Breaking the barrier: Tourist boards move into e-commerce

Increasingly, tourist boards are moving into e-commerce—or planning on it. That was the main message of a tourist board panel discussion at the Association of Travel Marketing Executive’s recent New York Marketing Issues Forum held here.
The European Travel Commission is looking at booking engines. The commission`s Web site currently links virtual visitors to sites on which they can book travel., Swiss Tourism’s site, has had a booking engine on its site since November 1999. The Caribbean Tourism Organization plans to sell travel on its site and possibly other items that complement Caribbean tourism such as music or books. The Belgian Tourist Office’s site already offers links so site visitors can book travel to Belgium and plans to expand these partnerships., in a move that is typical of other tourist boards’ plans, is seeking partnerships with companies that sell books or gear that go with an active Swiss vacation—skis, gloves, etc. Other partnerships can be with other travel sites, either specialty travel sites or mega online travel sites. Urs Eberhard, director, North America, for Swiss Tourism, said that sites like Travelocity can provide destinations with millions of eyeballs. That helps him do his job—get tourists to visit Switzerland. He said travel agents are another partner—the opening page of has a “My Travel Agent” locater.
The site operates in 31 different markets, with market-specific content, according to Eberhard, who has a staff of six working on the site and spends about 40% of his time working on it as well. “Our strategy from the beginning has been `Read, plan and go,`” he said. The site should make people dream of a vacation to Switzerland, give them itineraries and planning tools so they can get the product when they want it. Right now visitors to can book hotels, last-minute hotels, apartments, chalets and rental cars on the site.
Much of the type of travel that is popular to Switzerland is experiential, so Switzerland is looking at partnerships with tour operators or companies whose gear or products match Swiss travel opportunities. Such partnerships are import for tourist boards, which are non-profit entities with limited budgets. Eberhard said that his fulfillment budget for his Web site is $360,000 for its call center and mailing house and he has to stay within that budget. The company has introduced an online collateral brochure system so consumers can order brochures online. The Web makes it easier for tourist boards to charge consumers for shipping and handling costs.
Michael Youngman, director of marketing for the CTO, which in January relaunched its Web site, said that selling travel is not something the site plans on doing immediately—but, ultimately, it will. “We are far from it,” he said, “But it is in our forward going plan.” The CTO is not in the business of booking travel, Youngman said, but, he added that it doesn’t make sense for any tourist board to present consumers with information about booking a vacation to a destination—and then leave those consumers with no way to book that vacation. “We absolutely need to make strategic partnerships with appropriate operators in our various marketplaces,” he said.
Despite all this, the Internet is but one channel for tourist boards to use, said Eberhard. “The Web is one distribution channel,” he said. “Magazines are another. Television is another.” What’s important, he said, is to use all channels and integrate them. “The Web is a great, efficient way to talk to people, but not the only one,” he said.
Both the ETC’s experience and the CTO’s experience bore this out. Einar Gustavsson , director of the Iceland Tourist Office and chairman of the ETC, said that a year ago, the ETC embarked on an ambitious promotion of its site, which is essentially a portal for 30 different countries.
“We needed to get traffic growing,” he said. The ETC invested $600,000 on an ad campaign that included 300 TV spots in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and backed with them up with newspaper ads in the same markets. Visits to its Web site increased 400%. And, the ETC liked the demographics of those visitors who responded to its survey. Half of them had annual incomes of $75,000 or more. Eighty percent of those surveyed either went immediately to Europe or were planning to in 2001.