In an earlier column, Dean Ron Nykiel of Husson University highlighted the importance of Maine’s tourism and hospitality industry to the state as a tax revenue generator. He correctly identified the attraction of more out-of-state tourists and the money they spend as a major goal for the industry. We know this is achievable because Maine is an attractive state for tourism.
According to YPartnership’s Portrait of the American Tourist survey conducted last year, Maine is tied with North Carolina as the 11th most interesting state in the U.S. for a vacation, well ahead of other New England states.
Should we consider reviewing the infrastructure needed to “close the deal” with prospective visitors to Maine, as well as infrastructure for delivering satisfying tourism experiences? This review will lead inescapably to a discussion of information technology infrastructure.
Information technology for attracting tourists to Maine
Nearly all tourism destinations and tourism businesses now rely on a network of Internet-based partners and technology for access to mainstream leisure travelers.
According to YPartnership’s survey, 98 percent of travelers use the Internet to help plan leisure travel. While city or state websites are relatively important in the early stages of the planning process, online travel agents like Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia are important in the later stages of the process, when travelers seek price information in order to book travel plans.
These sites, heavily supported by advertising, represent a major opportunity to reach large numbers of leisure travelers at an important point in the planning process. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of reservations in 2009 were reportedly booked through online travel agents.
In order for Maine to compete for mainstream tourists, Maine businesses must be represented in these travel agents’ offerings. Many rural vacation destinations in Maine are dominated by smaller properties lacking the financial resources required for competing for a presence on these sites. Only the metropolitan areas of Maine are well-represented. This could put much of Maine at a competitive disadvantage for attracting new visitors.
Information technology for delivering satisfying experiences
Not surprisingly, technology also plays an important role in delivering satisfying tourism experiences. Wireless voice and 3G/4G data communications infrastructure are rapidly changing the face of leisure travel. The iPhone, Droid and Blackberry combine wireless voice and computing technologies and have already altered business travel. Recent reports show these tools are used for Web surfing, email and GPS navigation far more than for voice calls, placing a premium on the data network.
Applications for smart phones, such as destination specific mobile travel planners, give travelers the confidence to deviate from their original plans, encouraging variety seeking behavior, increasing opportunities for more businesses.
Applications including Open Table and Urban Spoon add the convenience of shopping for and reserving a table at a participating local restaurant without a phone call while on the go. While the development of the transaction-enabled website has transformed the lodging industry, the smartphone seems likely to have a greater impact on the restaurant industry. The restaurant industry seems more subject to the kind of unplanned behavior by tourists enabled by this technology. With the broad availability of robust 3G/4G networks across the country, a 3G network is rapidly becoming an expectation at most destinations.
Along with the connectivity provided the smartphone user, local advertisers benefit from smartphones as delivery vehicles for local advertising. Ad Mob, a Web-based advertising agency, already delivers localized advertising based on the location of the smartphone. Local advertising will benefit tourism businesses as they seek to communicate with tourists while in their vicinity.
What does this mean?
Once again, Maine is a tale of two states. The southeastern part of the state is already a mainstream tourist destination. Southeastern Maine has lodging properties and resources to compete for the attention of leisure travel planners through online travel agents’ websites. The region also has a robust 3G communications network, with restaurants found and tables reserved through smartphones.
As we move north and east, these qualities become more tenuous. Without access to travel agents’ sites and without a robust 3G data communications network, how will rural Maine compete for tourists? Should they compete for mainstream tourists? There is need for collaboration and for strategy.
Where there is need, there are usually business opportunities. Creating an online travel agent representing rural travel destinations on a national scale seems like an opportunity. The development of rural cooperatives to extend 3G data communications into rural Maine also seems opportune.
Harold Daniel is associate professor of marketing at the University of Maine Business School and former director of the college’s Center for Tourism Research and Outreach (CenTRO). His research interests include the investigation of buyer-seller relationships in tourism distribution channels and tourism retailing.