Ecotourism conference paper

International marketing - my private agony! The Internet - placebo or cure?




Bruce Bickerstaff
Meet the People Pty Ltd

A. Introduction

There is a great deal of relevant material which I would like to be able to address today, but with the limited time available I shall only be able to cover a portion of this. That being the case I have prepared a more detailed paper for publication in the Conference proceedings. The two speakers who follow me will be detailing their own personal experiences in relation to new technology, and in so doing will no doubt shed further light on other aspects of this multi-faceted topic.

I have to confess that I am by no means a computer expert. My motivation in embracing the technology is largely just to try to increase productivity, minimise business costs, and basically maximise my business "edge". While I would encourage you to build up a basic general knowledge of the new technology, the increasingly user-friendly nature of such technology means that you only need fairly rudimentary knowledge of its technical aspects. As with most things however, the more you can do yourself then invariably the less you will end up having to pay other people to do things for you.

The topics which I will cover today are:

  • some basics about the Internet for people who have had little or no experience with it, and

  • some comments on using the Internet for marketing ecotourism

  • B. Internet basics

    B1 Some terminology

    The mass media has created some confusion by using various terms incorrectly or inter-changeably.

    The electronic dimension or Cyberspace has various elements of which one is the Internet. Essentially no-one owns or runs the Internet and it operates fairly independently of national borders and government control.

    The "Internet" consists of various elements of which one is the World Wide Web (WWW). This is the part of the Internet where most of the growth and exciting development are occurring. The "World Wide Web" is an informal network of thousands of web servers (individual computers).

    A "web server" typically accommodates a collection of web sites. Web servers are operated by companies, by government agencies, and by educational institutions. My company, Meet the People, has a site on the WWW on a server operated by an Internet access provider.

    A "web site" typically accommodates a collection of interlinked web pages

    Thus the smallest unit in this system is a "web page", which is a single computer file

    Another element of the Internet that many people have heard of, other than the WWW, are the so-called proprietary networks like "CompuServe" and "On Australia/Microsoft Network".

    If you can imagine the Internet as a big jungle, then the proprietary networks are like fenced-off rose gardens within it. The companies controlling the networks determine what gets allowed into and out of the gateways. In the early days this was little or nothing but now, the network owners are increasingly touting access to the WWW as a lure for subscribers.

    B2 Who is using the Internet?

    Many statistics are being bandied around, but most people agree that there are about one million people with internet access in Australia and about 30-40 million worldwide. It is generally agreed that growth of the system is exponential. This is being fuelled by a cycle of things like:

  • more powerful computers at a lower price
  • better and more user-friendly software
  • better communications systems generally due in part to related developments like pay TV
  • more content of general interest on the Internet, including more commercial content
  • .. and so as more people sign up for internet access then more companies are encouraged to develop sites, making for more interesting content, encouraging more people to get Internet access, leading to more competition between Internet access providers and so lower access rates, and so on.
  • Some recent statistics from newspaper articles:

    "...China went from just two domains (or Internet sites) early last year to 593 early this year; Argentina, from one to 1,415; Japan, from 38,267 to 99,034. Figures for Internet sites worldwide showed a jump to about five million in January, from about two million a year earlier..."

    Most Internet users are drawn from the higher socio-economic and younger sections of western society, although the demographics are quickly broadening out:

    "A survey of 13,000 Internet users conducted in early-mid 1995 found that the average age of net users is now 35 (up from 31 in the previous survey in October 1994). Fifteen per cent of users are now female (up from 5% in January 1994). The estimated average income for US users was US$69,000, with European users lagging at US$53,000.

    Thirty-one per cent of respondents work in computer-related fields and 23.7% in educational fields. Twenty-two per cent described themselves as professional, 12.2% as "management", and 10.8% as "other".

    Over 72% use their Web browser at least once per day..."

    B3 How do you access the Internet?

  • a reasonable quality PC, on which special Internet software has been installed

  • a modem - the faster the better (max. 28.8) and telephone line connection

  • an account with an Internet access provider

  • some limited training will usually be required (eg. one day course), as will some assistance in setting up your computer
  • Internet access providers may offer one or more different levels of Internet access. The most basic level allows you send and receive Email, a very useful and economical means of communication which allows savings in terms of phone, fax and postage/courier. This is especially true if you are regularly communicating with people overseas. Email can be sent to almost all parts of the world for the cost of little more than a local call.

    A higher level of Internet access will allow you to use other Internet functions including the ability to use a graphical browser to explore the WWW (assuming you have appropriate software). Access to proprietary networks like CompuServe requires a separate access account directly with the company offering the service.

    It is difficult to provide costs for Internet access as different access providers tend to have different and ever-changing pricing structures (things are quite competitive). As a rough guide however, you would expect to pay about $25 to establish an account and then around $40 per month. In addition you will pay a local call charge each time you access the Internet (assuming you are in the same STD zone as your access provider)

    To actually establish a presence on the Internet, ie. a web site or web page, is a separate process involving additional costs. If you have a web page you probably will also require an Internet access account, so that you can respond to email queries. Again the costs involved in obtaining an Internet presence vary considerably depending on how well you shop around, how sophisticated/comprehensive a presence you require, and how much you can do yourself.

    B4 What can you see and do on the Internet?

    There are now many type of sites on the Web provided by individuals, non-profit organisations, companies, government agencies, and educational institutions. The information they provide includes text, photographs and other images. Video, sound and animation are available but are not widely used at present due to technical constraints. It is important to note that significant developments on the web are occurring on a month by month basis. For example the use of tables as a formatting device in web pages, and the use of non-English language letters (eg. Japanese characters), have only become feasible in the last six months.

    (The problem with using more sophisticated formats is that not everyone can utilise them given the software and hardware in use, etc, and this requires judgement on the part of the page designer)

    One of the larger Australian Internet access providers, Ozemail, is apparently signing up 1,000 new customers each week. I want to note that part of the reason why all these people want to surf the Internet is for the fun and entertainment value that it holds - they don't just want their heads filled up with masses of encyclopaedic facts.

    You would have all heard of computers which you can speak into and they convert it into a text file. Well there is a web site that does the opposite: the "Talk-to-cat" site. Another interesting site which perhaps has more relevance to travel marketing is the "Volcano-Cam" site. This image was produced by a video camera set up near an active volcano in New Zealand. It captures an image every two minutes which is sent to a server where it can be accessed from all over the world. There are various other similar live video sites, including one which shows a street scene in the Beverley Hills/Hollywood area of Los Angeles.

    This concept could be used by, for example, a beachfront resort owner to market their property. A camera could be set up overlooking the pool, an image from which could be accessed by people shivering in their London townhouse, etc. The camera could even be repositioned at dusk to show the sunset over the sea, etc. Compare this with the traditional marketing approach using a boring brochure (possibly) showing a picture of the property five years ago before the paint peeled, and on the one day of the year that the sun shined.

    C. Some comments on using the Internet for marketing ecotourism

    C1 Strengths and weaknesses of web-based marketing

    C1.1 Strengths

  • Disseminating information over the Web is immediate but much cheaper than, for example, television.

  • Information disseminated over the Web is not "dead", but can be adapted, updated, re-used, etc

  • Marketing over the Web tends to facilitate and involve more two way communication between market and "seller" which is potentially good for both parties (although presents major difficulties for big companies like airlines)

  • The information can be updated daily if desired and old information is automatically erased and removed from circulation

  • A vast amount of information can be presented with only a small increment in cost as further information is added. I think this is important in selling newer-style tourism products where people want to know about the philosophy, background of principals, etc and not just access a glorified price list.

  • Costs less than traditional travel marketing options, especially when you look at it from a per-person-reached basis. Cost can be reduced by shopping around, and doing as much as you can yourself (eg. write copy, get images scanned, etc).

  • Web sites can readily feature provision for enquiries and/or bookings, and email is a much cheaper proposition than ISD telephone, fax and post - for both parties. Many bookings will be direct bookings from consumers, leading to savings with respect to commission payments.

  • The demographics of Internet users is a reasonably close fit with most inbound visitors to Australia, particularly those seeking the newer styles of experiential travel, eg. ecotourists

  • Most Internet service providers can provide you with details of who is accessing your information and what pages within the site they visited. This is very interesting and certainly makes you feel better about signing the cheques. You can also use this information in modifying your site, in marketing it over the Net, etc, assuming you have the co-operation of the people running your web server.

  • No paper is used which is pleasing to the conservation-minded
  • C1.2 Weaknesses

    The Internet is currently a wild and woolly place and there are a number of both technical and non-technical problems associated with it. It is the non-technical ones that are probably the most problematical:

  • ignorance is bliss - beware the sharks. The Internet is trendy and many people, including companies, are keen to jump aboard this particular band-wagon. At the same time most people know very little about it and many don't want to have to find out and prefer to pay someone else to worry about it for them. This makes for perfect shark breeding conditions. Buyer beware!

  • People just aren't buying (yet). Just as with brochures in a hotel lobby, the majority of people ("surfers") are picking up everything in sight and not subsequently buying anything. This is partly due to a current mindset of using a computer for entertainment rather than to shop & buy - this will change over time. For the time being however, many people still want to look at something concrete before handing over any money.

    I am surprised by the number of people who come to my web site (which has far more information than my brochure) and email me to say "looks interesting, can you please post me your brochure".

  • Credit card security and the lack of a uniform system for transactions. Some of the greatest minds in the financial/banking world are working on this as we speak, so don't expect results soon! There are already systems up and running for financial transactions, and for encryption of information, but until there is a single universal system in place not much is going to happen in terms of cyber-business. If that system were controlled by a single company they would be in a position of tremendous power, and this concept is being strongly resisted.

  • Lack of quality control of online information/censorship. At the moment it is almost a state of anarchy which makes it a very creative medium indeed. This situation is also hampering the development of cyber-business to some extent.

  • Copyright, Consumer protection, and in fact many legal issues are a big question mark. If I buy travel from someone other than a licensed travel agent (in a country which has an industry compensation fund), will I get my money back? Who will help me do it? etc etc. Expect this to be a big growth area in the legal profession.

  • Limitation of the telephone system. Surfing can be painfully slow, even with a good modem. We have reached the limit of the standard telephone system (nineteenth century technology). At present the next step up is to get a dedicated high speed line, which is still too expensive for domestic application. This problem will be addressed with the widespread installation of fibre-optic cables, but it may be some time before such a system (the so-called information superhighway) will be an international standard. There is also a related problem with overcrowding/congestion of systems. This means accessing sites can be slow or impossible.

  • Instability of software and systems, mysterious technical glitches also makes for some frustrating times and can put people off the medium.

    The cumulative effect of these factors has certainly helped create a market opening for proprietary networks like CompuServe and On Australia. These problems are all being addressed however, albeit to varying extents, and given the pace of change with the Web we may be looking at an entirely new electronic landscape within the next year or two.

    C2. The factors which differentiate a good, from a not-so-good, internet presence

    Establishing an Internet presence is not like buying a small display ad in the Yellow Pages, and needs to be approached in a quite different light and with consideration to certain key variables. There are many mediocre or even pretty terrible web pages around. A bad web page will, if it is ever found, be quickly surfed over and never re-visited.

    A good web page/site should have the following characteristics:

  • contains information of general interest to Internet users (ie. in this case future visitors to Australia) and not just a superficial sales blurb

  • contains a range of links to other relevant sites. This makes the site an integral part of the web and helps with "value-adding" from the perspective of the Internet population

  • is aesthetically pleasing but without excessive use of graphics (overwhelming information content and causing slow loading)

  • has a structure which is logical and which makes it easy to use

  • is regularly updated and enhanced (not just left to gather dust)

  • can be easily found. It is entirely possible that you could pay some several thousand dollars to put your company "on" the Internet, and be all but invisible to potential clients. Given that there is no single Internet "white-pages", it is incumbent upon the person setting up the site (or page) to ensure that it is listed in relevant "search engines", has reciprocal links in places to other relevant sites & directories, and is duly announced in relevant newsgroups and "what's new" fora. This also requires that some ongoing work take place, eg. to ensure links remain valid, that there are periodic items re-posted in relevant newsgroups, eg. announcing new features.
  • C.3 A word about CD-ROM

    Another recent high technology marketing option which people like me are being asked to pay for is CD-ROM. It is my view that the development of the Web has largely overtaken CD-ROM in the context of marketing travel, with perhaps a few exceptions. I would further propose that CD-ROM-based marketing presents only marginal advantages in comparison to traditional-print based advertising (eg. inclusion of sound & video footage). Consider the following:

  • the information starts going stale the moment the CD-ROM is produced, and there are the logistical difficulties of ensuring that people who have earlier versions are subsequently provided with updates

  • from the proposals put to me thus far, the cost of participation seems little cheaper than print advertising (and I suspect often reaching a far smaller audience)

  • the amount of information which advertisers can present (afford to present) seems to be very limited, again not allowing much more material than in a largish print ad

  • the problem of producing and distributing CD-ROMS, including postage costs, establishment of distribution channels, etc, are just as troublesome as for the current print-based system

  • there is no facility for people to make queries or make bookings, so there is still the cost of mail, telephone and fax to contend with
  • C.4 And in closing

    And so is the Internet a placebo, a cure or neither? The answer varies according to where you are standing now and in which direction you are looking. For many however the answer now is a mixture of placebo and partial cure. It is a placebo in that it is encouraging to be able to talk about access rates to web pages in the tens of thousands, after paying for print ads that you really don't know if anyone ever looked at. It is a cure in that if you do it properly (see C2), and have the right product, then you will achieve modest results (and probably better than the results you are getting now from print ads).

    Moreover the Internet is set to become more of a cure and less of a placebo as some of the trends noted in this paper continue to develop.

    Thus the Internet is not going to be a panacea for all your marketing woes, and you are still going to have to pursue a range of measures in this regard. Likewise do not expect a sudden burst in business as soon as you launch your web page - because it is just not going to happen.

    Nevertheless I believe that modest expenditure in gaining familiarity, and subsequently some exposure, with the Internet is warranted. I also believe that the group who will benefit most will be those offering low volume services such as homestays, ecotours, etc. This is good news indeed as this is the very group who are least well served by the existing travel industry sales and marketing model.

  • The author of this paper can be contacted at bruceb_is [at] lycos dot com

    Bruce Bickerstaff Copyright © 1995 - 2002

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