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Stop underselling Sri Lanka!

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  • Global experts assert ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ is being sold like a stone
  • Call for discarding fear about positioning Sri Lanka as high-end destination
  • Cinnamon Hotel and Resorts Future of Tourism (FOT) Conference explores nexus between tourism and technology 

Global experts and analysts in the tourism industry on Tuesday called upon Sri Lanka to refrain from underselling the country’s tourism potential, pointing out that the island, known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean,’ is being ‘sold as a stone’. 

Among the points emphasised at the Cinnamon Hotel and Resorts Future of Tourism (FOT) Conference was the need to discard fear about positioning Sri Lanka as a high-end destination by ensuring high quality.

The conference, which explored the theme of ‘Technology, Innovation and Authenticity,’ highlighted the importance of putting to use data from research which look at the nexus between tourism and technology which help map social media and technology related trends commonly used by travellers.

The importance of branding

Dilip Rajakarier, Sri Lankan-born industry specialist who has been instrumental in expanding hotel portfolios across the globe, currently the CEO of Minor Hotels Group Ltd. and Acting CEO of Oaks Hotels & Resorts Ltd., highlighted the importance of the concept of branding. 

“Your business is co-created by your guests. It is not like the old days where you build a hotel and it looks like a palace... Today it is all about guests,” he said, maintaining that in tourism “we become the brand that the guests talk about”.

“About five years ago when we wanted to invest in a new hotel in Tangalle, the Anantara Peace Haven, and focus on high-end guests, we were told it was impossible. But we have done it,” he said, emphasising on the importance of not being a ‘cookie cutter brand’.

“We have delivered an extremely personalised experience from the moment people step into the place. It is about connecting you to the local people, to the culture of the people,” he said, noting that ‘content is king but distribution is key,’ and emphasising the co-related importance of brand differentiation, CSR strategies, global brand building, partnership development, brand marketing and best practices. 

“Sri Lanka is known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ but it is sold as a stone in the Indian Ocean. Unless we wake up and smell the cinnamon and tea, we will be in the same place. We have really destroyed our tourism.”

Habits of the millennial consumer

One of the questions to ask is how you combine the habits of the millennial consumer, Rajakarier said. 

Fazal Ashfaq, an Industry Analyst for South Asia Emerging Markets at Google providing research and analytical support to Google’s Sales and Business development team for Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, said that the industry should start catering to people who, increasingly, have less time. 

“We all know technology is going to be a game changer, but are we thinking broadly enough about online experiences? Sixty per cent of searches for destinations come from mobile devices. The game is changing to mobile. The number of people coming to travel sites through the mobile is increasing,” he said.

“When people look for a destination they are not thinking deep about their plan, what they are going to do. The holiday provider has to think about how to make the information easily available to the mobile user,” Ashfaq said, calling upon those in the tourism industry to work with the information they have on how people use technology for their vacations.

Improving through technology

Dr. Sanjay Nadkarni who has done research and has pedagogic interests in hospitality and tourism in the domains of digital strategy, quantitative methods, economic development and sustainability, spoke of how the hospitality industry could benefit from using customer data obtained through digital technology for improving the sector. 

Nadkarni, currently Director of Research and Associate Professor at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management and a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, Switzerland, also emphasised aspects that the industry should look at, such as environmental sustainability and the importance of water conservation.

He highlighted the use of technology so that the hotel industry could effectively link it with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) data which will monitor and measure information so that it is available according to the specific requirement of each visitor when he or she enters the hotel a second time. 

Linking aspects of sustainability, guest satisfaction and operational efficiency, he pointed out that the industry is rich with data but analytics is poor.

Trend research

Rene Massatti, a lecturer for Social Media Marketing at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, who specialises in trends that are relevant to the marketing industry and representing TRENDONE, a trend and innovation company from Hamburg, Germany,said that trend research is dealing with ‘the future every day.’ “To deal with future research is to start with what is happening today.”

Saying that it is important to understand how the customer deals with technology linked to travel and tourism aspirations, Massatti’s observations included those related to the use of artificial intelligence in tourism and trends in hotel booking, such as the use of ALEXIA, the technological business intelligence solution to assist in providing tourist information and insights. 

A question and answer interaction with a robot and the display of a device that scans the brain neurons to get the mood status of a person as well as a roughly estimated age were among the highlights of the FOT event.

Using emojis for room service was also highlighted as a way of simplifying the communication between the traveller and the hotel. Overall, the event covered different perspectives and aspects of Sri Lanka’s tourism. A comment in one of the panel discussions was about the need to look at strategies to streamline visitors to Sigiriya in a manner that benefits both locals and foreigners without undue hassles for the foreign visitor who may have to wait for hours until large numbers of locals ascend the site, sometimes carrying the old and the infirm.

China to the fore

The importance of using knowledge pertaining to the differentiation of technological and travel preferences according to countries was also highlighted, with China being cited as a main example.

Roy Graff, an ‹old China hand› with over 20 years of experience working in and with China in the tourism, hospitality, luxury retail and digital marketing sectors, stressed that Chinese are the top tourism spenders today, spending double of what Americans spend. 

“The Chinese traveller is increasingly young, with 64% of outbound travellers being between the ages of 15 and 33 years. The Chinese outbound traveller segment has been traditionally dominated by large tour groups but change is on the way,” he said. 

Nature, culture, food and wildlife were cited as being among the main interests of the Chinese visitor. 

The FOT summit emphasised on the Chinese traveller potential for Sri Lanka but brought attention to the fact that Sri Lanka has to compete with many other countries for the experiences it offers such as sunny beaches and hence highlighted the need to provide diverse, unique and interactive experiences especially for families who want to maximise on their travel memories. Email was said to be ‘dead’ in China and those in the tourism sector of Sri Lanka warned not to use email as part of their marketing strategy.

The discourse that emerged in the summit drew attention to the fact that the industry as a whole sells “experiences as well as disappointments,” and threw light on a host of issues, ranging from the need to ensure that hotel promotional websites are interaction friendly, to the need to make Sri Lanka’s start up scene more global for the benefit of the tourism sector.

Pix by Lasantha Kumara


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