Ireland’s hospitality sector spends only 1pc of its marketing budget online and is rapidly falling behind accepted global standards.
About 80pc of Irish people research online before booking their holidays and among the top-visited sites in Ireland are Ryanair.com and Aerlingus.com. Yet at home, the average online marketing spend for the hospitality industry is 1pc of its overall budget. The consumer has gone online but where is the hospitality industry?
“If you look at where people get their information from, about 30pc is coming through the internet, whereas if you look at spend in the tourism sector, only 1pc is digital,” says Conor Daly, founder and managing director of Travel Logic, an e-marketing and website development firm for B&Bs and smaller players in the hospitality sector.
“If you want to reach this digital audience, you should be breaking down your advertising spend accordingly. The 1pc spend as it stands is mostly by the bigger companies with dedicated IT departments, but if you look at Ireland as a whole, most tourism businesses are owner-managed or independents.
The challenge for the owner-manager to take control of a website, email marketing and IT is becoming more complex and very often they do not have the in-house resources or the budgets to hire in experts: “They are getting left behind,” says Daly.
This sentiment is echoed by Jan Blanchard (pictured), founder of social networking travel site Touristr, but Blanchard sees mass collaboration and crowd wisdom as the way forward, especially for the independent hotel and B&B owner.
“In 2007, more travel sales were booked online than in person. So that means if we want to increase visitors to Ireland, we need to shift more of our budget to the web.
“We need Irish travel websites where users can see practical information, research travel plans, read user reviews and watch user photos and videos,” says Blanchard.
The ideal is a mix between a tourist office, a travel agent and a social network so that everyone around the world can relate to people’s experiences when they think about Ireland, he suggests.
We may be living in a mostly broadband-enabled Ireland where our kids can YouTube and Facebook in their sleep, but Blanchard thinks there is a fear and lack of understanding about how expensive it is to set up and run a travel site and get into the social web.
“Today, new technologies make it easier, faster and cheaper to build websites. However, smaller companies still think the investment is too big and it’s only for the big guys.”
This reality is reflected in a basic internet search: Daly gives the example of googling for a hotel in Galway. You will find results but these will mostly represent the bigger properties.
The same is true of using the social web: why is it that a travel site with user-generated content, like TripAdvisor.com, will have in-depth listings of Irish B&Bs where time and care has been taken to write a full review and add pictures, yet there is no way to click through and book a property online, whereas the bigger hotels are using these sites to their advantage?
The life line for the smaller independents in the tourism industry has always been the high-street travel agent and to a degree this is still the case, says Daly. Increasingly, however, as the travel agent closes or moves online, this sector suffers.
Some smaller players have embraced the change with gusto, such as Aer Arann which has gone on to become an Irish e-commerce success story.
With an online marketing budget of €800,000 for 2008, Aer Arann’s website sells 3,000 flights daily and offers unique feaures including SMS booking confirmation and, best of all, only three clicks to booking.
“This is something we paid a huge amount of attention to,” says Colin Lewis, Aer Arann’s head of sales and marketing.
When it comes to lookers versus bookers, there is always a huge drop-off rate between the first click and the six or seven steps to completion which most other sites offer, even when credit card information has been entered.
In comparison to 70pc of Aer Lingus flights booked online, Aer Arann’s online booking represents 92pc of its business.
No other industry has been impacted more by the arrival of the internet than tourism and travel, says Mark Henry, director for central marketing with Tourism Ireland.
“We have seen the mass closure of travel agents on the main street and the sheer number of tickets sold online by Ryanair and Aer Lingus. Tourism Ireland has watched this evolution and reflected it in our marketing budget so that online now represents almost a quarter of our entire marketing spend.”
While individual businesses are still catching up, nobody can accuse Tourism Ireland of falling behind. The body responsible for brand Ireland wants to set the standard for what Irish tourism can do in the digital arena.
Last year, Tourism Ireland joined up with Virtual Dublin – a virtual reality version of the capital city that exists in the 3D online world of Second Life – and this year threw the first ever St Patrick’s Day parade with live music from actual events streamed into Virtual Dublin, as thousands of people from around the world tuned in.
Henry says this is still an experimental area for Tourism Ireland but that it has been received well. However, its €12m online marketing spend is also being used in traditional areas such as banner advertising on websites, an area Daly says is still very successful and has great reach.
But even with this innovation, Blanchard thinks that with the online world moving as fast as it is, more investment is needed: “We noticed a significant increase in web investments in the past two years, but it is still not enough.
“Today, online marketing represents about 25pc of the overall marketing spend of Tourism Ireland. I believe it should be at least 50pc.”
Companies like Travel Logic and Touristr are aiming to reach the forgotten in the travel world’s move to online, where the big guys dominate.
Daly says it is not good enough to simply be listed online with a third-party booking engine strapped onto your site. The tech-savvy tourist wants narrowed-down results, such as a list of wheelchair-friendly hotels.
“A big problem is information overload – when you visit a tourist board or local website there is a list of everything, so it becomes difficult to narrow down specific needs.”
Another problem is that with more people booking direct, the travel agencies are moving online and the smaller properties now need to have the technological know-how to get listed properly with them.
Not a problem, says Blanchard: “It’s not a big investment, and with the right partner a small B&B can set up a website with a booking engine and collaboration tools and be distributed worldwide.
“Business and tourists can collaborate to increase the ‘Ireland’ brand. The hospitality industry is well aware of the user-generated content boom, but for some of them, they still don’t know how to tap into it.”
Ireland should take inspiration from countries like Switzerland and New Zealand, where tourist authorities have set up social networking platforms and allowed providers to feature their services, he suggests.
The key, it seems, for the smaller players in the travel industry is not a huge budget and mass migration to the web but rather mass collaboration and looking to central sites and the individual tourist to promote brand Ireland.
“For a small B&B, allowing your web visitors to record and read reviews means people will share their experiences, not only about the room but about the full experience, from the church they visited to the beach they went to. This is so powerful that web visitors will make up their mind from reading these experiences,” says Blanchard.
Sligo surfers are keeping an online eye on the waves
Necessity, they say, is the mother of all invention and this is precisely the reason why Graham Glynn started Sligo surfing website, Strandhill Surf Webcam.
An IT graduate with a passion for surfing, Glynn often found that by the time he got to the beach, the weather conditions weren’t good enough to catch a wave.
Along with friend and fellow surfer Philip O’Brien, he invested in a weatherproof webcam and created a website that now caters for thousands of eager tourists from around the world who flock to Sligo for its ideal surfing conditions and who want to keep an eye on the waves beforehand.
As an aside, the live webcam site has turned into an ideal forum for promoting general tourism in Sligo, with local shops, B&Bs and restaurants all advertising with Glynn.
“Ireland needs to promote itself more by taking advantage of internet technologies to push niche tourism opportunities.
“The tourists definitely want to come here for our surfing, water sports, course fishing, golf, hillwalking etc and their primary search tool is the internet, yet Ireland has not fully grasped the potential of the internet to get the tourists here.”
By Marie Boran