Leveraging events in tourism marketing

Incredible India should start to look beyond old & tired events like Pushkar Festival & the Alleppey Boat race towards the new-age events of a new-age India.

goMAD_festival

The world does this well..using contemporary local events to showcase tourism. Watch this great culinary plug from Tourism Australia using The Margaret River Gourmet Escape.

Here are some of the more interesting recent events that Incredible India ought to be using in all their promotions:

GoMAD festival in Ooty

Run the Rann in Kutch

World Sufi Spirit Festival in Jodhpur

Escape Festival in Naukuchiatal

 

 

Domestic tourists are from Mars, Inbound tourists are from Venus – Part I

Just saw a post on Quartz titled ‘Foreign tourists are seeing a different India than locals‘. Arguably having been the keenest watcher of Indian tourism & particularly Indian domestic tourism over the last 10 years, I can say this with confidence – the article gets its basic premise right but does not go anywhere near enough in exploring the fundamental differences between the two. So let me give it a whirl & explore one big difference in this post.

Indians take vacations to get way from crowded & dirty cities as often as possible. This quest more often that not compels us to take short weekend breaks to nearby destinations. Data of traveller behaviour on HolidayIQ.com (every month almost 5 million Indian travellers plan breaks using travellers reviews shared on HolidayIQ.com) suggests that weekend getaways number more than 10x of long vacations in India. Such weekend getaways, are therefore by definition,  not to the great big tourist attractions of the nation but to the small peaceful enclaves near cities with some greenery left. This includes places like Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh where hordes of people from Hyderabad, Vizag and Bhubaneshwar run to on weekends, Tarkarli in the south konkan coast of Maharashra, a favourite of people from Mumbai & Pune, Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh which offers respite to travellers from Nagpur, Bhopal & Indore and Mandarmani, the beach to which people from Kolkata flee regularly. Contrast this with the behavior of foreign (inbound) tourists. There are two dominant categories of foreign tourists to India – (1) the backpackers and (2) the geriatrics. The backpackers are youngsters mostly from Israel & the west who come looking for instant spirituality, undiscovered beaches and great weed, although not necessarily in that order. Most of them end up in Goa, Gokarna, Manali, & Rishikesh. The geriatircs are retired folk, mostly from Europe  who come to India as a once-in-a lifetime experience to either do the golden triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) or over the last decade, Kerala.

So the biggest difference lies in the fact that the core motivation of domestic & inbound tourists are quite different which leads them to drastically different destinations in India. But there is one place in India that both domestic & inbound tourists go to in large numbers – click here to find out :)

Tweeting badger & cool tourism advertising

tweeting_badgerTourism advertising is usually pretty ho-hum. Videos with beautiful pictures of scenic spots, the odd ‘local’ with a wide grin (if you can believe that the pearly set of 32 teeth are not that of a professional model!) and ‘inspiring’ music is pretty much where most reach.

The Tweeting badger breaks this mould in two important ways; but before I get into that, let me tell what the tweeting badger is all about. The smart folks at Johannesburgh zoo have hooked up a light activated gizmo that triggers a pre-written tweet every time the badger moves about in its cave. Which results in a steady stream of sassy (and sometimes surprisingly informative) tweets that I for one absolutely want to Follow.

Now how does this break the mould in tourism advertising? For one, this moves away from video as the standard format of tourism advertising to the emerging area of ‘ambient advertising’. Secondly, it recognises that ‘attractions’ of a destination can go well beyond natural beauty and the odd local and, if led by a sure & adventurous hand, can go into really varied territory.

Now, how about a stream of tweets from ol’ Shah Jahan triggered by the movement of birds above the Taj Mahal?

India’s inbound tourism – in search of a ‘new’ paradigm

Video

Seeking in India

India has always sold itself well to ‘seekers’, never really to ‘indulgers’. And in this lies our inability (not withstanding the regular self congratulatory blurbs emanating from our tourism ministry) to jump-start our inbound tourism.

‘Indulgers’ look for experience and that means they are looking to do something now – the Today matters to them. ‘Seekers’ on the other hand are looking for answers and are very likely to look for them in the past. And practically no country on earth has so much mind-share of Seekers as India.

The real question I guess is – can India be relevant to both?

Top 10 Travel Websites in India

Comscore has reported its independent list of the Top 10 travel websites in India. And HolidayIQ is one of them. And with that, we have joined the leadership group led by the venerable (and massively visited) Indian Railways booking site.

What is particularly gratifying is that HolidayIQ being a niche tourism site with information only relevant for holidays, unlike most of the other sites which offer broad travel or transport solutions/bookings, managed to make it to this list. What is also good for HolidayIQ is the fact that we are probably the only site in that list (excluding of course Indian Railways) that has practically no advertising used to drive its traffic. On the whole, a good place to be :)

Delhi’s homestays and B&Bs

Sodhi Lodge New Delhi

A little guest house in New Delhi

The commonwealth games were to be the coming-out party for Delhi’s small hotels, home-stays and B&Bs. But as we all know, things did not quite turn out that way. Not too many tourists in Delhi converts into despairing house owners & desolate premises. Not a good situation. But if the experience of places like Coorg in Karnataka and Kochi in Kerala are anything to go by, there is no reason to despair. The emerging breed of travellers – both domestic and international – seem to like alternate accommodations. The better ones among these little places in Delhi will get filled up in time. They just have to hold on.

Whither Budget Business Hotels in India?

A few years ago, in one of those ritual paroxysms that grip the Indian business community every so often, everyone decided to set up budget hotels across India. As is wont in such circumstances, serial announcements  were made, each one rivaling the previous about the number of rooms that would be set up across India in just 3 to 4 years. And as is wont again, nothing much has happened since.

Let me tell you why.

The basic premise went thus. With India’s economy booming at almost 10% growth every year there was a lot of new business activity expected. Most of this activity would require people to travel resulting in a huge  increase in the demand for mid-range and economy hotels for these itinerant business men. Given that the current capacity was all in low-end, dirty (nay, mostly filthy) ‘lodges’ that sprout next to bus stands and railway stations, there was clearly an opportunity to provide clean, hygienic, smart hotels that would provide great accommodation at a compelling price point.

Unfortunately, the script has not quite worked out the way it was intended to. Uptake has been sluggish for the few hotels that managed to get launched. And it has left a number of highly-paid heads being scratched vigorously (mostly of people who have never ever done low-end business travel in India themselves).

To understand why the whole things has been a damp squib, a good starting place would be to deconstruct the basic premise I outlined earlier. The hypothesis had the following elements:

1. Indian economy will grow

2. That will lead to massive growth in business travel

3. Most of this additional travel will be in the mid to lower end of the market

4. Evolving consumers will demand a new product in business travel accommodation

5. This ‘new’ product will be ‘hygienic, smart, functional’ rooms at around Rs 1000/- per night cost

My guess is that the first four elements of the hypothesis turned out to be broadly correct although probably much lesser in extent or speed than envisaged in business plans. Extensive reading of hotel reviews on HolidayIQ, lots of conversations with actual consumers and my own personal experience of low-end business travel back in my CA student days suggests to me that the problem is primarily in point 5 above.

We all agree that the average Indian budget business hotel (the ‘lodges’ we talked about) is extremely unhygienic and generally unkempt. But that is to miss the primary value they provide. In addition to providing a room with a bed to sleep on, these lodges provide travellers with a perception of being important. In classic Indian ‘high touch’ style, there are multiple minions (the quintessential ‘chhotus’) who hover around the traveller and cling on to every word and take barked orders with meek accetance and generally scurry about. This sense of finally being a VIP is the biggest value provided by small business hotels to small businessmen. And it is precisely this value that has been lost in the new breed of hotels. With their policy of no room service and general parsimony towards having employees, this new breed of ‘hygienic and smart’ hotels are exactly what their target customer wants to avoid. After all, who wants to walk into a people-less hotel and realise that one is truly unimportant.

And in this lies their failure.

Finding rail connections for your next holiday

One of those big frustrations I have faced is to figure out the right way to get trains to far away holiday destinations in India. For one, you need to know the nearest railway station. And then you have to get a list of trains. And then figure out various timings….

So, in HolidayIQ we decided to cut through this nonsense and make everything available in one place. So, if you live in say, Chennai and want to go on holiday to Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, here are the trains:

http://www.holidayiq.com/Chennai-Kanha-Train-Tickets-Booking-MAS-JBP-399.html

Cool or what :)

Hotel & Resort Chains in India

One of the problems facing travellers in India is the absence of well-known branded Hotel Chains across the country. Even though HolidayIQ has been able to find about 75 odd ‘chains’ (and I must admit, our definition of Chains is quite loose, since any organisation with 2 or more properties under its management is defined as a Chain), all of these between them control a negligible portion of the total number of leisure accommodation options there are.

Take a look at the list here.

I wish the more prominent ones such as Taj Hotels, Fortune Park Hotels, ITC Hotels, Lemon Tree, Club Mahindra etc would rapidly expand and get more Indian hotels and resorts under their wing. It is needed for India’s tourism to go to the next level.

The star tourism product for karnataka

Recently, my friend Rohit Hangal posed an interesting question on one of the Tourism Groups on Linked In. His question was:

If we had to chose among one ‘attraction/destination’ in ‘Bangalore/Karnataka’, what would that be and the reasons for it – Scouting for that one ‘Star Tourism Product’.

I love the question, because I believe the bane of Indian tourism is trying to ‘sell’ too many things at the same time.

Therefore, let me attempt an answer:

I don’t think I know Karnataka well enough to pop up all of the options. But having spent too many years in Management Consulting, I cannot avoid the temptation to develop a framework to find an answer. So, here is my 2-bit on this.

It should be:

- Relevant – relevant to the target market. If we assume the target market is the 25 to 45 year old India urban-dweller, then we better make sure s/he is truly interested in what we come up with. if we assume that the market is 60+ year Caucasians, that is another story.

- Defensible – we must be able to able to ‘defend’ it from other competing offerings. that is, there should be no threat of it becoming a ‘me-too” product. Would any World heritage work? Unlikely, since many other states also have ‘world heritage sites’

- Desirable – the people of Bangalore / karnataka (ie. the ‘owners’ of the attraction) must feel that this is a ‘desirable’ facet to promote. If ordinary folks are in some way not quite convinced, all of the effort will go in vain. For, every time the tourist comes into contact with the real product, there will be a strong possibility of disappointment.

- ready – the product must be ready for sale. Which means, a reasonable amount of necessary infrastructure (both core & tourism infrastructure) should already be in place

Any ideas?

Learning from Thailand’s tourism

We all know that Thailand has a pretty effective inbound tourism sector, clocking up about 3 times the number of foreign tourists we get (just to keep this stat in context, India has 6 times the land mass of Thailand and of course 20 times its population).

My recent trip to Phuket gave me some clues as to why this happens. The most important reason that I can see is that the Thai people are ‘naturals’ for tourism, with a warm & cheery disposition that makes an outisder welcome immediately. The second key reason is that the logistics of tourism involving the co.ordination of activities between multiple small actors works surprisingly smoothly in that country.

Let me take an example. We did a a one-day trip to Phang Nga, the place made famous by innumerable photos of awesome towering limestone rocks and sea caves. We booked this trip with a small tour operator just outside our hotel in the Karon beach area. ‘Tuk’, the smiling and cheerful young lady who ran the outfit spent enough time with us to go through all the options needed before consensus could be reached by an opinionated family of 4.  Then she made a call, confirmed availabilty and booked us for the trip. She said the cab to pick us would reach at 9 am the next morning.

It did. The cabbie picked up a couple of more small groups in a clean van and drove us over a neat expressway for about an hour to the pier from where we were to take a boat. At the pier we were met by ‘ying ying’ another smiling thai girl (so now you now why they get a real rep!) who was to be our guide on the boat trip. We got on to the boat and reached the caves where we were transferred to small canoes handled by young local lads. And then we were shifted to a small man-made island on stilts where we had lunch at a small restaurant. And so on..

Here is the notable thing. Tuk, the cabbie, ying-ying, the canoeists, the floating restautant – none of these people were officially a part of the company that operated the trip. However, every person performed their role to perfection and with complete predictability. We did not have to call or talk to anyone to co-ordinate anything. Imagine the same thing in India – the likelihood of one of these pieces not working seamlessly would have been very high.

I do not know how the Thais do this. But I do know one thing. If we can emulate this to even 50% of the efficiency of the Thais, we can substantially improve our tourism image.

Bad airport models 101 : Kochi airport

Anyone who has used Indian airports know that most of them are truly terrible. And if you have ever read the various international surveys of airports across the world, you will know that India’s airports always make up the tail end of these lists. Quite clearly, the Indian airport scene is bad.

The new Kochi airport was heralded as the beginning of the brave new world. Unfortuantely, Kochi airport to my mind is the absolute worst structure of airport management that has been devised yet. Let me tell you why.

There are 2 ways of running an airport. The first is the traditional way where the government runs it and where everyone using it is miserable. The second is where the government finds out that it knows very little of running modern airports and gets a specialist, private sector operator to run it on a day-to-day basis.

Kochi airport unfortunately has got the wrong end of the stick. In a peculiar parody, the money for the new Kochi airport has been put up by private sector investors and its operational management is in the hands of government bureaucrats and the public sector. In fact, most of the operations at the airport is managed by Air India, one of the world’s worst airlines (ranked in the bottom ten by Zagat). Pretty crazy, huh?

I was reminded of all this when I read a HolidayIQ review by a frustrated user of the airport. Here is a link to that review.

Legship, Sikkim

The gang at HolidayIQ has been busy discovering little-known tourism destinations across India. Amazingly, we have almost 500 Indian tourism destinations now and most of the small, new ones have been discovered by travellers who have asked us to add these destinations to the site.

Consequently, I have now discovered a new game for myself. Everyday I give myself an unlikely alphabet and find destinations I never knew about. It is a lot of fun actually.

My alphabet for today was ‘L’ and discovered ‘Legship’, which is quite an intriguing name anywhere & in India, is pretty crazy. Evidently, it is a small village near Pelling in Sikkim and you go there for the Kirateshwara Mahadev mandir, Phur Cha Chu sulphur baths & the Rangit Water World.

However, there is no word on how it acquired such a fancy name for itself.

Read more here.

India’s biggest tourism promotion website

Have been wondering which website is doing most for marketing Indian tourism. So, I did a quick check of recent Alexa numbers (see chart above) for Incredible India (the official promotion website of India’s tourism ministry) and the sites of two of India’s premier tourism states, kerala Tourism and Rajasthan Tourism.

Surprisingly, the Kerala Tourism site gets more traffic than the Incredible India site, which is a bit for a shame for the Incredible India guys. Incredible India however did get a huge spike in traffic (a few months before the beginning of period I have taken this chart for) when had a massive ad campaign underway – obviously, they were not able to hold on to the audiences after the campaign got over, which seems a real pity.

And since I couldn’t resist it, I also compared these 3 sites wth HolidayIQ which at the moment also exclusively contains tourism information on India. HolidayIQ beat all these sites by a huge distance. Of course, this is a slightly unfair comparison, since HolidayIQ is not a tourism promotion site but a site for India’s domestic holiday-goers to plan vacations. Which, come of to think of it, is probably not very different from what these sites ought to be doing.

The Incredible Marketing of India

Singapore has a land area of about 693 sq kms. India has 3.3 million sq km, making us about 5000 times larger than Singapore. In the year 2007, Singapore got over 10 million inbound tourists while India got a little under 5 million foreign tourists, less than half of Singapore . Therefore, using simple arithmetic we are about 10,000 times more inefficient than Singapore in getting inbound tourists. I think that is about right.

What explains this extraordinary incompetence of our country in attracting foreign tourists?

I don’t know.

But a good first step is to provide people wanting to travel to India with some simple, easy to understand information. An obvious place to assess whether we are providing such information is on the national website of our tourism promotion agency (after all, the internet has become the primary & often the only source of information for foreigners). And so I did a tiny exercise to find out Visa information on the Incredible india website and compare it with the tourism promotion website of a high-performing tourism nation, Australia. Here is what I found.

The first para on the relevant page on Australia.com reads as follows:

Visa

You’ll need a visa to enter Australia. Tourist visas are valid for three months, but you can also apply for a longer-term stay. Find out more about the different visas and how to apply.

Contrast this with the opening para of the Visa page on Incredible India, which reads as follows:

Visa fees are non-refundable and subject to change without notice. The High Commission reserves the right on granting and deciding type/duration of visa irrespective of the fees tendered at the time of making application. Granting of Visa does not confer the right of entry to India and is subject to the discretion of the Immigration Authorities. Visa can be applied for in person or by post at the High Commission of India in London. Visa applications from persons not ordinarily residing in the UK or from people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan origin are considered only in the High Commission of India, London and Consulate General of India, Birmingham and their processing may take one week or in some cases much longer. Applicants not ordinarily resident in the UK and Sri Lankan nationals are required to complete an additional form. Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals have to file special visa application forms. In the following cases processing of applications will take longer: (a) British Nationals holding dual nationality or of other origin, (b) applicants not resident in the UK, (c) where clearance from India is mandatory, (d) visitors to restricted areas and (e) certain cases where documents may need to be verified. Visa Section will contact the applicant about the time of delivery for such passports. Please note that each application is examined individually and the time taken for issuing Visa will vary from case to case.

I don’t know about you, but I found the 34 words on the Aussie site made a lot of sense and invited me in to find out more. In contrast, the 237 words in the first para on Incredible India gives me the strong impression that I am not particularly welcome.

Why?

Who writes this stuff?

Stereotypes : the quintessential Indian Tourist, part I

Last week, Sidin Vadukut of Mint sent me a few questions on the “quintessential Indian tourist”, which made me think a bit – and attempt a post on it. (Incidentally, do watch out for his piece later this month on Mint Lounge)

First of all, Sidin’s questions:

Indians are obessed with a few destination nations ; US, Singapore and Hong Kong. Is this true? Why is this? Surely people are aware of more places to go to.

Beaches, amusement parks, resorts and mountains. Is that all the Indian tourist cares about? A recent Kuoni survey seemed to think so.

One of the great joys of going abroad is the food & drink. But do Indian travellers prefer to carry teplas and pickle instead? Are we greatly opposed to eating food abroad?

A recent Expedia survey indicated that Indian tourists were some of the rudest passengers abroad. Only after the French. Is this a true representation of reality? Are we really bad? Or are we just perceived to be so beacuse of language issues and an inherent fear of being ripped off?

Are we stingy travellers? Do we count every penny that leaves our pockets? Is that why some hoteliers are terrified of us?

These are some of the popular stereotypes of the Indian tourist. What is your take on them? Are we just misunderstood? Or is it the sad truth?

Since answering all the questions will result in me being awarded an M.Phil (a highly undesirable condition at my stage of life), let me try a general take on a single aspect : the Indian tourist stereotype.

So, here goes.

I actually think this is great news, Indian tourists getting stereotyped that is. Continue reading

Microsites from Incredible India

buddha_micr0site_incredible_india_.jpg

The Incredible India website has a number of micro-sites. The idea is to showcase the best of various themes that define Indian tourism. So there are 18 micro-sites for subjects ranging from Ayurveda, Yoga, Summer Retreats, Central India, Walk with the Buddha etc. All fascinating subjects, each of which can be a brilliant site in itself. Unfortunately, all the energy seemed have gone into thinking up these themes. The sites themselves suffer from too little content, poor navigation and that continuing bane of Indian tourism, a gimmicky approach.

Here is what is shown for the entry relating to the Jewish religion in India (in the Pilgrimage micro-site). 3 tiny paragraphs, one each on Kochi, Pune & Ahmedabad. No photos at all. Of course, no videos. No real sense of history, time or context. I have personally stood inside the Jewish Synagogue at Kochi and marveled at the murals depicting the arrival of the first Jews at Cranganore (kodungalloor). Why can’t we make this stuff come alive.

Good idea, poor execution.

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St Mary’s Island near Malpe beach, Udupi, Karnataka

Here are bunch of photos of St Mary’s Island, taken by my photographer-friend Nagesh who has roamed this coastline since his childhood (and who is, incidentally, shooting India’s first fully digitally shot movie). Since they are such lovely snaps, I decided to let the story follow the photos.

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st-marys-island-rocks-sunset-udupi-malpe1.jpg

st-marys-island-rocks-lagoon-udupi-karnataka-malpe.jpg

st-marys-island-ferry-udupi-photo-picture.jpg

As I wrote sometime ago, if Karnataka gets its act together, it has everything going for it to emerge as India’s top tourism destination. Here is more proof.

St Mary’s island is a little slip of land about 30 minutes out into the sea from Malpe Beach in Udupi. As you can see in the photos, God certainly let loose on this one; it is gorgeous and I can say this with the certainty of someone who has seen a fair number of beaches and islands across the world. The island is full of crystallised basalt rock, a unique rock formation found in very few places in the world, the most notable being the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And, the sea between the island and the long curve of the beach at Malpe is placid and gentle (or at least looks that way).

As I stood on this little island last week, it was clear that it is crying out for a bit of tender, loving attention. Continue reading