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Leveraging technology for capacity building and sustainable tourism development

While everybody talks about e-commerce, mobile and social media marketing — basically how to increase sales via digital channels — there is another big opportunity that has been neglected so far: how to leverage emerging technologies, new and social media and online engagement for sustainable capacity building and responsible tourism development, especially in developing tourism regions. This is a big opportunity to drive poverty alleviation. While lots of tourism development master plans focus on the important aspects of tourism development and feasibility, technology and social media has not been integrated beyond looking at social media when it comes to crisis management, and even that is still fairly new for many organizations.

We have developed a model that essentially leverages the wisdom of the crowds. People nowadays can post thoughts, videos and images instantly from their phones in high quality, as mobile devices are affordable and Internet access readily available. It is also important to remember that social media conversations are not controlled, organized and “on brand message,” but are organic, complex and speak in a human voice. From wikis, social networks, photo-sharing, video-sharing, micro-blogging, bookmarking and more, there is an opportunity for organizations to engage the crowds and leverage these new distribution and communication channels for grass-roots sustainable capacity building.

The three stages in launching products and driving brand affinity are listening — to measure feedback and trends; engagement — to encourage people to get involved and interact; and influence — to leverage social media channels for storytelling. The four core components of the model referred to above are research, product development, financing and marketing, leading to profit. Having an ROI (return on investment) and ROE (return on engagement) mindset is important to achieve success. Some people would advocate adding human capital to the model, but we believe that this is part of product development. Without compassionate service, any product will not connect with the customer, especially in the tourism and hospitality industry.

Research

Leveraging the Internet as a virtual focus group becomes real-time insight that can shape a strategy and drive product development. Knowing how people feel about services, brands and trends is invaluable. Listening to the buzz online before jumping to develop strategies is mostly overlooked by organizations, especially when it comes to tourism development. I personally haven’t seen one tourism development master plan that incorporated online listening as part of the strategy. There are various free and paid tools available, and since consumer perceptions are constantly changing, being able to adapt strategies is more important than ever.

Product development

When it comes to product development, most traditional organizations and tourism development organizations rely on what they have been doing for years. Smart organizations engage with their customers. Starbucks, for example, developed a website — “my Starbucks idea” — where customers can get engaged in the product development process. Not only does the company know what people are looking for, but it also creates ambassadors. Developing an e-culture that drives context and puts the insight into action is critical in today’s fast-moving environment.

Financing

Large-scale financing traditionally happens via development organizations, investors and banks, but there is also a way to leverage the Internet to engage people, especially in the area of micro-financing. There are various organizations out there — Kiva.org, GiveMeaning.com, MicroPlace.com and, until recently, Wokai.org in China (the site just recently ceased operations after five years) — that connect investors all over the world to invest in small businesses in developing countries. From a bike rental in Cambodia to a homestay in Tanzania to a café in Tajikistan, these small businesses are part of the tourism experience. For an entrepreneur in a developing country to find the initial investment at home can be very challenging or close to impossible. But it does much more than just raise money for an entrepreneur — it connects people, builds friendships, engages the investor to be part of the process and will create sustainable ambassadors to spread the word naturally.

Marketing

The last piece is marketing. This is the area that most companies focus on when it comes to social media. Facebook and Google+ pages are being created, Twitter accounts set up, blogs developed and photos and videos uploaded to sites such as Flickr and YouTube. But the big opportunity is being relevant and engaging. Digital storytelling becomes very powerful when not only the traveler shares their experiences, but also when the locals in the community are telling their story as well as sharing their favorite restaurants, galleries or any other local hidden treasure..

Cultural relevance

But being culturally relevant also means adapting to the target markets and recognizing that Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Foursquare and their counterparts may not be the channels used everywhere. Some of the key source markets — Russia, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Germany and especially China — have different rules of engagement when it comes to social media. The UNWTO predicts that by 2020, there will be 100 million outbound travelers from China. Social media is an important marketing tool in China since an estimated 92% of the more than 500 million Internet users in the country engage in social media, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

But, the social media sites mentioned above are blocked, and most importantly, not relevant — home-grown sites are dominating the domestic market. A Chinese influencer told me recently that he has 1.5 million followers on Sina Weibo and 2 million followers on Tencent Weibo, the leading micro-blogging and social media platforms in China, but only around 100 fans on Facebook. It’s not that he cannot access Facebook via VPN, but it is not relevant in China.

China’s social media platforms and online behaviors vary in important ways from those that may be considered their international equivalents. This variation is not all due to censorship. In China, as elsewhere in Asia, local variations of Internet usage are driven by language, culture, levels of economic development and the underlying digital ecosystem. Digital ecosystems — the platforms around which populations focus online communications — can vary wildly between countries and sometimes even within a single country. Listening, engaging and influencing in China is mainly done on Weibo (meaning micro-blogging). The key Weibo sites are operated by Chinese Internet giants Sina, Tencent and Sohu, with Sina Weibo being the most influential and most engaged. While Weibo platforms are dubbed “Twitter equivalents,” they are much more than that. Sina Weibo has twice as many active micro-bloggers than Twitter on a single market user base and is second behind Facebook when it comes to active users of all social networks world-wide. This is a staggering example of how China will increasingly sit alongside the rest of the world. Sina Weibo’s functionality also is richer, incorporating features from Facebook and YouTube, but it is also important to recognize that 140 Chinese characters say a lot more than 140 Roman characters.

Execution

When it comes to leveraging technology, Internet, mobile and social media for capacity building and sustainable tourism development in developing tourism regions, it is important to reach out and share knowledge in the communities. We have held “E-Tourism Asia Boot Camps” in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Bhutan and Thailand in collaboration with PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) and MTCO (Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office). An 11-point plan was developed that has been delivered as part of these boot camps in the form of interactive workshops.

1. Goals: Establishing the terms of success, what you hope to get out of better utilizing social media

2. Storytelling: Content strategy

3. Content distribution: Twitter, Facebook, blogging, micro-blogging, online PR

4. Engagement: Creating brand ambassadors, going viral, increasing time on site and user interactions, making sure comments are responded to, questions are answered, concerns are addressed

5. Listening: Conversation monitoring, finding out what people think of you. What kind of information might come out of that, and how can you utilize it?

6. Product development: Using information that comes out of listening to redevelop your product offerings

7. Increased financing to the region: Leveraging the various online mediums to fundraise

8. Collaboration: How to work together by sharing knowledge via wikis

9. Staff training: Creating an infrastructure so everyone on your staff, and even further afield, has an understanding of social media and how to utilize the various tools

10. Measuring success: Increase Facebook followers, Twitter followers, time on site, YouTube views, site traffic, brand perception, user-generated content or posts, staff fluency in online media, new income flow to the region, number of multi-city tours booked online in the region

11. Crisis management and protection: Leveraging mobile and social media to set up systems and processes in the event of crisis and protecting communities from issues such as human trafficking, child prostitution and crime

In the end, the strongest predictor of the success of any business, including developing tourism destinations, is measured by one clear indictor: “Would somebody recommend this to a friend, a colleague or a stranger online?” An authentic and engaging tourism experience, a hospitable and service-oriented destination, products and services that alleviate poverty and develop the community, and fellow conscious travelers that respect the environment in a responsible way are the main ingredients for somebody to spread the word and a message to go viral. Emerging technologies and new media can play a strong enabling role in facilitating the development, management and communications of such a responsible tourism strategy execution.

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