espite heavy snow more than 300 enthusiastic participants gathered from different regions in Switzerland, France and Germany in Sierre, Switzerland on Friday 7 December 2012 at the HES-SO Applied Sciences University for the annual Tourism Professional Meeting (TpM) organized by the School of Management and Tourism (Haute Ecole de Gestion et Tourisme). eTourism was the lively topic that was on the agenda this year and everyone was anxious to learn from the guest eCommerce experts, to exchange their own knowledge as well as debate this rapidly evolving multi-channel area of communication and distribution.
TpM is a multi-lingual conference given in a multi-lingual university which is located in a multi-lingual country with 4 national languages (French, German, Italian and Romansch). Each keynote speaker during the general session was introduced in French and in German and this year each gave their presentation in either German or English with slides in another language. Simultaneously, there was a Twitter stream projected on another wall with Tweets coming in for the conference in many different languages. The effect of this multi-linguistic ambience highlighted even more the complexities involved in global digital communication today.
Manu Broccard, the Director of the School of Management and Tourism (Haute Ecole de Gestion et Tourisme) opened the conference and Professor Roland Schegg set the tone by commenting on the decline of traditional booking channels in tourism and the many new players entering into the field of tourism which has changed the area of distribution and communication forever.
Keynote guest speaker, Prof. Dr. Christian Laesser, Professor of Tourism and Services Management at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland provided an excellent framework for the rest of the conference by emphasizing the importance of various tourism customer booking behaviors that must be considered when planning for offline (“mood-making” long term print channels) and online (short term communication and distribution channels). Prof. Dr. Laesser pointed out that tourism organizations should not just think in terms of channels but also in the process that customers go through when making a booking. Marketers should identify at which stage in the process the customer is in and should respond appropriately through the plethora of channels available. It was pointed out by Prof. Dr. Laesser that DMOs (Destination Management Organizations) were losing business by only providing information when a customer may be in fact, ready to make a reservation but there may be no booking engine available on that website.
Swiss Rail which is known within Switzerland by different terms such as SBB in German and CFF in French has been very active in internet distribution and digital communication for many years and has also been a first mover in providing not only user-friendly online schedules and ticketing, but offering attractive rail plans as well as easy to book packages combining special events within Switzerland for attractive rates. Swiss Rail is also an excellent website for obtaining thorough information on travel outside of the country – oftentimes more complete than the other train companies of the country searched. The Director of the Swiss Rail Portal, Oliver Tamas shared some of the new online strategies and activities that the famous Swiss Rail company is working on today.
The hardware and software focus was summed up with “Mobile First, Social First”. Swiss Rail has a platform with well integrated content marketing on all of the social media, computer websites and smart phone apps which are now becoming the rail ticket itself with QR codes. Furthermore, they have a clear structured plan on implementing their online strategies including monitoring conversion rates and extensive analytics of their activities.
The third keynote speaker for the morning was Dr. Janos Hee, Manager of eCommerce at Swiss International Airlines. Dr. Hee pointed out that the nature of the airline industry as well as the international aspects of selling the product creates different challenges and requires different types of online strategies than companies that serve perhaps one market or that offer a diverse and complicated product. Dr. Hee’s topic was success factors that have been identified at Swiss International Airlines and he shared some of their most interesting failures along the way which helped them learn what works best for them. As Dr. Hee pointed out, there are no rules today for eCommerce and every targeted customer has different buying behaviors and needs which is compounded with an airline with vast international reach and various agreements with other airlines.
A strong believer in cross-functional teams, Dr. Hee said that the different departments and competencies at Swiss can be better integrated in this way to deal with today’s rapidly changing customers as well as the new online business tools. Furthermore, since Swiss is a smaller company they can be more flexible and innovative as well as rapidly correct the actions that are not working which is a great advantage. Through multiple, well monitored online designs that he shared during the conference, they were able to determine the optimal most pleasing and functional website for their customers and for their booking conversions.
Dr. Hee pointed out that today focusing on emotion beats focusing on your budget. Marketing is more personal, more social and more local. He said that even a photo of an airline can be emotional as people like flying. One must get into the mind of the customer and not “sell” anymore. One action they took that played on being local as well as on emotion was to have their website translated into Schweizerdeutsch, Swiss German, which created a huge media event more than a functional attribute for the product. Schweizerdeutsch is rarely understood by most Germans. Even more complicated is the fact that there are many different versions of the dialect which resulted in a regional debate about using the Bern or Zurich version of Schweizerdeutsch which gave Swiss even more press.
All means of social media are used by Swiss but Dr. Hee said that this is not the main trigger for sales but rather a support for communication and information collection regarding the customers. Swiss has smart phone apps for many different models and Dr. Hee mentioned the effort and cost in maintaining all of these different technologies which also impacts the use of the smart phone for boarding passes. This is further complicated by legacy reservation technologies used by the airlines as well as being compatible with other carriers. He would like to see many of the technologies for mobile, tablets, PCs and any other devices become more streamlined and interconnected.
After a leisurely lunch and time to network, there were seven different eCommerce workshops to choose from in two different well organized sessions in 3 different languages lead by experts from different online companies that work with tourism clients or that have their own online commerce. Topics were numerous and discussions were lively with the rich background knowledge of the experts and the participants. There were workshops on eCommerce Strategies for Tourism Regions; Opportunities of Flash Sales in Tourism; Mobile Internet for Customer Services and Distribution; Online Sales in the Travel Agency and Tour Operator Sectors; Stimulating Sales through Customer Reviews and SEO; Increasing Sales with Social Media and Selling Tourism Activities and Vouchers Online.
With an intellectual barrage of new ideas and opinions on eCommerce and Social Media, the participants were ready with some difficult questions for the panelists. Some experts were strong advocates for the new technologies despite the overload of different channels and some panelists felt that marketing was in such chaos that it is better to focus on the product during this time of transition and disruption. No one could deny the exciting opportunities that exist for tourism with all of the choices of communication and distribution channels and technological tools that exist that can be matched to the customers’ lifestyle and booking behavior.
More intensive networking went on during the aperitif which was served with some much welcomed Swiss Raclette while the snow piled up outside in the Valais. Mark your calendar for next year and you may want to bring your skis.
ALL PHOTO CREDITS: Sonja Holverson except for Prof. Dr. Christian Laesser
Article by Sonja Holverson.
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