular voice, let alone a singular strategy, as exciting as that seems, is a complete unknown. Before any strategy will work, there will need to be some agreement on standards of delivery and concensus amongst stakeholders.
In the case of Australia, this meant state and territories coordinating education of local businesses based on the content developed for the Tourism ekit, which contains over 50 tutorials designed to help operators make the most of online opportunities.
With all this coordination and education, however, the ATDW and TXA's biggest barrier has been communicating the concept of coordinated national strategy.
Knowing this, Brand USA and other tourism boards considering a distribution strategy could learn from the Australian experience and use the extensive network of local and state DMOs & CVBs to spread the message and help build support for the strategy.
Strategies are, by nature, long term. A long term approach to marketing and operations that does not include a distribution strategy and supplier engagement could be considered a half measure.
If Brand USA, or another national tourism organization, is looking to develop a full circle strategy to increase visits and tourist spend, then surely including a national distribution strategy would:
- help enable small business to offer local tourism products
- use that product data to increase the variety and diversity of experiential offerings at the local, state and national level, increase revenue opportunities for upstream distribution
- improve customer experiences by fostering nationally recognized standards of delivery
The path that Australia has forged should not be ignored.
I hope that national tourism organizations like the newly formed Brand USA follow the lead of Australia and develop strategies that target all steps in the travel buying cycle; marketing to target the dream phase, tools and content to help with planning, distribution and supplier booking enablement to drive purchase, and measurement & research tools to make incremental improvements.
In an industry as global as tourism, it makes sense to learn from those who have innovated regardless of location.
Although there may be regional and cultural differences, the core strategy developed and used to implement the ATDW and TXA should work anywhere in the world.