Meet the People Pty Ltd
This essay was written in about 1993-4 as a last minute entry in the annual Travel Industry Essay competition run by the American Express organisation. It is by no means a 'great moment in literature' but hopefully you may find it of some interest.
SUMMARYWhilst there exists substantial and growing interest in experiential travel in all its various guises, many operators in this emerging area of the tourism industry are fighting an uphill battle to achieve profitability.
Clearly myriad variables affect business viability, but in this instance a major factor is thought to be the very nature of the mainstream tourism industry within which such operators seek to function - or at least happily co-exist.
This paper highlights differences between this newer style of tourism and the mainstream industry in order to demonstrate that the former is not just a repackaged version of the latter. Ecotourism is a fundamentally different travel product encompassing an alternative philosophy and necessitating a whole new approach to doing business.
It is these differences and the resultant breakdown in communication between the two camps that has seen ecotourism operators stranded in a business wilderness, and is now leading to the establishment of an alternative tourism infrastructure.
The paper identifies some of the specific problems being faced by those operating in these newer areas of tourism.
More than being a thorn in the side of ecotourism operators, it is suggested that certain features of the mainstream travel industry are an anachronism which reflect fading patterns of consumer behaviour.
Thus bringing ecotourism operators back into the fold is best addressed in the context of a broad reorientation of the travel industry on the basis of current and projected future patterns of consumer demand. Whilst assisting those working in ecotourism, such broad-ranging action would at the same time produce long-term benefits to the travel industry as a whole as well as the travelling public.
A central element in this process of change will be the modification of the current sales and marketing system, focussing on a greatly expanded role for computer technology. This will enable the industry to be streamlined and greatly enhancing its degree of consumer orientation. A number of other remedial actions are also proposed to facilitate this process.
INTRODUCTIONBy now every man and his dog knows that an increasing number of people are seeking something different from their holidays from that which they or their parents previously sought. Aside from the sheer growth of the industry, this shift in consumer tastes towards more independent and experiential styles of travel is perhaps the most visible and topical trend in the travel industry today.
Readers have probably encountered some of the terms in use to describe these types of travel experiences, and which include:
In this paper I want to delve below the surface to explore the interaction between this emerging area of the market, within which I run a business, and the larger and more traditional part of the tourism industry.
cultural tourism adventure tourism experiential tourism educational tourism special-interest tourism ecotourism or simply "new tourism"
Before I bid farewell to a regular pay packet and launched my own company I did my homework and prepared a comprehensive business plan. I soon decided that the trend towards people seeking more active holidays (in both in the physical and intellectual sense) which involved more meaningful contact with local culture and the natural environment would be the focus of my new venture.
I talked to friends and strangers alike about their travel experiences and had a good long think about my own experiences and values. I looked carefully at my would-be competitors and sampled their wares.
I was naturally buoyed by the fact that the outlook for growth in the number of inbound visitors to my home town Sydney was very favourable, with likely annual increases of around 8-10%.
I also joined a number of industry bodies, including an association of small-group tour operators who were mostly active in the ecotour and adventure tour area. These folks all said that there was no money to be made and "keep your day job". I chuckled, sure I thought, they're just saying that because they don't want competition.
Now, some way down the track, I appreciate their candour and am seeing things in a sombre new light. What happened?
Anyone in a start-up business situation faces great hurdles, particularly when charting new territory. Generally however one constant is the supporting infrastructure within their chosen industry, which serves as a foundation on which to build a business.
For ecotourism operators in the tourism industry however, this does not appear to be the case and there is a widespread feeling of disenfranchisement. But is this an ecotourism problem or simply a manifestation of a broader malaise affecting an industry crying out for rationalisation?
While there may be certain aspects in this paper that are more applicable in the Australian situation than in other countries, from what I have seen and heard I believe the issues which I raise have fairly broad applicability.
It is true to say however that the issue has added poignancy in countries like Australia whose sustainable competitive advantage (in the tourism sense) lies very much in the area of small-group experiential tourism - particularly in the context of our unique and precious natural environment.
Before moving on I should say something about the terminology that I will be using, although from a business perspective the least of my worries is deciding what to call what it is that I do.
While both require some qualification, for the sake of convenience I settled on "ecotourism" and "mainstream tourism" to label what I see as the two key blocs within the tourism industry.
I almost chose "new tourism", the only problem being that it isn't really new at all - merely a return to a style of travel common until earlier this century. To give just one example, you might like to skim "Emile" written by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in around 1760. Some of the sentiments expressed there in relation to travel would not seem at all out of place today.
Perhaps further evidence of the view of the 90's as an era when "everything old is new again"? Perhaps it's just human nature reasserting itself after the aberration brought about by the advent of affordable mass tourism, who knows?
The application of the term "ecotourism" is the subject of some debate. While it is most commonly used to describe travel which focuses on an appreciation of the natural environment, others apply it to any style of tourism which adopts ecological principles, eg. sustainability. Still others use it as a cover-all term for all the new styles of tourism noted earlier, and it is in this sense that I will use it in this paper.
My one reservation about the term "mainstream" to describe the traditional component of the travel industry, is that it could be seen to relegate everyone else into some kind of "twilight zone". Such a view isn't appropriate now, and will become increasingly less so in the future. It may even be that the tables turn, and what is recognised as mainstream now ceases to warrant that title in the future.
THE CHANGING TRAVEL MARKETPLACE - AN INDUSTRY GOES ITS SEPARATE WAYS
As noted there has been a surge in interest in travel experiences involving an educational component, an element of risk or immersion in the cultural or natural environment. The backpackers who came to prominence in around the 1970's were the visible market leaders of this movement. As with any such trend the profile of such consumers has since broadened considerably.
These demands could not be met through the tourism industry and tours were often arranged through special-interest clubs, universities and the like. The next generation of ecotour operators were hobbyists, and early retirees and such-like making lifestyle choices. Most recently we have seen, and are seeing, increasing numbers of people establishing and committing themselves to running fully-fledged business ventures in this field.
Largely as a result of the frustration that has faced ecotourism operators in their dealings with the mainstream tourism industry we are also witnessing the gradual formation of a new and separate tourism infrastructure with only peripheral contact with the mainstream. Witness for example the growth in ecotourism-related industry bodies - as if we didn't already have enough on the mainstream side!
Whilst ecotourism develops, mainstream tourism is also evolving and moving along its own separate path. That path is one typified by the development of self-contained mega-resorts, casinos and increasingly sophisticated theme parks. While the theme parks which are familiar to us now had mechanical rides, the next generation will feature "virtual rides".
The development of technology which simulates recreational or travel experience has even prompted questions concerning the potential impact on the demand for real travel experiences. Then again, the cynical amongst us might query the degree of reality inherent in many mainstream travel experiences.
In Figure One I have listed a few of what I see as identifying features of ecotourism and mainstream tourism.
Figure One: A few of the respective features of "mainstream tourism" and "ecotourism"
MAINSTREAM TOURISM NEW/ECOTOURISM generally high capital requirement for entry to market relatively low capital requirement based on built environment and esp. purpose-built features based on cultural or natural environment sophisticated simple uniform/consistent diverse predictable spontaneous deal through intermediaries deal direct to consumers large groups small groups mainly industry driven mainly client driven more people offering less people offering more much less value-added value-added medium/large companies small companies high volume/low yield low volume/high yield (we wish)
A more detailed version of such a list can be found as an appendix to this paper, and was prepared by Myriam Jansen-Verbeke of the Catholic University at Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Jansen-Verbeke approaches the issue more from a development/planning angle, and uses the terms "soft" and "hard" tourism.
While such an exercise involves a goodly measure of generalisation and subjectivity, it is valid in that it draws our attention to certain quite significant differences between the two areas of the travel industry.
THE VIEW FROM THE COALFACELooking at general differences between the two camps is one thing, but how does this translate into day-to-day concerns for ecotourism operators such as myself?
The single most problematic area seems to be that of the sales and marketing of ecotourism. A generalised view of the mainstream tourism industry's sales and marketing system is shown in Figure Two. This system evolved "way back when" to accommodate a particular pattern of consumer behaviour, the features of which included:
- bookings made well in advance of travel
- all bookings made at a retail travel agent
- most activities booked before travel, and usually in the form of a package
- ... and so on
Given the large (and growing) number of people who now fall outside this model, many of whom are attracted to ecotourism experiences, the current system appears increasingly cumbersome and unworkable.
4.1 Working with the current system
For the eco-operator the current model poses a host of problems, and as a consequence many have tried this route and all but given up in frustration.
On a per-passenger basis the cost of providing ecotours can be high, with operators absorbing most of the same expenses faced by mainstream operators who can spread such costs over ten times the number of passengers. At the same time there is some degree of consumer reluctance to pay significantly more than they would for mainstream tourism experiences. As a consequence, and also as a means of obtaining cash-flow in the face of the sorts of problems noted in this paper, many eco-operators are not charging as much as they probably should be.
A key factor here is the need to allow for the mark-ups or commissions which are applied along the mainstream sales chain as shown in Figure Two. Generally, but not always, the eco-operator nominates a net (ie. wholesale) price and a retail price which is used for direct sales to consumers. While a 30% mark-up is fairly common, far greater mark-ups can also occur on occasion. Without going into great detail, the variability of this process makes it virtually impossible for prices to be standardised and is largely beyond the control of the eco-operator.
This places pressure on the eco-operator if passengers on the same tour have paid widely differing prices, or if passengers have paid a premium and expect a higher level of service that the eco-operator can provide given the amount that he/she actually receives at the end of the day.
Another point of contention is that eco-operators often are not in a position to guarantee tour departures on a daily basis or to enter into "free-sale" arrangements. Those that agree to do so in order to obtain passengers via the mainstream industry, invariably end up running tours with one or two passengers and losing money with a view to hopefully increasing passenger load at some point in the future - hopefully prior to going broke.
A compromise measure here may be the formation of a local co-operative of eco-operators allowing the pooling of passengers, and this is now being considered here in Sydney.
4.2 Working around the current system
One way in which some eco-operators seek to working around, rather than through, the system is direct advertising to consumers in source countries.
The major problem with advertising is cost, with a single small print advertisement in an NTO travel guide or one of the better travel magazines starting at around $AUD5,000. This is generally beyond the means of ecotour operators. When running tours with (say) four passengers, it takes an awful lot of tours to recoup that sort of advertising expenditure under current circumstances.
In addition many would argue that without a sales agent in the country where the advertisement appears, the results will only ever be meagre. To make matters worse, there seems to be virtually unanimous agreement amongst eco-operators that print advertising produces consistently very poor responses for this type of product even in the domestic market.
This situation has seen the majority of operators focus on rather basic techniques such as building up mailing databases to which they issue regular newsletters, and direct mail to relevant clubs/associations.
Another related trend is that of eco-operators only marketing themselves domestically because it is simply not feasible for them to market themselves to inbound visitors. This is not only unfortunate for the operator, but also for the many tourists who seek to break away from the potentially rather insipid routine of tourist bus/tourist hotel/tourist attraction.
5. MAINSTREAM TOURISM GETS ITS ACT TOGETHER
5.1 A contrast of values
Mainstream tourism as a whole has trouble coming to grips with ecotourism, which is seen in some ways an anathema.
The mainstream industry places a premium on service which features convenience, comfort, regularity, and consistency.
This contrasts with common features of ecotours which include:
Not surprisingly there is very considerable reluctance on the part of the big players to take a chance by directing business to ecotour operators. Instead what seems to happen is that mainstream coach operators make cosmetic changes to existing tours, place a little round "ecotour" sticker on their brochure, and launch such services on an unsuspecting and ultimately disappointed travelling public.
- whale-watching trips where the presence of whales can't be guaranteed
- trips where it rains and passengers get wet and cold
- trips where the route is changed due to a tree falling across a road
- trips where passengers help staff with the operation of the tour eg. gathering firewood (sometime getting splinters), etc, and so on
5.2 Changes to marketing procedures
In Figure Three I have outlined one possible alternative scenario for marketing ecotourism. This is anything but the definitive guide as to what should occur, and is provided merely as a thought-starter.
A key element of this scenario is to streamline the industry and better match rewards to the degree of value-added provided at each stage in the marketing/service delivery process. This process will be facilitated largely through the far greater use of computer technology.
My understanding of computer reservation systems (CRS) is largely limited to reading accounts in travel trade journals of the ongoing squabbling by the leading systems operators in their quest for market domination. I understand also that CRS use is largely limited to dealing only with those bookings for services provided by large airlines, hotels and rental cars.
Thus there would seem to be an enormous gap between the way technology is used in the travel industry, and the technology which potentially available for use. I am at a loss to understand why far better use is not made of developments such as interactive touch screen technology on an standardised industry-wide basis.
Other features of industry re-organisation might include:
5.3 Greater emphasis on environmental matters
- a reduction in the number of travel agencies, with each specialising in travel to particular regions or perhaps in specific leisure pursuits.
This new generation of travel agent would provide comprehensive information on all aspects of travel including details of the natural and social environment, ie. doing much more than simply selling "product".
An added advantage of such an approach would be to realistically portray destinations enabling visitors to make an informed choice and have achievable expectations. Such information would not only enable more enjoyable holidays but permit tourists to be sensitive to local culture. The increased level of service would justify charging a time-based fee to clients, along the lines of professionals in other fields.
- While there would still be a role for inbound tour operators and tour wholesalers in certain areas, they would no longer be central elements in the marketing system.
- The phasing out of brochures as a communication medium, and hopefully a reduced need for costly print advertising.
One of the factors, albeit on a more philosophical level, which has separated the two groups is the view that mainstream tourism lacks validity by virtue of its perceived propensity to cause unacceptable impacts to the natural and social fabric of an area.
Recent years have seen greater emphasis on this issue by reputable mainstream tourism companies. While there is always room for improvement, I do not believe that mainstream tourism per se must be inevitably unsustainable. It is a different story however when tourism flourishes in a region where there is an an appropriate planning and management framework is lacking. This has often occurred in the past, and it is up to governments to work with the industry to quickly remedy this situation.
While the low-impact nature of ecotourism is one of its selling points, it too has the potential to produce significant impacts under similar circumstances given that it often occurs in particularly fragile environments.
Some of the warning signs here include:
- lack of widespread or uniform guidelines in relation to accreditation of operators
- land management/parks agencies which are chronically under- funded with inadequate on-ground supervision, and
- the relatively low level of capital required to kick-start a new tourism venture
ECOTOURISM GETS ITS ACT TOGETHER
The main area where improvement is required within the realm of ecotourism is the need for a much more professional and pragmatic approach. Deficiencies in this area have certainly justified, in part, the arms-length stance adopted by those in the mainstream.
Given the day-to-day concerns faced by those catering to this new style of tourism, very few are in a position to sit back and write about what's going on. Thus much of the literature dealing with this style of tourism is produced by people with little or no experience at the "coal-face".
Consequently literature dealing with this issue more often than not has a distinctly academic bias, focussing on the philosophical, the scientific and the politically correct. I cannot recall, for example, seeing a single article on business planning or management in any of the eco-type newsletters of which I am the regular recipient.
As hinted at earlier, there has also been an annoying propensity to retreat to the moral high-ground. Witness for example the rather twee differentiation between "travellers" and "tourists" now in vogue in select periodicals.
Within the context of this paper, this in itself has been unhelpful in that I suspect it has helped to alienate those in the mainstream industry. It has also promoted a fuzzy frosted glass view of ecotourism and distracted us from more practical concerns.
Finding ecotour operators with no prior small business experience is not a difficult task. Although the situation is changing, many have approached their business primarily as a lifestyle choice rather than as a serious business venture. While they may be gregarious and knowledgeable people who want nothing more than to share their love of all things green and furry, the fact remains that such virtues in no way substitute for business acumen.
While such people can, and generally do, provide their passengers with an excellent experience this situation is unlikely to remain satisfactory over the long term.
Concerns have been raised that becoming more business-like will result in ecotourism losing the low-key/personal character which is part and parcel of its appeal. I am certain however that there must be a "happy medium" where both objectives can be met.
Because of human nature and changing circumstances there will always be a need to cater for a diversity of tourist experiences, and within reason this should be facilitated.
Ecotourism is neither a fad that will pass nor a wave which will take all before it. Thus both tourism camps deserve their place in the sun and share equal validity.
On the other hand the operation of two increasingly isolated tourism industry infrastructures is inefficient and unlikely to be in anyone's best interest.
Despite the marked differences between the two camps, and the problems which exist, I am sure that reconciliation is both necessary and achievable.
As indicated, this will require that changes be implemented in both camps with each adopting some of the characteristics of the other, and all occurring within the context of broad industry reorganisation.
To successfully bring about this change, as is often the case, will require that an educational process occur so that people have a far better appreciation of the relevant issues and the differing requirements of the various parties.
For example, the gap between mainstream and ecotourism has no doubt been exacerbated by, and is related to, the fact that many of those entering the "new" tourism industry do not have previous experience in the realm of the mainstream.
Thus such education will need to encompass all those within the industry, the media, and the travelling public.
Bruce Bickerstaff Copyright © 1995, 2002