Daily News Column: Social media can’t be downplayed as an influence on tourism

This article was published in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday, March 11, 2017.Tourism advice

When you go on vacation, how do you get advice on where to go, stay and what to do? Do you visit a travel agent or look at ads in magazines or on television? It appears (surprise, surprise!) that the way we get that information is changing.

I’m a picture taker. I hesitate to say photographer, but I’ve been taking photos since I was 7. I’m not sure if I travel to take photos, or take photos because I’m a traveler. Instead of joining a photography club, I’m on a number of online forums that seem to have taken their place, and I’m amazed at the number of posts that start off “I’m going on vacation, can anyone tell me where to go and what to see?” They’re not just asking about photographic opportunities, but looking for wider suggestions, and from people who are neither friends nor, apparently, experts.

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Generational disruption and other buzz words…..

An old joke in the ‘80s and ‘90s was “ I bought a video recorder that was ‘so simple, a 5 year-old could program it’. I ended up having to get my 5 year-old to program it as I couldn’t’.”

That five year old is now likely a Millennial generation adult and is having a major disruptive effect on the whole of the tourism industry.

The Millennial generation now comprises around 25% of the US population according to the US Census Bureau and they travel a great deal. PhoCusWright reports that 71% take at least one trip of three nights or less, 42% travel internationally (compared with 28% of older travelers), and they are twice as likely as older generations to take longer trips of 14 nights or more.

The Millennial generation also travel differently than previous generations in that they don’t always stay in hotels. They stay with friends and they use services like Airbnb. They don’t always use taxis, car services or rental cars – they use Uber and Lyft.

Unlike previous generations, they may take more trips but spend less. They are more connected, with 90% owning a smart phone – compared to 57% of older travelers – which 66% use to shop or buy travel. They use a wide variety of sources for their research and booking from OTAs, review sites like TripAdvisor and of course peer advice shared through a whole raft of social networking.

According to Samantha Worgull of ‘Hotel News Now’ and PhoCusWright, Millennials tend to book at the last minute with 23% booking less than one week before departure.

They seek experiences and want to share those with their peers and families through social networks. Experience is the whole raison d’etre for their traveling. No matter if this foodie, eco-tourism, adventure or pure excitement. The simple fact is that this group want to do more than lie on a beach.

To return to the old joke about video recorders, those same adults who sought advice from their children are now Boomers and are again seeking advice from their Millennial offspring. They want to where and how to buy their travel. They want reassurance that Airbnb or Uber are safe.

Marcello Gasdia, senior analyst of consumer research at PhoCusWright said during a recent conference “Millennials have been the trend setters, they are the ambassadors of technology.”

So, this is the disruptive influence the Millennial generation is having on the whole tourism industry:

They book late
They look for value
They seek experiences
They share their trips with others
They research intensively
They influence older travelers

How does this affect the traditional providers of tourism products?

For airlines and hotels the loyalty of the Millennial traveler cannot be guaranteed. Many fewer are members of loyalty programs, 22% compared with 41% of older travelers. The inference is that they may not trust the advertising and promotion of established companies blindly. They are more likely to take advice from friends and independent reviews, and change their booking habits accordingly.

Travel agents as we knew them are largely a thing of the past, particularly in the USA. In Europe and Canada the situation is slightly different but certainly the old style travel agent is dead. In their continuing quest for value, On-Line Travel Agents (OTAs like Expedia) are well in the mix to seek bargains and value. Anything that is not an ‘experience’ like a conventional hotel room or condo becomes a commodity, to be booked wherever the best deal can be found – preferably at the last moment.

The last minute tourist is still looking for the destination experience, the tour (hopefully not conventional but personally led by a local!) or activity will probably be left until arrival when the weather and local area has been checked out. Tour and activity booking specialist TripShock! confirm that most of their bookings are made after a guest arrives in the destination. Where does the Millennial tourist find the information? Again, peer advice or advice of a local. Local tourist boards (CVBs, Chambers of Commerce and similar organizations) are seemingly trustworthy sources, particularly in areas where the likes of TripAdvisor or Expedia do not have much content (Virtually everywhere except places like Orlando, New York or Las Vegas!).

The problem with local tourist organizations is that on the whole they further refer visitors to individual tour providers for follow up. Given the attention span of website visitors, they want to get advice and book there an then, not have to make lists and do even more research.

Experience from tourist organizations in New Orleans shows that if they offer advice and reviews and then enable on-site, immediate booking it results in more bookings for local businesses, happy tourists and a bonus of commission payments to the tourist board.

Disruption is a current buzz-word, but the Millennial generation has disrupted life in the tourism industry worldwide. Not only by their different travel habits and use of technology; their search for ‘experience’ and value, but also their influence on the other generations of traveler. Particularly the Boomer generation. The important factor with this group is that they have more opportunity to travel and have a higher disposable income. They also learn fast when it comes to technology.

The Boomers also learnt, back in the day, to listen to their offspring……

Not willing to just sit on the beach......
Not willing to just sit on the beach……

These are not the B&Bs we remember….

Back in the UK, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was an institution known as the ‘Seaside Bed and Breakfast’, a type of hotel for the masses to stay in during their two week vacation at the beach. They were usually presided over by a formidable landlady who ensured that all her rules were adhered to, that breakfast was taken at the hour of her choosing (when she rang a gong!) and that guests were out of the establishment by 9:30am and not allowed back until 5pm regardless that a hurricane force gale was blowing on the beach. Such fun!

Bed and Breakfast accommodation here in the USA these days is nothing like that hackneyed cliché. We’ve (thank you Researcher in Chief Bethany) sought out any number of B&Bs over the past while as an alternative to conventional hotels, and more precisely as an alternative to staying in anonymous chain, box, hotels when only one night is required.

Most recently we’ve stayed in Watkinsville GA, Auburn AL, Louisville KY and Tallahassee FL, each of which have been spectacular.

There is much media chatter about what AirBnb are doing to the hotel business, but to my mind the real story is how Bed and Breakfast is bringing a new meaning to true hospitality. Let’s look at our stay in Watkinsville…..

We chose the Ashford Manor (http://ambedandbreakfast.com), which is right in the centre of Watkinsville, 10 minutes from Athens GA. Watkinsville itself is a pretty town, with a bunch of good restaurants and stores right outside the B&B.
The rooms are a delight – eclectically designed and very comfortable – just look at the photos. We stayed in the Cottage Gallery Suite – again see the photos – and it was absolutely charming. They also have a suite that is dog friendly (The Cottage Hideaway Suite) and a room in the main house that accommodates dogs.

The B&B is owned and run by Dave and Mario who are a case study in Hospitality Management. Check-in was easy (as was check-out!) and the breakfast was perfect. We stayed in mid-June and the weather was ideal to have Sunday breakfast on the front porch. An added draw is that Ashford Manor also specializes in weddings, so if you’re about to tie the knot, it’s a place to look at.

Back in April, we traveled up to Asheville NC (see the blog ‘Thinking outside the Kennel’) and on the way back broke our journey in Auburn – Researcher in Chief Bethany, is a graduate (War Eagle! apparently). Rather than stay in an anonymous chain hotel, we chose The Crenshaw Guest House (http://crenshawguesthouse.com). No photos unfortunately but have a look at their website. We stayed in Thach Cottage, which again is dog friendly should you be traveling en-famille (or even ‘Avec Chien’!). As you’ll see from their photos, again the rooms are really comfortable and welcoming. But the common theme with these B&Bs is the welcome you get from the owners, in this case Steve and Sarah Jenkins, and the amazing breakfast they provide.

Whenever I have to travel to the Florida State Capital, Tallahassee, I always check into The Little English Guesthouse (http://www.littleenglishguesthouse.com) run by fellow Briton Tracey Cochran and her husband Thom. It’s very English themed and the welcome is perfect. Hospitable but not intrusive. The food is exactly what’s needed before a day treading the halls of government and the afternoon glass of Sherry doesn’t go amiss either.

Speaking of amazing breakfasts, you can’t beat the DuPont Mansion in Louisville KY. We stayed there for nearly a week in March. http://www.dupontmansion.com to check out the photos. The property itself is both beautiful, historic and very convenient. The welcome from the InnKeepers as they term themselves was exactly as you’d be taught in the best hotel schools. ….and the breakfasts….. Simply amazing.

One more for your list. The Shade Tree Inn in St Francisville LA. ( http://shadetreeinn.com ). We stayed there back in 2012 and it’s as different from the others I’ve mentioned as it could be. This is a 4 acre hilltop bird sanctuary hidden away in the Deep South. I’ve added a photo of the panorama from our room. An unbelievable welcome, perfect hospitality and great food.

The thing that comes from all these outstanding Bed and Breakfast establishments is that they are not providing a commodity – a room to stay in and that’s it. They are providing a true experience, a reason to go there in addition to visiting the destination for vacation or business.
My visits to Tallahassee for example could be achieved in a day – early morning drive down I-10, business meetings and a drive back. But the experience of staying in the Little English Guesthouse encourages me to go the afternoon before. I’m rested and calm before I start my day of meetings and I’ve had an experience, not just a night in an hotel.The same applies to all the B&Bs I’ve mentioned, and others we’ve stayed at.

Traveling these days, no matter for leisure or business, must involve more than just a bed to sleep in, a plane ride to get there or a beach to lie on. The experience and the memories can stay with you and encourage you to return. The great experiences that are offered by these hospitality experts encourage their guests to become advocates and ambassadors, spreading the word by TripAdvisor and other review sites

The Main House, Ashford Manor
The Main House, Ashford Manor
Breakfast on the front porch, Ashford Manor.
Breakfast on the front porch, Ashford Manor.
The Cottage, Ashford Manor.
The Cottage, Ashford Manor.
The lounge in the Cottage Suite, Ashford Manor
The lounge in the Cottage Suite, Ashford Manor
The bedroom in the Cottage Suite Ashford Manor.
The bedroom in the Cottage Suite Ashford Manor.
The Shade Tree Inn, St. Francisville, LA
The Shade Tree Inn, St. Francisville, LA

and by the stories they tell their friends and family.

If you’re involved in tourism, hospitality, restaurants or attractions, that must be your number one goal – surely?