Online Travel Market

Online Travel Market

Tehran hosted the Fifth Digital Marketing and Tourism Industry Conference at Milad Tower on Friday, which drew a sizable crowd of business owners from the travel industry.
Keynote speakers from Britain and Spain delivered content-rich talks that will no doubt help domestic firms claim a stake in the lucrative online travel market.
The event took nearly half a day, but for lack of space this report will focus on the key issues discussed.

  National Tourism Platform
Duncan Alexander delivered the first talk of the day, with a focus on the impact of technology and the social change it brings about in the travel industry.
Alexander boasts over 20 years of experience in the travel sector and has held senior management and marketing positions at Mercator (the commercial arm of the Emirates Group) and Amadeus IT Group. He is currently the director of Dubai-based Travel Marketing Store.
He said the global travel industry is a $7.6 trillion business and accounts for 9.8% of global GDP.
“[In Iran] 25% of the GDP was tourism. Today it’s 2%, which is all domestic,” Alexander said. “This is going to change.”
Alexander said he has been following the chatter online and has seen that there is a “pent-up demand” to visit Iran.
“I hear and I read you’ve got an aspiration for 20 million visitors a year … that’s a lot of infrastructure, a lot of work, a lot of opportunity,” he said.
He said while Iran may become a hotspot for regional countries, it has to start thinking big to draw tourists from further east and west.
For Iran to reach its ambitious tourism goals, those involved need to understand that everybody makes an impact on the industry: from the taxi driver who picks up tourists at the airport to the hotel porter.
“You all need to work together … to stand a much better chance of winning the market share of the travel purchase,” he said.
To help centralize tourism services, Alexander proposed the creation of what he called a national tourism platform.
The travel expert said developing tourism has become a national agenda, but due to stiff competition in the world, little-known places can hardly get any visibility and that is where the national platform comes in.
The platform could “bring in the government, the stakeholders and private enterprises to aggregate and distribute [tourism] products”.
The cooperative effort of the public and private sectors leads to the creation of an online platform that hosts hotels, destination management companies, airlines, tour operators and local services.
The platform is made available domestically and internationally, and brings foreign tour operators on board.
Alexander’s suggestion is aimed at the growing potential of inbound tourism, but it also offers Iranian tourism authorities access to accurate statistics on inbound tourism—which Iran desperately needs—such as the favored destinations and the products they are interested in.

  Find Your Niche
Nick Garner, the founder of 90 Digital, took to the stage next to speak about search engine optimization and how tourism service providers should promote their products online.
SEO is the process of maximizing the number of visitors to your website by ensuring it appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.
Garner spoke about the importance of “being seen” on Google search results and urged Iranian travel agency owners to “park their ego” and take a lead from successful websites based in other countries.
He said by watching and learning from successful tourism websites and studying how they promote their products worldwide, Iranians can build their online content around the same principles to market Iranian tourism.
The expert said that to be seen on Google and rank highly on search engines, the website owners must put up things sought after by potential tourists. In other words, think like a customer and promote the services in a way that answers their needs.
To prove how far behind the competition Iranian websites are, he displayed Google search results using keywords such as “travel to Iran” and “cheap flights to Iran”. The “travel” keyword yielded only one Iranian website in the top 10 results, while no Iranian websites featured in the “flight” group.
He said the usefulness of an effective website, i.e. how well they answer consumers’ questions, is more important that the website design.
Using the concept of links as votes, Garner said the more useful a website is, the more referrals or links it gets from other websites, which in turn improve its profile and helps it climb search result rankings.
Garner warned against competing with well-established websites, proposing that Iranian brands find a niche and excel at it.
Pointing to the rise in global demand to travel to Iran, he ended his talk by stressing the importance of relevant keywords and providing content pertinent to consumer needs.
“You don’t need to be an SEO expert; you only need to choose the right keywords,” Garner said.

  Offer Incentives
Gareth Hoyle, managing director at Marketing Signals, delivered a speech with a focus on how to market Iranian tourism products to the western traveler.
He displayed a picture of snow-covered mountains in northern Tehran and said Iran is an unknown destination to western tourists, adding that most people are unaware of what Iran has to offer.
As opposed to Iran, where most people go to travel agencies to book their trips, in the West people use aggregator websites to plan their trips. So, to draw western tourists, Iranian tourism services must go digital.
Hoyle stressed that impact of “word of mouth” and said the user-generated content on websites such as the lonelyplanet.com and tripadvisor.com can make or break a business.
“Let’s not forget, we are never going to please everyone … so let’s do a few things to make them leave your business with a smile,” he said.
Offering incentives can help influence consumer behavior, prompting them to leave stellar reviews online.
The tourism expert said since the average traveler reads between 6-12 hotel reviews before making a decision, it is imperative to get as many positive reviews as possible.
“Why not give [the tourists] a free lift to the airport? They will write about it and tell their friends, and the knock-on effect is that you get more business,” he said.
He said little things, such as offering tourists “a cold glass of water upon arrival will be appreciated”.
Hoyle said merely promoting your services on your website will not suffice and urged business owners to advertise Iran using short videos.
“Iran has 19 World Heritage Sites, that’s crazy!” he exclaimed, adding that only a handful are known to the average western tourist.
In the end, he encouraged service providers to use pictures of Iranian attractions on social media and not wordy ad campaigns to promote their services.

  Targeted Advertising
A lawyer by education, Alex Kenny’s penchant for marketing made him the head of advertising at Fletchers Solicitors, a position he has held since 2012.
He said most people in England do not know much about Iran and what they do know comes from western sources.
“Now, I’m really hopeful that Iran and Iranian people will have the opportunity to tell their own story,” he said.
“I’m excited about that and honored to be one of the first English people to come over [since the British Embassy reopened].”
Kenny’s presentation promoted targeted marketing as opposed to widespread ad campaigns.
He said businesses must use data to profile and target their customers, since targeted online advertising is far less costly than widespread marketing and considerably more profitable.
The expert said there is no lack of data in Iran, “you only need to know what you’re looking for”.
Echoing Hoyle’s sentiments, Kenny said hoteliers must promote the city they are located in, as well as their establishment.

  Memorable Marketing
Centered on brave marketing strategies, the final talk of the event was delivered by Beatriz Oficialdegui, marketing director at Spain-based Destinia.com
“When I was asked to come to Iran, people around me expressed concern over safety issues. But once I started digging a little bit into the country, I decided that I just had to come,” she said.
Oficialdegui said tourism has gone digital and it is essential to keep up with technology or risk losing out on the lucrative travel market.
“The fact that 47% of people in Iran use smartphones means the mentality and the basics are already there and the opportunity must be seized,” she said.
The marketing director said tourism service providers must become provocateurs, because hard-hitting marketing “leaves an impression on consumers, which makes them remember your brand”.
To drive her point home, Oficialdegui mentioned Destinia as an example and said when the company was in its infancy and lagging in competition, they began offering “flights to space” at ludicrous prices.
Even though the tours had no takers, the online travel agency received huge publicity in the media, which turned it into a household name.

  Moving Forward
Rare events such as this conference provide a platform for enthusiastic Iranians to mingle with experienced professionals to help promote Iranian tourism in the 21st century. Despite its vast potential, Iranian tourism has failed to become a leading industry.
The power of social media and convenience of content-rich multilingual websites can and will help Iran realize its tourism goals.
Speaking on behalf of himself and his colleagues, Alexander said at the end, “We will be Iran’s ambassadors and encourage people to come.”


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