With the global economic slowdown still taking a toll, there has perhaps never been a more important time for innovation in the travel and tourism industry. One growth sector now being explored involves so-called meet-the-people offerings – where travellers are actively encouraged to integrate with local communities. Here Chris O’Toole takes a look.
Surfing around travel websites, flicking through travel agents’ brochures or dissecting the sales spiel of a glossy magazine, even the savviest traveller can lose sight of their original intention.
Are we searching for a chance to indulge those hackneyed clichés about ‘broadening the mind’ and ‘finding oneself’; or was it something more specific?
Perhaps we were looking for a chance to rekindle a lost passion for a favourite sport, a desire to tan under a foreign sun, or even a just a simple search for fun?
For many travellers, the purpose is more particular.
For them, travel is an opportunity to integrate with other cultures, to develop different opinions about the unfamiliar, overcome distance, stereotypes and prejudices and even to adopt a new outlook on the world. It is this aspiration, argue researchers at Germany’s Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung, which can be utilised by the global tourism industry to recalibrate its offering.
Through the development of the meet-the-people sector - presenting guests with sophisticated, intercultural meeting opportunities while on holiday in the developing or newly industrialised world - tour operators can not only bolster their bottom line, but also aid global integration.
Meet & Greet
To reach these conclusions Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung carried out nearly 8,000 personal interviews with a representative sample of the German travel sector. What emerged was a previously underappreciated – and consequently undersold – sector of the market.
Some 22 per cent of those questioned stated they would make use of personal meetings with local persons, with the express aim of gaining a better insight into the country and people through personal contact.
A further 23 per cent were unsure and can therefore be considered receptive to the idea.
This equates to a market of roughly 25 million people in Germany alone; while extrapolated across Europe, the figures reach the tens of millions. What is more, those interested in personalised meetings with the domestic populations were among the wealthiest (typically with a net monthly income of €2,500 or more), most educated, and youngest sections of Germany society.
Meeting People Is Easy
But how should these potential meetings be arranged?
Cost was not as important as perhaps might be assumed, with only 37 per cent of those interested in participation stating they would expect any activity to be free of charge.
Moreover, some two thirds of those questioned would prefer to be accompanied, either by a tour guide or other guests, when meeting local inhabitants, while a final third would prefer an individual face-to-face meetings.
Finally, those seeking out personal experience with local people cited Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Egypt and Turkey as possible destinations.
Virtually all those interested would require good information on the country and its people before departure, while a tour guide – able to offer experience of local people and their living conditions while off the tourist trail – would also be valued by many.
In conclusion, this previously unheralded segment can be differentiated and plausibly described in terms of its socio-demographic characteristics; i.e. young, wealthy, and educated travellers.
However, this is a below-the-surface segment, and is therefore hardly perceptible, Consequently there are few relevant offerings.
Despite this, to those interested in an opportunity to gain abetter understanding of everyday life in the destination country and of its people, culture, living conditions and problems, the opportunity cannot be rated highly enough.
Thus agents seeking to enhance their product offering need to make the consumer aware their offering allows opportunities to gain insight into the everyday realities of a destination. Small and medium-sized tourist operators (specialist companies), in particular, should endeavour to make their guests’ holidays in developing and newly industrialised countries as interesting and sustainability rich in experiences as possible.
This is, for example, the case with group trips provided as study trips, adventure trips or activity holidays.
Some operators already make meeting opportunities a key element of their travel offerings and company philosophy. They take advantage, in particular, of the opportunity to offer their guests something special and unusual: added value which goes beyond the same old year-on-year travel ritual to become a part of individual life experience and – last but not least – can also help to increase customer loyalty.
One such example is Meet the People Tours, which let guests see something of different cultures; visiting development projects and meeting a wide variety of people.
However, there are limitations. The challenge facing tour operators is combining the interest of tourists and local people in an organisationally and economically feasible and socially acceptable way.
In practice, it would not be possible to arrange meetings for all those interested in meet-the-people offerings with a local contact partner. The availability of the members of the local pool of contact persons is not unrestricted.
Involvement in too frequent meetings may also result in reticence and weariness emerging.
This is where the meeting programme meets its limitations, but this could be communicated openly and should be accepted by tourists interested in meetings.
In the mid-term is appears there is tremendous growth potential in the sector, but given the limitations outlined above the opportunity to delve deeper into a host community will remain a niche activity for those in the know.