Catching lionfish in Saint Lucia

We spoke to Jeremy Sampson, chief executive of the Travel Foundation, to find out what shape the travel industry will be in post COVID-19, and what is currently being planned by the decision makers to help it get back on its feet.

The past decade has seen a lot of changes in the tourism and travel industry. The desire and demand for transparency, fairness and the need for fast solutions are nothing new. When COVID-19 struck  in early 2020, those themes just seemed to become even more pervading. The voices demanding change increased in size and volume.

Arguably, the travel industry is one of the sectors that had become used to coming under fire –responsible for being irresponsible. The invisible burden of tourism, the  carbon footprint, the complete lack of understanding about local communities and the price the world would have to pay.

The Travel Foundation has been a non-profit charitable entity since 2003, advising destinations and companies through the choppy waters of change. The charity works in partnership with governments and associated tourism businesses and is a driving force bringing greater benefits to destinations, its people and the environment. One of its  roles is to help to formulate practical solutions which maximise benefits and minimise negative impacts for destinations.

“We often felt that tourist boards in particular were spending quite a lot of budget on marketing and promotion. They would analyse market demands, look at opportunities and then structure their promotions around that data. Destination marketing organisations and governments were looking at the value of tourists in terms of economic impacts. Numbers of tourists, average spend and the like. There were some crucial areas missing” says Sampson.

The solution? 

They started by piloting a new approach in Tenerife where they looked at the traditional market segments for the island alongside a promotional growth and market strategy to formalise a plan to better explore the implications of planned growth.

“The basic idea was to introduce different dimensions to that analysis to pinpoint the net value of different audience segments visiting a destination.  So, not only looking at the economic value and visitor numbers but also the costs and impacts of servicing this type of demand.”

Tenerife found this process to be quite transformative in terms of thinking differently about the return on investment for their promotional strategies as well as having a much deeper appreciation of destination management responses that they may need to invest in.

“Shared thinking and innovation, integration between public and private, government and local communities have always been a core part of our vision and mission and it’s more important now than ever before”  says Sampson.

The right mix

One of its  projects: Finding the Optimum Tourism Mix uncovered some interesting facts. In order to grow tourism sustainably, destinations need to ensure that they have the ‘right’ mix of different types of tourists –not just in economic terms. For instance, some market segments might seem undesirable if they typically spend less. But delve deeper and they could still have a real value for the destination. Perhaps they stay longer and visit less popular areas, or visit off-season with fewer social or environmental burdens. Their lower spend may actually create more opportunities for livelihoods than high-spending tourists. The whole process really challenges commonly held assumptions. So who are the travellers that don’t quite fit the sustainable model?

“That’s almost an impossible question to answer because it will differ in every destination. There is a trend at the moment in destination and marketing management to seek out ‘quality tourists’. The better question to ask is ‘what is quality tourism?’. It’s a case of optimising the mix of businesses and experiences and understanding the cost and benefits of different dimensions.”

Tourism burden

Another question springs to mind. As we emerge into a new world, is there any danger at all of over tourism and if not, won’t it be easier to market to the right traveller for each destination?

“It is still undoubtedly an issue – it could be, after all, an influx of ten people.  If it’s a protected area or a small village and thought has not been given to how those visitors will be managed and what the impacts will be, then it will be a problem.”

Also, despite adversity often bringing out the best in some, others have commented that once the immediate shock of COVID-19 is further behind, then we will return to ‘old ways’.

“I tend to agree. But one thing we do know is that we are likely to end up where we were unless we do something different.  The tourism industry has traditionally never thought long term.  Destinations have recently been talking about re-thinking strategy around domestic tourism and creating social distancing product.  Is that a long term strategy or are we going through a cycle of creating something that doesn’t have viability?

“I understand that we are all desperate to get the economy back on its feet but it’s certainly dangerous to snap your fingers and go down a new and different path without thinking of the implications.”

Fragmented mandates

When it comes to recovery planning for destinations, Sampson is in no doubt that times ahead will be tough.  When the pandemic struck, it gave the Travel Foundation an opportunity to look at its  own strategy.  He is encouraged by the fact that 80 to 90% of what they had set out and what was covered in the Invisible Burden of Tourism report published in 2019, still rang true.

“The thesis of that report illustrates that destinations are not able to make well informed decisions

unless they better appreciate the cost of servicing demand.  Think of a beach for example. If you’re expecting people to visit that beach, what is the cost of maintaining it?  What are the additional mechanisms needed from an energy, waste and housing perspective? How much does all that cost to deliver and who is accountable?”

As Sampson sees it, there is a fragmented mandate for destinations.

“The private sector has done an increasingly better job at managing its  own assets and has taken responsibility over the years for its  own footprint. But what happens when assets are shared? Often the private sector is using assets for free and the problem is if we don’t know who is responsible, then the costs come back to the taxpayer or they’re not accounted for at all.”

So, it seems to be that it’s a culmination of things that causes the problems.  Lack of information, knowledge and data along with an absence of cooperation are key offenders.

“The foundation of all those things is finance.  There is plenty of money that moves around in a destination but it doesn’t go to areas where it is needed the most and there is no clear mandate to solve issues.  Now is definitely a time of great opportunity.”

A time of great opportunity seems to suggest that the ‘virtuous circle’ of public and private sectors working alongside communities and locals for the good of everyone, so often talked about in the travel industry, may be a real possibility.

Going local

“I think that the interest in local (which was something that was happening before the pandemic) can only get bigger. We were already being approached by companies, including big hotel brands, asking us to help them to significantly increase their local procurement because of demand.”

The challenge, it would seem, is that this change will take time and work. Often the local supply just isn’t there – the approach will need to be done thoughtfully and strategically.

“Offering more of what’s local has to be really intentional and it won’t happen overnight because we say what we want it to. That’s true of travel in general. The sentiment is there to ‘do travel better’ so there needs to be investment and building of capacity to address a different sort of tourism.”

Sampson describes his experiences before he joined the Travel Foundation when one of his roles was working in the Mediterranean with the directive to develop new products and itineraries in protected areas.

“The tour operators we spoke to were well versed in delivering a specific kind of experience but to get them to deliver a different type of itinerary with a conservation emphasis involving the local community took many years – to train them, about a different kind of market and a new kind of product took time.”

Illusion v reality

Sampson also believes that in order to ensure that change for good is really happening as opposed to being portrayed that way is to have more direct conversations and dialogue with travellers. Often the filtering happens via online travel agents and tour operators, so a solution is to connect the hosts of the destinations with travellers. True transparency.

“It would be really interesting to find solutions to bridge that gap and facilitate real time dialogues. But that too will need to be driven by demand.  Think of what has happened in the food and beverage industries.  The increased demand for products and transparency means that we know much more about what we’re eating and where it comes from.

“We don’t have anything like that in travel – so we are incapable of making the same sorts of decisions. If we start to demand more information, destinations and businesses will have to provide answers and solutions. Even if 10 to 20% of the market shifts to a different kind of experience and their actions are better managed  then that’s progress.”

In order to help fast-track those solutions, the Travel Foundation helped launch a coalition in June called the Future of Tourism. Six of the biggest global non-governmental organisations  in travel have formed an alliance creating a set of guiding principles around how tourism should be managed in order to effectively help destinations. The taskforce is supported by signatories from the public and private sector including destinations like Colombia, Slovenia, Jordan and Bhutan and corporations such as Hilton and The Travel Corporation.

Guiding principles

Its thirteen guiding principles run the gamut from redefining economic success (looking at metrics that specify destination benefits) to a sense of place (recognising that tourism involves the destination as a whole) and sound so achievable. But nothing is ever that easy.

“When you look at destinations, there is a real need for companies working as well as government authorities to cooperate around a shared agenda.  Usually, there are a bunch of competing agendas and not enough shared ideas.

“Many other disciplines have strong, well supported non-profit sectors, which really help to contribute with research and tools and there is so much more cooperation from the players and the third sector. This is what we’re trying to do in the travel industry.”

Sampson strongly feels that problems can be solved but organisations need to drive the agenda. Common KPIs established so that everyone can agree to the vision and mission.

“We have been collaborating with the World Travel & Tourism Council to create a policy paper around better public and private cooperation. The tourism sector doesn’t do a great job of communicating with consumers at the moment so the story needs to be told better. Once that is ignited, change will come.”

Sampson, by his own admission, is a realist with a dash of optimism and thank goodness for it. Collective burden requires collective solutions. The Travel Foundation is one community that won’t give up on the world anytime soon.