There is growing evidence to suggest that the tourism sector in Ireland is in danger of failing to accommodate the DIY holiday trend that is sweeping not only overseas visitors but also the domestic market.
According to Dr Stewart Stephens (pictured), managing director of Gulliver Ireland, a technology engine responsible for more than 50,000 online tourism bookings (112,000 total bookings) every year, the sector is failing to embrace the nuances of the latest online marketing trends, namely search engine optimisation.
The original Gulliver system was developed by Bord Fáilte and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Following a partnership agreement with Fexco in 1997, the financial services company acquired a majority shareholding in Gulliver in 1997 and since July 2004 is the 100pc owner of Gulliver Ireland.
According to its tourism market review, Gulliver recorded more than 50,000 online tourism bookings in 2004 that were valued at €10.8m. This represents a 31pc increase in online bookings on 2003. Online bookings accounted for 44pc of all Gulliver bookings last year, which is double the figure made in 2002. Gulliver’s online booking engine, which is available on more than 50 online booking sites such as Goireland.com, Ireland.ie and Visitdublin.com, experienced 2.7 million visits throughout the year. The company said that more focused online marketing and added-value tourism products would drive increased conversion and improved booking levels in 2005.
Goireland.com was the most booked Gulliver-powered website last year and accounted for nearly 40pc of Gulliver’s total online bookings (€4.1m worth of bookings). The website averaged 40,000 unique visitors per week. Domestic holidaymakers accounted for more bookings (29pc) than any other tourist category on Goireland.com. Growth has continued in 2005 with almost 50pc more bookings recorded in January compared with the same four-week period last year. Some 90pc more domestic market bookings were made in January 2005 compared with the same month last year.
Domestic holidaymakers made the most bookings (23pc) in Ireland last year and their booking contribution grew by 19pc on 2003.
Gulliver’s separately published Irish Hotel Sector Review 2004 showed that online hotel bookings represented a significant growth area in 2004 and across the board 40pc of total tourism accommodation bookings. The company’s Goireland.com’s hotel bookings jumped 102pc on 2003 and in total Gulliver sold almost 170,000 hotel nights in 2004, which were valued at €9.2m.
According to Stephens, Irish tourism businesses are failing to grasp the tenets of online marketing that is central to capturing the DIY holidaymaker’s eye. “Tourism boards worldwide have generally failed to get to grips with the online world. This is partly because they are hamstrung by legacy infrastructure and vested interests. There is a huge opportunity here for Ireland. The potential benefits of a well-funded and properly integrated internet-focused marketing strategy are enormous for the tourism industry. Ireland could be the world leader in online tourism within the next two years. However, we have to stop tinkering around the edges of the internet, roll up our sleeves and act smartly online.”
He explains how this can be achieved: “Most tourism boards are mystified by online marketing. It’s about getting your product in front of people. In the old days of the web it used to be about populating search engines. Today, the value of the written word is back in vogue. Websites for Irish tourism providers should be populated with compelling text to get the essence of what they’re offering across to the prospective buyer. Good, old-fashioned writing and editing skills should be employed in online marketing campaigns. It’s about having a good product and presenting it well online.
“A few years ago there were tricks for fooling search engines into picking up your website. Search engines, such as Google and Yahoo!, are getting smarter and they make their money by giving people what they want. Marketing today is about following the website and search engine optimisation rules. It’s also about the commodifying of things such as accommodation, flights and car hire. It’s up to tourism businesses, particularly smaller guest houses and hotels competing with larger hotels, to distinguish themselves on more than price. And that’s about how you present and describe your product.”
Stephens also argues that hoteliers can also help to fight the rip-off Ireland accusations. “Accommodation providers throughout the Irish tourism industry have sustained repeated, unwarranted attacks that mistakenly claim that their prices epitomise the rip-off Ireland culture that prevails in parts of the wider service industry. Even a cursory analysis of Irish tourism accommodation price changes over the past three years shows that average price increases have been reasonable.
“For example, the average cost of three-star hotels, which provide a range of extra facilities and services, has fallen over the past number of years and is a key contributory factor for Ireland’s deserved reputation as a popular short-break destination for visiting tourists. Together with the availability of low-cost air fares, accommodation pricing has facilitated the increasing popularity of short breaks in Ireland and contributed positively to the tourism industry’s overall performance and its importance to the economy.”
Last week Fáilte Ireland launched a €3m home market campaign that will use the internet as a primary device for selling holidays. “Accommodation providers, for their part, should provide sufficient availability and added-value options to ensure this initiative’s success in driving domestic bookings,” Stephens insists.
“Fáilte Ireland’s €3m investment is the biggest ever domestic marketing campaign of its type and it underlines the importance of and commitment to developing a widespread and valuable internet-based tourism product for domestic holiday makers.”
By John Kennedy