We don’t know how long this crisis will last, or what the extent of the damage will be to the industry and the wider economy.
And while basic survival is the current priority, we should also recognize this moment as an unprecedented opportunity to take stock and think about how much of the status quo we want to recreate.
Resetting our approach to tourism marketing would surely be high up on the agenda.
Recent years have seen big debates on the dominance of ad platforms, sustainability and overtourism. All of which, until March of this year, seemed intractable, fundamental aspects to the reality of modern tourism.
These problems suddenly feel very distant but they will undoubtedly return in one form or another. In a recent interview, destination expert Doug Lansky pointed out that you can only put the rope lines out before people start queueing.
This feels like a good time to take stock and consider the rope lines we could put out now to steer the eventual recovery towards a more sustainable, diverse and locally rooted industry.
Loosening Google's grip
A good starting point would be curtailing the overarching dominance of Google at the top of the travel marketing funnel.
If we were recreating things from scratch, would we willingly hand back unfettered control to a monopoly that is designed to drive up costs, exclude smaller advertisers and control as much of the value chain as it can?
Or would we think about building some healthy diversity and competition into our marketing channels?
One practical way of loosening Google’s grip and creating some breathing room for smaller businesses would be to have fewer entities buying the traffic and distributing it at (or near) cost to individual operators.
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Forward-thinking destination marketing organizations would be ideally placed for this function on behalf of their local operators, assuming they had the funding, expertise and legal footing to do so.
But it shouldn’t just fall to DMOs; trade associations could operate consumer-facing marketplaces to aggregate and reduce their members’ pay-per-click costs, as could individual businesses — some already do, including our platform, Horizon Guides.
At the very least, this sort of coordination would level the playing field for smaller, local operators, and help redirect more value back to the grassroots of the industry.
But it goes deeper than that.
One of the big consequences of cementing Google at the top of the funnel is that it creates a structural bias for a very specific type of marketing.
Search is a classic “demand capture” channel. It is great at giving people what they already know about and are searching for, but it’s useless at “demand generation,” i.e., informing and educating people about the things they don’t already know.
This creates a self-reinforcing cycle that inflates supply, demand and acquisition costs for already popular places, at the expense of anywhere else. This is one of the root causes of “overtourism.”
Mainstream travel marketing is tooled to give the mass market what it wants, which tends to be in conflict with what’s best for well-managed tourism, local communities, the environment, and cultural heritage.
Even the reaction to overtourism creates perverse market distortions.
There are significant search volumes for phrases like “off the beaten path” and “alternative” destinations, and the travel media is packed with cliched language on “hidden gems” and supposedly “undiscovered” paradises.
We all know this is a marketing myth and that anything advertised in this way is, by definition, none of those things.
Search is a classic “demand capture” channel. It is great at giving people what they already know about and are searching for, but it’s useless at “demand generation."
Matthew Barker - Horizon Guides
As a result, much of tourism marketing has taken on a parasitical nature: exhausting the appeal of the new and unusual before moving on to the next place.
If we were starting from scratch we’d probably think about finding the right balance between demand capture and demand generation as a way to manage numbers and avoid over-saturation.
In practical terms, DMOs and future-thinking tour marketplaces could intercept existing demand and divert it elsewhere, for instance using Google to reach people searching for trips to Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and Angor Wat and channelling their attention to Kuelap, Jaisalmer and Koh Ker instead.
The consumer travel media has a bigger role to play in this, too. With their ad revenue siphoned off by the major ad platforms, travel media has been left underfunded and as little more than an arm’s-length branch of travel marketing.
It doesn’t need to be this way; there are viable economic models for quality travel publishing, but we need to get off the hamster wheel of content churn and go back to “content” as a premium product created by professionals and experts.
Digital travel content could serve a purpose beyond hoovering up cheap SEO clicks; it can and should be a driver for consumer education and generating demand for a more sustainable industry.
By putting out some rope lines now we could make post-COVID-19 tourism marketing a force for sustainability in the industry, placing a renewed emphasis on small, slow and local tourism that is reconnected with its grassroots and host communities.
But it will require very different economics and approaches, along with the sort of leadership and coordination that has, so far, been absent.