The UNWTO/WTM Ministers’ Summit on ‘Destination Branding: New Challenges in a Changing Market’ held on the 3rd November at WTM 2015, threw up some interesting issues before Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports, Mrs Kobkarn WattanavrangkulThe first of course, was the ever-popular topic of social media, seen as both an ally and a bugbear, as it empowers consumers to become the best or worst ambassadors of a destination. The Minister’s point of view was that this depended entirely on the quality of the experience as also the delivery of the promise made to customers. Destinations are now perceived to have greater control over the social media medium and therefore, messages that follow through from here; it is the age of the consumer and the best way to ensure a consumer becomes a good ambassador is to make good on what was promised. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is quite savvy regarding social media. It is actively engaged with Facebook and Twitter and has also promoted Thailand as a Muslim-friendly destination by the aid of mobile apps.
It is undeniable that social media also magnifies the role of any crises on destinations, however, it is but a medium that can be used equally effectively to promote positive content as well. Swift, concise and truthful responses are key here for competent reputation management. A case in point is the recent bomb blast at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok this August and how capably the aftermath was handled by TAT by keeping the public well informed through accurate, timely messages that the situation was under control. This had the desired ‘ripple’ effect in the travel and tourism industry of getting the message across to their clients; although there was a slight dip in visitor numbers, business got back to normal fairly quickly. “The other point to be noted is that no marketing budgets were slashed, which used to happen earlier; the new school of thought is that it is more important to maintain visitor confidence,” said the Minister.
The point was argued that when one empowers a consumer, it should also mean more responsibility from the consumer’s side. Consumer empowerment should be leveraged to promote responsible travel, by giving out correct messages about a destination’s customs and traditions – inspire one who will inspire others in his network, resulting in more visitor spend and therefore, tourism sustainability.
The creative arts, events, and cultural as well as social factors are shaping today’s national brands. This can also impact countries as tourism destinations, who need to highlight their traditions, heritage and everything else that makes them unique as a people. The ability to highlight a nation’s unique character is what makes it a successful destination brand. It is what Thailand has ably managed with its ‘Discover Thainess’ campaign and is giving it aggressive exposure, through traditional forms of media but especially, social media. Apart from promoting its cuisine, Thailand is now focussing on enhancing the popularity of its textiles, especially Thai silk, and has launched a special ‘Thailand Academy’ project for which leading fashion designers, fashion design students, bloggers and the press from nine countries were hosted to a ‘Thailand Academy III’ educational project last April. Other activities that are promoted include the Songkran festival, with many travellers making it a must-do activity, or Muay Thai, the traditional Thai martial art of boxing.
Indeed, public-private sector collaboration is much to be desired in the new and ever-changing scenario, as both have an equal stake in ensuring the success of marketing campaigns. According to the Minister, such partnerships will not only drive visitor numbers but also create successful job opportunities and healthy economies. In Thailand specifically, many companies co-operate by co-hosting FAM trips, taking part in TAT-led roadshows and much more. It is a vast network in which the provincial governors are also involved.
While nation branding is perceived as a more holistic approach, such as the ‘Amazing Thailand’ or ‘Discover Thainess’ campaigns, destination branding goes a little deeper and links niche-markets with specific experiences. Thailand has taglines for this too, such as the ‘12 Hidden Gems.’ This leads to an entirely new generation of emerging tourism products and services that takes creativity to new heights. The role of the destination marketing organisations has not changed – what has changed are the techniques of the marketing process. It is also imperative to stay on top of the technology game, if one is to woo the young traveller segment. “Creativity and innovation are the key to staying ahead in a hugely competitive as well as cluttered tourism market,” concluded the Minister.