9 Dec 2009

Background to the iVisitor Guide project

In March 2008 Visit Chester & Cheshire [VCC] commissioned a project to develop an online cluster amongst a varied selection of Tourism Providers within Tatton, Cheshire. VCC’s Invitation to Tender outlined that...
“Cluster development is a key element of VCC’s strategy and will support efforts to simplify how visitors plan and book their trip. Online cluster development will also enable visitors to find the information they need to make the most of their stay. We envisage clusters will enhance public/private sector partnerships, which will add a significant contribution to the region’s visitor economy.”
The stated key factors of the project included:

• Consumer demand for tailored visitor information
• Access to up to date, accurate, quality DMS data
• Be sustainable business models
• Enhance the consumers online experience
• Allow individual tourism providers to be part of a more impressive marketing image
• Enable cluster members to enjoy higher levels of business
• Share market intelligence
• Capture consumer data
• Online booking integration

From these requirements The Tourism Consultancy proposed iVisitor Guide, a new approach to cluster development. The iVisitor Guide programme proposed the creation of an online cluster that was realistic and particularly relevant because all of the key components necessary to enable successful completion of the project were now present; these being:

• Increasing use of the Internet for travel and tourism choices
• Consumer demand for more meaningful and tailored online information
• Tourism Provider requirement for relevant tourism content
• VCC’s desire to distribute their content to the widest possible audience
• A technology set that will enable the above

iVisitor Guide created a unique new service that takes tourist board content to a new level of functionality, creates countless new online distribution and revenue generation opportunities and simplifies how visitors find the information they need to make the most of their stay and book their trip.

The service has been designed to be delivered in partnership with each of the northwest’s five regional tourist boards. Its successful implementation will enable closer working relationships with all types of Tourism Providers, the natural development of clusters and much improved visitor information direct to the consumer.

Current research indicates that “78 percent of people in the UK search for information about their holiday online while 63 percent book part of their main holiday online.” Today, there can be no doubt that the place where people go to discover, research, choose and book their travel requirements is the Internet. Furthermore there is strong evidence that consumers prefer to book directly with the provider rather than go through a third party. This begins to clearly illustrate the level of importance that must now be attached to the quality of those websites that are owned, managed and maintained by the region’s Tourism Providers [TPs].

TP websites have never been so critical to the needs of the consumer, or to the welfare of the TPs own livelihood. Yet most TP websites fail to function in a way that is meaningful to consumers. Information is not consistent in quality of content or presentation and consumers are not given the right opportunities or incentives to make bookings and reservations. Quite often the content contained within a TP website is only concerned with the establishment itself - with little or no useful contextual information, online booking facilities or even links to other businesses in the same locality. Understandably TPs typically are neither technology nor online marketing experts and very few within the SME sector have been able to afford the necessary investment to enable them to compete with the large national chains. So TP websites have historically been developed in isolation; not only of the Regional Tourist Board [RTB] but also the tourism businesses around them. Tourism businesses that are trying to attract the very same visitors!

‘Despite its success getting travelers to use Web sites … the travel industry consistently disappoints them. For example, 83 million online leisure travelers don't find the Web easy to use to plan and buy their trips…’

Clusters are widely viewed as a tangible way forward that would help resolve these issues yet in order to completely succeed there also needs to be the widespread adoption of a common technology set. When business operates within defined clusters, they begin to share more information, develop consistent approaches to online marketing and provide a vastly improved consumer experience. Successful development of online clusters led by VCC will:

• Improve the quality of online marketing messages throughout the region
• Enhance the consumers online experience
• Introduce more cost effective options for online marketing spend
• Strengthen the relationship between VCC and TPs
• Increase visitor numbers through greater online visibility and subsequent bookings

An important opportunity now exists to create online clusters that will bring enormous benefit to providers, the tourist board and the consumers we wish to attract to this region.

Why Cluster?
With the continuing globalization of market forces, clustering is a way to overcome increasingly powerful competition. Clustering in its simplest form may be informal networking however a formal structure often helps ensure the combined efforts of the group are harnessed more effectively to achieve common goals.

Clustering is not confined to companies with complementary skills or product ranges. Competing companies can [and should] also work together. There is always common ground beyond traditional rivalries where it makes economic sense to co-operate. Identifying and defining that common ground is a crucial first stage in achieving success.

Above all else, clustering enables companies to perform better. This is because collaborative arrangements provide frameworks to achieve:

1. Greater presence in the marketplace - Collaborating as a cluster allows individual companies to be part of a more impressive marketing image.

2. Sharing appropriate business development and running costs - Most especially marketing costs – an obvious example would be sharing the costs associated with developing and maintaining websites that promote the cluster and individual businesses.

3. Cost-effective sharing and pooling of resources - The ability to market as a group enables cluster members to enjoy higher levels of business and demand better levels of service from suppliers

4. Sharing market intelligence and ideas - Cluster members should share market intelligence, ideas, know-who and know-how. When they do it becomes commonplace for the exchange of market leads and other intelligence.

5. Guidance from more experienced companies - Receiving mentoring assistance from more experienced member companies is another facet of clustering that can improve company profitability.

6. Lower vulnerability during the formative years - Clustering is an excellent incubator for new businesses. Research shows very few new companies fail when incorporated into a cluster.

Clusters, like all networks, operate most successfully when its members are linked physically by their geographical location as well as by shared use of technology, resource and support structures.

Cluster Development
The online experience for the consumer will always be much more satisfying if they are able to perform tasks such as book a hotel room, reserve a restaurant table, buy theatre tickets and arrange a taxi all through the same site or cluster of linked sites. With the level of connected technology that we can make available this kind of functionality is now a very real possibility for even small businesses when historically this level of service was only in the domain of the large online travel sites and companies.

Deployment of technology in a way that links TPs with the content and data available within VCC’s Destination Management System will place the tourist board at the very heart of content provision throughout the region - as illustrated in Figure 1 below.

This type of infrastructure will enable key benefits to be realised such as:

1. Consistent & timely marketing messages – at the touch of a keystroke up-to-date information on what is happening in the region/destination, how to book, how to get there etc will be dispersed by VCC staff across the network of linked websites.

2. Revenue generation – the ability to publish data and content over a wide network of related sites with high visitor numbers will inevitably attract the attention of sponsors and advertisers.

3. Lower online marketing spend - TPs who choose to work with the same technology set and suppliers will benefit from economies of scale.

4. Improved search rankings for all – clusters will have in built reciprocal links to all businesses within the cluster. Google explains that ‘PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value’. Each site within the cluster will have its links interpreted as a measure of popularity with resultant improvement in search ranking.

5. High quality design standards – a range of template styles all designed around best practice principles that can still be customised to reflect the needs of different types of provider.

6. Usability and accessibility – when applying designs derived from the templates described above full compliance with accessibility guidelines and usability standards will apply.

7. Common CMS standards – of comfort to many users will be the knowledge that the tools we provide to enable a business to maintain their website will be identical to all others within the network.

8. Centralised support & training – linked to the previous point, large numbers of users can be taught and trained at the same time enabling mutual support structures to emerge and economies of scale.

9. Strengthened relationship between VCC and TPs – within this structure business owners can fully concentrate on what they do best – providing exceptional hospitality and services – safe in the knowledge that a dedicated, professional team at VCC is maximising all online marketing opportunities on their behalf.

It is important to state that this technology exists today and that this initiative is available for the benefit of businesses now.