Connected tourism

11 Aug 2011

Technology’s global reach has created lots of new opportunities for Ireland to attract holidaymakers. Laura O’Brien looks at how the Irish tourism industry is making use of it.

New consumer technology, such as social media and smartphones, has made a huge impact in marketing and communications in recent years, particularly in the tourism sector.

Facebook and Twitter have provided channels to communicate better with customers, and advancements in mobile technologies have helped people keep connected to the web no matter where they are.

With recent high-profile Irish events being aired worldwide, such as US President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II’s visits, leveraging this technology further to connect with potential holidaymakers is a no-brainer.

“I think there’s a fantastic opportunity which is still underdeveloped for the technology to promote and provide a platform for the huge diversity of cultural attractions and offerings in Ireland,” says Grainne Millar, the head of cultural development for Temple Bar Cultural Trust.

The emerging generation of technologically savvy tourists will particularly be looking for a heightened cultural experience.

“We know consumers, and particularly the digital natives who are growing up around this notion of co-creation, are used to much more interaction with culture,” she continues.

“Young people are used to being involved with creating their own cultural experiences now, such as making their own films and music. I think there’s a greater expectation of an experiential dimension to a visit to a particular building.”

The Facebook factor

Tourism Ireland has benefited strongly from Facebook. Last year, it made a major push to use social media to get holidaymakers talking about Ireland.

“At the start of 2010 we had a couple of thousand Facebook followers and now we’re the second most popular tourist destination in the world after Australia,” says Ciaran Doherty, internet marketing manager for Tourism Ireland.

“We’ve gone from a fan base of a couple of thousand to approximately 470,000 across 16 markets.

“In terms of new technologies and looking at new ways of capturing data from our fans, we’ve developed a couple of apps for Facebook. We usually run competitions to get people to share stories and upload pictures and that will help us capture the fans’ details, as well, to see their interests so we can follow up with more correspondence with them.”

Fáilte Ireland launched its own Facebook page at the end of May and has since gathered 8,000 fans.

“We find that the people on it are actually recommending things to other people or they’re conversing between themselves. It’s not actually Fáilte Ireland who is doing that,” explains Orla Carroll, head of marketing & ebusiness at Fáilte Ireland.

“We would see our role on Facebook as a conduit (for communicating] as opposed to enforcing it. We drop the ideas into people’s minds or ask ideas and let them roll with it themselves. The best ambassador of an activity or tourist experience is the people who have actually experienced it themselves as opposed to a government agency telling them to.”

Doherty advises that small business owners should think about what they want to do with their Facebook or Twitter account before taking the plunge.

“I would suggest that they need to be involved with social media – Facebook or Twitter – and that they give it very careful consideration before going on there because if you’re not doing it right, you’re better off not having a social media presence,” he says.

Tourists and technology

Creating a more immersive cultural experience can solidify a relationship between a tourist and their destination before they even arrive in the country.

“Within tourists and technology, looking at Fáilte Ireland, they have identified culture seekers as a key segment in terms of the kinds of people they’re trying to attract,” Millar points out.

“One of the big barriers, I think, is the difficulty that people have about finding out the cultural richness that exists right across Ireland.”

Temple Bar Cultural Trust recently created the Dublin Culture Trail, which gives behind-the-scenes information, videos, maps and photographs of Dublin venues online or through a mobile app.

“When we developed the Dublin Culture Trail app and website earlier on in the year, the whole point of that was to bring to life some of our key cultural attractions and iconic cultural buildings,” says Millar.

“We wanted to let people who are planning their trip in advance have a chance to really interact with high-quality video footage that would take them inside the building and that would give the visitor a more in-depth experience in a way that static information just can’t do.”

Augmented reality at work

Doherty thinks the cultural experience can be heightened through combining Irish history with mobile technology. He believes augmented reality could be one tool for this.

Augmented reality refers to the overlay of digital data such as video, graphics and sound onto real-world scenes as viewed, for example, through a smartphone camera.

“We’re doing a lot of stuff with Titanic in the North at the moment and we’ve lots of beautiful stories and locations, so something along the lines of augmented reality for mobile would let people go and see where somewhere looks like 150 years ago, 100 years ago or even 50 years ago.”

However, mixing smartphones and tourism does present some challenges and blindly implementing an app to a tourist campaign without thought can have a bad effect.

“When developing apps for tourists, we have to be careful around the whole roaming side of things because if international visitors come here and have huge roaming charges then that’s not a benefit,” stresses Carroll.

“There has to be that fine line where you give enough information but you also want up-to-date information. You can’t have information on every event and activity that’s on in the country at the beginning of the year.”

Doherty agrees, noting that location-based services like Foursquare have proven very popular. However, hitting tourists with high data charges won’t exactly enhance their holidays.

Ultimately, these tools can help Ireland stand out from other more popular tourist destinations. By reaching out to a global audience and offering a different cultural experience, the country will stick in tourists’ minds for longer.

“I think our cultural heritage is unrivalled and it’s something that can’t be replicated by any other country,” says Millar. “So the technology is a way of actually bringing that to life and into the homes and handsets of people internationally in a way that other formats can’t do.”

Photo: Ten-year-old Fiach Connolly and Dublin residents Gwen Cruise (left) and Moire McSweeney as they test out the Dublin Culture Trail in Trinity College, College Green, Dublin. The Dublin Culture Trail is an initiative of Temple Bar Cultural Trust in partnership with a consortium of Digital Hub companies