Embracing Digital Tourism and the Rise of Sharing Economies
Though it’s common practice now, the idea of having an Uber pick you up from a flight you booked on a mobile device to bring you to an apartment you rented on Airbnb might have seemed pretty far-fetched not so long ago. The travel industry has been completely revolutionized since going digital, and stands out as one of the clearest examples of just how connected we have become across the world. Plus, with over 148.3 million people making online accommodation, tour and activity reservations each year, it’s safe to say that the internet and tourism now go hand-in-hand.
Among the many different services and business models contributing to the rapid changes occurring in the realm of tourism, the idea of a sharing economy has probably been one of the most apparent features of modern travel. Simply put, “A sharing economy is an economic model in which individuals are able to borrow or rent assets owned by someone else. The sharing economy model is most likely to be used when the price of a particular asset is high and the asset is not fully utilized all the time.”
Airbnb best illustrates this definition; and aside from the platforms that allow us to purchase travel tickets online, the company’s virtual hospitality marketplace is probably one of the biggest influencers of contemporary business models related to the tourism industry. Airbnb took something that already existed and presented it in a new light, effectively redefining the world’s relationship with the hospitality sector. Not only this, the company is also a mere facilitator more so than it is a direct supplier, which speaks to how valuable building a community that produces data can be for a business.
Of course, hotels are categorically opposed to Airbnb, citing things like specific regulations and taxes that private apartment or housing renters are not subject to when they use the service. However, from a traveler’s perspective, as well as any city’s wider tourism industry, Airbnb has done a lot to level the playing field. Think about it – having the option to rent a room in someone’s home or an entire apartment isn’t as much about taking a chunk of the hotel industry’s market share (which in hindsight now feels like it might have been a monopoly) as it is about expanding the tourism market altogether. The service gives those who might not otherwise be able to afford to travel a better chance to do so, or gives those traveling on a tight budget the opportunity to spend less on accommodation and more on leisure activities like dining, city tours, or cultural events. Furthermore, traditional hospitality providers are now being forced to give customers better value and service, while operating with more transparency. In this sense, the end consumer, or the tourist, has the most to gain from a hyper-competitive market.
Airbnb may be the heavyweight in terms of the digitalization of tourism, but it is far from being the only player in the game. There are scores of other Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) building on the sharing economy model, giving tourist more options than ever before. Whereas the definition of sharing economy presented above focuses on assets, other companies are concentrating on promoting less tangible goods or service that are more about experience than anything else.
Two such SMEs are Withlocals and Showaround. Both of these companies connect travelers with locals in the name of unique experiences that transcend traditional tourism norms, giving tourists a sense of what it might be like to live in the city they are visiting. Although both business models are quite similar, Withlocals is unique in that users have the opportunity to come over to a local’s house and share a home-cooked meal with them. For its part, Showaround allows users to choose a local guide based on interests and feedback outlined in their profile, with many local guides offering their time and knowledge free of charge. Like Airbnb, both of these platforms make money as facilitators, with data and their ability to attract new users serving as their most valuable business assets.
But whether or not an SME working in the tourism sector is involved in the sharing economy, one thing that is becoming increasingly more important is feedback. Through social media, dedicated travel apps like TripAdvisor, or even within a platform or application related exclusively to tourism, customers are encouraged to give feedback about their experiences, which ultimately helps others decide. Consider this: 95% of leisure travelers read at least seven reviews before booking a holiday. Furthermore, over 50% of travelers refer to social media for travel tips before setting off on a new adventure. So whether you run a restaurant or bar in a part of a city often-frequented by tourists, or you are a leisure activity provider that deals primarily with visitors, having a strong online presence and positive feedback is imperative. In fact, a focused digital marketing strategy is essential if you want to reach the masses who are researching before deciding.
Increasingly, a business’ online presence represents the first point of contact with potential customers, so SMEs want to ensure a good first impression. Once that impression is made, there are other things worth considering in terms of making the most of the inherent value of the digitalization of tourism. Firstly, your website should be filled with quality content that is engaging and helps potential customers understand what kind of value you can bring them. If you can be used as a source of up-to-date and relevant information, then you are already building trust and turning leads into customers. Secondly, you should make use of social media. It seems so obvious but platforms like Facebook allow you to interact with customers in real time, either by answering question in comments or by promoting your service/product with content that’s accessible. Finally, make sure that your website and content is easily accessible via mobile devices. Mobile traffic is overtaking desktop traffic, and it is estimated that the average person checks their phone about 150 times per day! If people can’t navigate your website and get the info they need when they’re on the go (especially travelers), then they’ll switch to another site that works for them. Again, first impressions online carry a lot more weight than many are willing to admit.
Remember, consumers in general and Millennials in particular are spending less on material goods and more on experiences. In this sense, the travel industry is very well positioned, as long as the companies within it make the most of their opportunities to attract customers and prove that they have an experience worth discovering. The digitalization of tourism is just like the digitalization of any other industry; it gives consumers the power to decide and influence. Having a great service or product is critical, but it needs to be properly presented in order for it to become truly valuable.