How Innovative Is the Tourism Industry?


Does tourism suffer from the innovators dilemma?

A couple of years ago, we were commissioned to build an evidence-based marketing plan for a tour operator.

At the time, they were highly successful but an external review had identified that they lacked process and a way to drive the next wave of growth.  This was where we came in.

When we sat down for our inception meeting, I commented how excited I was to be working with a business at this stage of the business cycle. This is exactly the time a business should scan the horizon looking for the next wave of growth.  But it’s actually hard to change when you’re successful – it’s all going well, all you need to do is keeping raking in the profits.  The problem is that when the environment changes and you NEED to change, then often you have a lot less resources and a less room to move.  This problem is so well understood in management circles it even has a name: ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ based on the book by Clayton M. Christenson.

So when a tourism manager recently said to me that his non-tourism stakeholders perceived that tourism is slow to innovate it got me thinking. Do we as an industry suffer from Innovator’s Dilemma? And if we do, what should we do about it?

Is Tourism an innovative sector?

My initial reaction was yes. Of course we are an innovative industry.  If you consider the airline industry to be part of tourism then we were among the first industries in the world to practice a form of dynamic pricing and, as a result, yield and revenue management; among the first to practice relationship management (in the form of loyalty programmes) and our products have evolved alongside the consumer in many areas.  Products like G Adventures and Intrepid Travel updated the model of the group tour for a new generation. Google considers the travel category to be at the forefront of driving the digital revolution. AirBnb and Uber are after all in the tourism and transportation sector.

But then I began to think… Actually you could argue

  • It’s the passion consumers have for the travel category that is driving digital uptake along with natural characteristics of our product – rich and meaningful experiences. A lot of people in the travel industry are still highly wary about the digital world.
  • AirBnb and Uber are actually classic disruptors i.e. they came from OUTSIDE the industry and disrupted it because they spotted an opportunity no one on the inside had. So they actually prove the opposite – we ARE subject to the Innovator’s dilemma.

As usual the truth is not so clear cut – we are an industry with some great innovators, but we have a wide swath of the industry that is currently unconvinced of the need to innovate.

So how do we change that and make the tourism industry more innovative?

It starts with understanding what we mean by innovation

Dr. Sarah Gardiner of Griffith University touched on this in the fantastic webinar she did for us as part of our Innovation Month (available to MTR members as a recording here).

Innovation can sound like it is A Big Thing.  As tourism is a sector dominated by small to medium businesses and often ones that do it for love rather than global domination, big things can seem scary.

But as I learnt when researching innovation it can be large or small.  The question we used to ask is ‘are we talking about innovation like the Internet or innovation like adding wheels to suitcases’? Dr. Gardiner’s advice is to start small and learn the habit of innovation.

Think about all the places you could innovate

Dr. Gardiner suggested considering this along two dimensions – the markets you serve and the products or experiences you offer.

Innovation Framework

  • Do you need to reach a new market? The growth of the Chinese FIT market is a classic example of this. It’s a large and dynamic market but will your product work? Do you need to adapt it?
  • Even an established market can change: as older traditional style Grey Nomads start to (literally) die off, how are you going to attract the first Lonely Planet generation?

But alongside these outward facing elements, innovation can also be about you. Sometimes even the smallest tweaks in business process can have a major improvement on costs or productivity.  We all know the story of the airline who saved $40m by reducing the amount of salad on its food trays simply by doing an audit of the rubbish it took off planes (just don’t touch the chocolate!)

The famous Bondi beach in Sydney Australia.

The famous Bondi beach in Sydney Australia.

Use evidence and put everything in context

The Henry Ford quotation about asking the public what they want and getting a faster horse is often used to suggest that market research isn’t helpful in innovation. Actually there is no evidence Henry Ford ever did say it.  And General Motors actually almost sent him bankrupt when it used research to drive innovation that better met customer needs.  The challenge is to ask what type of insight best drives innovation. Not all of it needs to cost a lot.

The best way to do this is to try to see the world through your customer’s eyes.  Doctor Gardiner cited the example of an Australian surf school who

wanted to attract that new Chinese market.  Most Australians live on the coast and grow up with the sea, so frolicking in large waves and body surfing comes naturally.  It is safe to say that this is not true for most Chinese visitors.  Furthermore, surfing wasn’t an aspiration for many of them on holiday – for most what they wanted was to live like a local: mucking about in the sea and body surfing. So by focusing on training Chinese tourists to enjoy this they got a far greater result for their business.

A further insight was around attitudes to exposing their bodies to the sun. By adding long sleeved rashies (sun blocking tops) they dealt with a major barrier.  A great example of that small scale innovation we talked about.

Channel your inner Arthur C Clarke or Philip K Dick

Source: Bigstockphoto

Source: Bigstockphoto

Many years ago the British Government did a review of what predicted success in innovation.  It found that consistently the best predictor of innovation is actually science fiction.  Almost every weird thing that appears in a Philip K. Dick story actually exists in our world today.  What we dream about or greatly fear activates deep emotions in our brain – and helps us find ways to achieve or avoid them.

So look at those big fears and hopes and ask yourself what could I do about that?

This applies to your broader business as well. In our Tourism Marketing Plan Blueprint we identified more than 40 trends that would fit in the situational analysis for any destination or tourism business.  Then a critical need from the coaching calls that come with the plan was to help people pick their way through the 40. It’s a spoiler but this is one of the most important pieces of advice we give people.

Go to the extreme

The people who are happy with your product are not usually the ones who can help you solve a problem.

The cliché is true: it’s grit that creates pearls.  There are three sources of grit that can help you make profitable pearls. In all three the common denominator is to look to the pain points.

  • The customers who complain or reject you. What are the reasons they are doing so? Do you see any common patterns? What would it cost to solve that problem? What would you gain if you solved it?
  • The customers who are generally happy but are honest enough to tell you what you could do better. Again, look to the patterns and see if you can solve them.
  • Businesswoman checking in a hotelYour staff and your suppliers, particularly those who query or challenge things a lot. Front line staff are statistically proven to have the best understanding of customer needs. Getting them to provide input not only gives you a fresh perspective, it will mean they join in.

You should also think about creating a little grit yourself by asking someone who’s really on the cutting edge or has specialist expertise to help you.

Test, set, repeat

It’s important to test your idea either conceptually or via a prototype.  A great idea is to run a ‘pre mortem’ get a mix of people together (internal if you have them, friends and partners if not) and imagine the problem has gone wrong.    Test to find the points where it isn’t working.

Keep watching and learning. If your innovations are in the digital space you can make small modifications quite quickly and see if they work.

Be a meerkat, not an ostrich

The most effective way to innovate in the long term is to use all these steps to fuse innovation into your business.

Meerkats are the ideal example here… They are always working together to scan the horizon and work in teams to do so.  In the harsh environment of the desert or savannah that has given them a distinct survival advantage.

And the final piece of advice is perhaps the one we should have given first.  Be prepared to change. Because without that willingness it won’t ever work.

By Carolyn Childs
Carolyn has spent more than 25 years’ helping businesses achieve their goals by using research and other evidence to guide strategy and planning – mainly in the aviation, travel and tourism fields.She has worked in more than 35 countries on every inhabited continent and brings a detailed understanding of customers and how to connect with them. As well as running her own businesses, she has worked for organisations such as the International Air Transport Association, TNS (the world’s largest custom research company) and the Travel Research Centre.

About Author

Founded by two travel and technology professionals with years of experience in Asia, Representasia specialises in sales & marketing representation throughout Southeast Asia for travel/hospitality technology providers and travel-related startups, as well as providing marketing consultancy services for hotels and travel businesses in the region.

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