Tourism is not only the largest industry in the world but also the number one online segment, accounting for 11% of overall sales on the Net in 1998. E-business on tourism accounted for $13 billion in 1999 (Forrester Research 1999). The online travel market is experiencing explosive growth, and is projected to go to $30 billion this year. It is already estimated that by year 2003 over 30% of online sales will be generated by online travel alone, including actual travel products as well as advertising earned by travel-oriented sites.
The number of travelers who use the Internet for travel-related and other purposes tops 70 million, half of which consult the Internet to get information on destinations or to check prices and schedules (Travel Industry Association of America 1999). The number of travelers booking online has soared by more than 80 percent to 11 million in the last year (PhoCusWright 1999). Travel remains one of the most popular e-commerce categories, with 45 percent of online buyers saying they purchased travel online. This is outpaced only by books at 54 percent.
According to a recent survey by BizRate.com (1999), 85% of the respondents intend to use the Internet exclusively or in conjunction with off-line resources to schedule airfare (90% of those planning to purchase travel online), hotel (52%), and car rental (42%) reservations for holiday travel. More than 75 percent of respondents indicated that discounts would motivate them to purchase future travel reservations online. Thirty-nine percent said earning frequent flyer miles or points also would be a strong influence.
Cyveillance (1999) estimates that the overall universe of travel sites on the Web is 116,000. Based on analysis, it estimates that only approximately 6,500 travel sites (6%) are e-commerce enabled, i.e., offer the ability to execute transactions online. Internet start-up firms working as intermediaries and travel agencies will continue to fuel the online travel market. There is already fierce competition between intermediaries and hotels, airlines, and car rental companies. Traditional offline companies, such as the Hotel Reservation Network (HRN), are shifting their telephone-based reservation system to the Internet to compete. HRN launched its Web site in 1995. In 1998 it booked 45 percent of its business online whereas in 1999 this figure reached 80 percent. Currently, travel agencies and intermediaries account for more than half the online travel revenue (PhoCusWright 1999): 54% travel agencies, 25% airlines, 13% hotels, 8% car rental companies.
The literature suggests that the search for information used to plan travel is likely to take longer and to involve the use of more information sources than the search for information about most other consumer products (Fodness and Murray 1998).
The tourism industry is characterized by offering complementary business. This is similar to the computer industry, where a buyer often buys an assortment of goods made by different companies. For example, the manufacturers of the computer, printer, and software are often different. Similarly, a traveler will use air travel, a rental car, and a hotel room and purchase meals. Different companies provide these services. The goal of the traveler is to have an enjoyable experience. A properly designed Web site can facilitate the travelers' planning, helping to ensure they make the right choices and have an enjoyable experience. It can also serve as the distribution point for all the services they will need as they plan their vacation.
Tourism Destinations emerge as umbrella brands and they will need to be promoted in the global marketplace as one entity for each target market they try to attract. The emerging globalization and concentration of supply increase the level of competition and require new Internet marketing strategies for destinations. Hence, destination marketing organizations (DMOs) increasingly have to identify niche markets and develop their interactivity with tourists.
The distribution/allocation strategy of tourism products should follow a customer-oriented approach. A vertical marketing system should be in place bringing together a set of products related with each destination available for selection. This implies that each tourist destination must have a major portal Web site acting as a gateway to the destination rather than relying solely on a fragmented number of individual Web sites put online by the trade. Indeed, customers require one-stop shopping.
The tourism destination portal site ought to be developed by the DMOs in partnership with the major market participants, through a contractual or corporate approach. This would have links from and to the Web sites of the other organizations that have business related to the destination. Partnerships are important because by building relationships with other companies the DMOs get access to their consumers while helping those companies expand their product offerings. Moreover, the development of Web sites by main travel intermediary players is also important as these may allow the browser/visitor to access destination information provided by the DMOs' sites and to compare the services offered by competing destinations in order to make his/her travel decision.
A portal site for marketing tourism destinations should provide information on four core areas:
All the items should come with availability and reservation facilities. These may be provided through links to other sites such as HRN, Internet Travel Network, or the WorldRes Company. The last is essentially a business-to-business site, in that it primarily serves other Internet companies. WorldRes provides a list of available rooms and prices at its 8,600 partner hotels to about 900 Web sites, including portals like Yahoo! and America Online, but predominantly travel sites. When a consumer visits one of those sites and makes a reservation, the transaction is reported back to WorldRes and, in turn, to the hotel that was booked. WorldRes takes a commission of between 3 and 10 percent of the cost of the booked room. The referring site gets up to 30 percent of the transaction fee paid by the hotel to WorldRes.
The investment bank Bear, Stearns Co. Inc. estimates hotel reservations made via the Internet will generate over $3 billion in revenues in 2002. In a recent market research study conducted by the NPD Group, 28 percent of visitors to hotel sites were found to actually book a reservation, and 84 percent of those were satisfied by the experience. Moreover, whereas it costs about 10 cents per dollar in revenue to book a reservation over the phone, a reservation booked online costs only 2 cents per dollar in revenue.
The design of the Web site is one of the key issues to consider for achieving success in e-business (Dreze and Zufryden 1997, Loban 1998, Morrison and Morrison 1999, Palmer and Griffith 1998a/b, Wilson 1999). Successful sites are designed around the wants and needs of the targeted audiences.
The Web presence must be designed not only to be visually appealing and user friendly, but also to be favorably indexed by search engines. According to a 1999 Jupiter Communications' research study, Internet users ranked "searching on the Internet" as their most important activity, rating it 9.1 on a 10 point scale. And most Internet users find information through the use of search engines and online directories.
Web sites have come a long way from the days of "brochureware," those advertising-filled pages that flooded most organizations' first sites. Functionality has progressed to the point that the latest wave of Web technology even allows for personalization of content. Personalization technology now allows site designers to access demographic and psychographic information from the organization's own customer information files, other marketing databases, and research derived from tracking the way visitors move around a site. Software automatically analyzes the profiles of site visitors, identifies what they are trying to do, and adjusts parts of the interface on the fly in an effort to enhance responsiveness.
But all this functionality comes at a price. As Web sites expand to accommodate additional features, customers may become confused by the plethora of choices and complex screen navigation trails. To avoid customer burnout and defection, managers need to strive for a balance between simplicity and functionality in their Web site designs to serve customers most effectively. The ideal state is referred to as "one and done." Customers visit the site, quickly find what they need, accomplish their tasks, and get out. Providers who cannot meet this standard risk losing business.
Since growth is an important part of the game, the technological underpinnings of the Web site must be set up to handle increasing transaction volume and transaction complexity. Experts advise building the site in a modular fashion so that the system can be expanded without having to change its primary architecture. The mantra for Web designers is "think big, start small, test quickly, and scale fast."
A site must be relatively simple and fast for the consumer to navigate. A site that limits the number of screens a person has to click through to complete and send a booking form is an important part of the equation. Thus, attractiveness, ease of use, and ability for consumers to quickly make a reservation are important Web design features. One of the contributing factors for ease of navigation is a limited number of elements per page.
Tourism organizations use their sites to post basic information -- directions, prices, maps, and other brochure-type facts. But with sites evolving quickly, many need to institute truly innovative ideas: daily updates, real-time videos, snippets of music, e-mail feedback, and other interactive features. One major point of discussion is how sophisticated to make a Web site. Not every computer has the power, or the software, to take advantage of spiffy features. Some sites try to stay light on graphics to reduce download time. Others go heavy on graphics, thinking that is what makes the Internet fun and useful. The answer is to customize the Web site to the organization's target markets at the business-to-consumers (namely taking into account their level of sophistication) and business-to-business approaches.
Another important issue is that tourism organizations do not want to replace the experience by providing state-of-the-art Web sites on their destinations. Rather they want people to use their sites to maximize their visit.
There are a number of criteria a DMO must take into account when designing its Web site. The home page is the destination's "storefront" on the World Wide Web marketplace. It provides an index to the set of pages that describe the DMO and the tourism destination. The Web site should be organized in several main sections (Content/Information), including:
The home page also needs graphics to look inviting. The best combination is a single sparkling graphic combined with text making the overall look of the DMO's "storefront" graphically balanced, pleasing, and informative. The background texture and/or color used throughout the site should never overwhelm the text, but subtly complement it. The page title that is displayed at the top line of the Web browser is very important because it often shows up in search engines. The title should be descriptive using keywords that people might use to find the DMO page. A small graphic at the top of each page as well as texture and colored backgrounds helps to unify the Web pages.
Inadequate navigation design is probably the main failing of business Web sites. Getting visitors to information quickly and intuitively is the goal of navigation systems. The navigation should be designed from the customer's perspective, providing as many alternate and user-friendly ways to navigate the site as necessary, such as:
One can easily find numerous resources that teach the principles of good Web design. Sometimes, however, it is just as important to learn what not to do (Nielsen 1996, Nielsen 1999). Web designers should avoid making any of the following top 15 mistakes:
An in-depth fieldwork study has been conducted focusing on Web tourism marketing activities performed by public organizations, private companies, and dotcoms in Las Vegas. The findings are reported next.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCA) is the official destination marketing organization of Las Vegas. Its official Web site, www.lasvegas24hours.com, went online on August 1997. The site includes information about conventions, lodging, and attractions in Las Vegas. Initially, the purpose was solely one of providing an online brochure containing over 500 pages of information. No e-mail facilities were embedded in the site. In order to respond to a number of requests, these were included at a later stage.
The Web site has been running separately / independently from the overall marketing strategy of LVCA. In other words, it is not integrated within the marketing strategy and communication plan. LVCA's goal in promoting Las Vegas as a tourist destination is to further develop its brand image as the entertainment capital of the world. Thus, this goes beyond gaming, by including other attributes such as dinning, shopping, shows, etc. With the redesign of the Web site currently under way there is also an intention to finally articulate it with advertising actions.
The LVCA collects e-mail addresses from its Web site visitors. It also conducts short online surveys from time to time on visitors' satisfaction with the Web site. It has built databases for its three targeted segments: meeting planners, travel agents, leisure consumers. The Web site currently experiences over 7,000 daily users. LVCA hasn't developed any demographic profiles for its Web site users. Actually, this is a major concern which is to be put into practice along with the redesign of the site.
LVCA collaborates offline with organizations from other regions, promoting the Southwest United States as a triangle of complementary attractions: Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, and the Southwest Pacific Coast (San Diego, CA). It cooperates online with other organizations within the region through related links with major hotels, tourism agencies, and the Nevada Commission on Tourism (www.travelnevada.com). LVCA is also part of a community of 17 partners supporting the Web site www.lasvegas.com ("One City. One Site"), a profit site operated by the Donrey Media Group which also owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Las Vegas major competitive destinations may be grouped into three categories:
Three entities are involved in the design of the Web site: the LVCA, a Web vendor (which has been changed), and an advertising agency. Most of the data maintenance of the Web site is done in-house by the Web manager. The Web site is updated on a weekly basis, and the site is now being subjected to a major revision by the first time (once every two years).
The most important features of a Web site for destination marketing are considered to be user-friendliness and usefulness, i.e., providing a good balance between graphics and functionality. The LVCA's revised Web site will strengthen these characteristics and will be more interactive.
The LVCA's site has some unique features, such as
The site also has Ipix photos.
The Nevada Commission on Tourism (NCOT) is the state agency dedicated to promoting tourism in the Silver State. Its mission is to offer a composite view of the state, to emphasize the promotion of rural areas, underlining Northern Nevada. The official Web site of the NCOT is www.travelnevada.com which has been online for four years. The purpose is to make available to the traveler an online visitor center, providing more information and assisting him/her on planning a trip to Nevada. It aims to attract visitors to travel beyond Las Vegas or Reno, enticing them to extend their stay and go to other places.
The Web site has proven to help increase the number of inquiries about the state and to stimulate the growth in requests for the Visitors' Guide Booklet. Moreover, the site helped save some money on telemarketing (toll-free 1-800 number), but not on print.
A research program for data collection is running which consists of sampling inquirers (telephone survey) in order to assess conversion ratios. Furthermore, the site has taken ongoing online surveys of its users. The NCOT collaborates offline with other organizations in the region as a member of the Western States Policy Tourism Council that gathers 11 western states of the United States.
The major competitive destinations for Nevada are:
Both NCOT and an advertising agency have been involved in the design of the Web site. Its maintenance, updating, enhancement, and redesign is conducted through the ad agency. The site is redesigned once a year. This takes place when a new annual Nevada Visitors Guide / Booklet is published. Moreover, the site's Calendar of Events, which coincides with the publication of the Nevada Magazine, is updated every two months. In addition, there is a new overall theme every month which is also addressed by the Lieu Tenant Counselor.
The most important feature of a Web site for destination marketing is to have content-rich, updated, and very complete information. NCOT's site provides information on Nevada broken into six territories. It has a comprehensive hotel/motel listing as well as a calendar of events in the state.
The main purpose of conducting Internet/online activity is to provide information on the different properties/resorts, their services, and prices in order to entice users to make reservations and come to the resorts.
The major players in Las Vegas are the Mirage Resorts Group (Bellagio, Mirage, Treasure Island, Golden Nugget), Mandalay Bay Group (Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur), Park Place (Paris Las Vegas, Flamingo Hilton, Las Vegas Hilton, Circus Circus), MGM (MGM Grand, New York New York), Boyd Gaming Corporation (Stardust, Sam's Town, Fremont), and Harrah's.
Whereas the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's promotion gives more weight to conventions, the main resort groups emphasize the gaming/casino activity more.
It is generally agreed that the LVCVA should be the centerpiece of a Web site portal for Las Vegas as a tourist destination. However, in reality two other sites have been in that position -- vegas.com and lasvegas.com. The former is part of a large regional media group that includes the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, Showbiz weekly, Las Vegas Life, Las Vegas weekly, and Las Vegas Golfer. The latter is operated by the Donrey Media Group that also owns a major Las Vegas newspaper, the Las Vegas Review Journal. This site is run with the support of 17 partners, primarily government agencies, including the LVCVA. Interestingly, vegas.com is given preference and considered more popular than lasvegas.com as a portal site to Las Vegas.
The design of the Web sites is usually outsourced. A number of senior executives are also involved. The maintenance and information updating is mostly done in-house.
The most important features of a Web site are considered as:
The portal sites for Las Vegas are clearly www.vegas.com and www.lasvegas.com. They usually receive over 300,000 visitors with more than 4 million page views a month. However, they are facing increasing competition from other sites such as www.lasvegascitysearch.com, www.cimedia.com (a Cox Communications interactive media city guide), www.virtualcities.com, and Microsoft's SideWalk (http://sidewalk.com). Actually, according to a recent research from Media Metrix (1999), a leader in Internet audience and digital media measurement, MSN Sidewalk has surpassed all competing online city guides in terms of consumer reach, achieving a reach of 7.3 percent, compared with other local guides like Digital Cities, with a reach of 6.3, and City Search, with a reach of 5.5 percent.
The dotcom sites are normally designed and maintained in-house. Major information updating takes place once a week (e.g., entertainment) whereas a lot of news is updated on a daily basis (e.g., classified ads, travelscape info).
The most important features of a Web site for destination marketing are seen as providing quality content/information current and complete on the destination (e.g., resorts, restaurants, show listings, dining weather), ease of navigation/usability, and booking facilities (hotels, flights). It is expected that in the near future the latter will be extended to also accommodate e-commerce on shows, restaurants, and sightseeing tours. Frequently asked questions and bulletin boards are also considered important characteristics.
Due to the clutter of sites available on the World Wide Web, DMOs ought to position themselves as the portals of their destinations. A sample search on the Yahoo! directory as well as on the other major search engines (AltaVista, HotBot/Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, WebCrawler, Northern Light) by typing the name "Las Vegas" as a key word resulted in the following numbers. The Yahoo! directory found 969 Web sites on Las Vegas. The Northern Light search engine found 1,313,971 pages on Las Vegas.
In terms of search engine positioning, lasvegas.com is by far the best positioned. It consistently appears on the top 20 Web sites on Las Vegas: AltaVista (1), Excite (3), HotBot/Lycos (5), Infoseek (9), WebCrawler (14), and Northern Light (19). Vegas.com comes ahead of lasvegas.com on Hotbot/Lycos (3) and Northern Light (17) but it does not show up on Excite, WebCrawler, and AltaVista. Lasvegas24hours.com, the official Web site of the LVCVA, is visible only in AltaVista (11) and Infoseek (26).
Using the AltaVista search engine the actual number of Web sites hyperlinked with each of the main dotcoms were found as follows: 1.vegas.com (8,570); 2. lasvegas.com (1,938); 3. lvol.com (1,212); and 4. lasvegas24hours.com (1,017). Curiously, some hotel resorts have even more links such as the MGM Grand (1,235). Other national dotcom companies have most of the highest number of links: City Search (8,232), Virtual Cities (4,899), Cimedia (2,438), and MSN Sidewalk (2,319).
Tourism is one area that can greatly benefit from a city's online presence as out-of-state and foreign residents visit a Web site and decide they want to travel there. Web sites of DMOs will continue to evolve into more marketing tools than just archives or information services. Their success relies heavily on the organization's ability to design effective Web sites, i.e., implementing the do's and avoiding the don'ts of Web design and Web usability (table 1). This paper addresses all these issues within the context of portal sites for marketing tourism destinations in the global marketspace.