Random thoughts on the future of tourism business

Thursday, 18 November 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When teaching the first lessons in conventional marketing and sales, the story of the two salespersons sent to Africa was always told.

The boss of a multinational shoe company sent two sales persons to several countries on the African continent to assess the potential for selling shoes there.

One returned to report “not many wear shoes there and there is no market potential for us” while the other reported “not many wear shoes there and the potential for us is immense”.

Now, there are other stories told to illustrate the same half-full, half-empty views of opportunity seekers and many concepts have emerged on how to ‘exploit’ markets. Yet, most conventional marketers are trained to look at where market potential exists.

Market potential is defined as where there is purchasing power. The idea is to ‘milk’ these markets, often called ‘sacred cows,’ where higher yields and higher volume sales are both thought, to exist.

Market exploitation

The feelings of guilt such market exploitation has brought about and the awakening of a new social conscience among consumers, as a result of the realities of denudation of natural resources and the limits to growth placed therein, have now brought about the fringe concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) into the corporate world.

In the context of tourism, this will mean a stronger emphasis on more responsible community-based activities, where benefits to people as stakeholders will be emphasised.

I recollect how, early last year, I engaged a professor at a branch of leading European business school located in Singapore. He was questioning the wisdom of the Harvard Oath, where each of the Harvard Business School graduates had to, among other things, pledge that it was their responsibility as future corporate leaders to think of the wellbeing of society at large.

The Professor at the rival school was arguing that corporate leaders should not have responsibility to society at large and that they only had to be responsible to their owners and shareholders.

In response I argued that since business is conducted in a natural and a socio-cultural environment, no one can call oneself a corporate leader or will have the moral or ethical right to be in business, unless they had a deep concern for the well-being of that environment.

Current mood of global travel and tourism industry

All these reflected in my mind, when I read a recent interview published in the travel journal ETN with Deborah Westphal, Managing Partner of Toffler Associates (TA). TA is an organisation researching future trends affecting humankind founded as take-off, of the work of futurist Alvin Toffler.

Westphal and TA are touted as being an outfit that ‘gets it right’ more often than not. Dr. Elinor Garely, who interviewed Westphal at the recently concluded World Travel Market in London, had this to say of the current mood of the global travel and tourism industry.

“Optimists crowded the recent London trade show, while buyers and sellers convinced each other that the worst was over and consumers were tired of couch-sitting and ready to be x-rayed and body-scanned at airports, enjoy sardine-like comfort in mini-sized airline seats while enjoying the slightly salty taste of nuked cuisine that is priced only slightly higher than a gourmet land-based restaurant.”

She added: “Assurances include promises that civil unrest has been negotiated away, terrorists have found new hobbies, bed-bugs have been corralled and happily breeding in a remote undisclosed location and that in spite of slips on unpaved roads, and falls from faulty hotel balcony railings, regardless of the fact that the number of unemployed almost exceeds the US national debt, the world weather conditions (from volcanoes and hurricane to earth quakes and cyclones) are under the control of the scientists, global diseases (including the spread of cholera from Haiti and bird flu from Asia) are cured with injections of various chemicals, and the decline of the dollar and the yen is purely an economic phenomenon and not worth sleepless nights, the truth may be that the world is itching to explore new horizons and eagerly heading for every destination that has an airport, taxi, hotel, restaurant, spa and swimming pool.”

New way to connect the dots

She quoted Westphal as saying that “change is hard” and that current decisions are based on rules and assumption models that are historical while “…the future requires whole new baselines” that cannot be found in textbooks.

According to Westphal, the “early adopters” are developing and/or using products/services that are not currently available for public consumption. This same group has determined that the old ways are not working and are actively “…opening apertures that encourage cognitively different thinking,” that enables a new way to connect the dots.

According to her, the future travel executive will need to possess multi-skills and “will come with experience in anthropology, geography, and multinational businesses if they are to understand the industry; the dots they are connecting will not be in the same format as before. These executives will have to look beyond trends, if they are to be useful to their organisations.

For example, Richard Branson’s’ focus on space travel and the convergence of hospitality, healthcare and food industries with links between Western businesses and Eastern medicine” will form the palettes of their planning tools.

Food for thought

For us in Sri Lanka, when we take on a new era and fresh initiatives in tourism, there is much food for thought here. We could very well take on tourism development models that engulf the changes envisaged of the future now, so we could be ahead of the pack and be leading the way for a different and desirable future.  

(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected])