Travel brands need to rethink “local” if they want to engage customers

This is a viewpoint from Matt Walker, chief storyteller at LikeWhere

If airlines and travel brands want to win in 2018, they have to incorporate the customer’s preferences in their definition of “local.”

In an industry as vast and complex as travel, part of the difficulty of engaging the customer lies in how a brand defines the popular term “local.”

Last Spring, I visited a small town in the Midwest of the US. Every Thursday, following the inter-church softball league the entire town would descend on the only fast-food restaurant with a suitable parking lot: McDonalds. It was a chaotic weekly gathering of pickup trucks, belt-buckles and cheese-burgers, where the events from the evening’s games were retold and debated.

It was the most “local” experience an outsider could have, and yet the ingredients of this experience (McDonald’s, softball, pickup trucks etc.,) could not be more generic to the American landscape.

The importance of local experiences

In a recent survey* we asked travellers: How important are local experiences when you visit a new city?

  • 63%: very important
  • 35%: moderately important
  • 3%: not important at all

The difficulty with “local,” as with any term that has been bandied about an industry for too long is it begins to lose definition and takes on a brand of its own. (See Your Service is Not Personalised Enough)

Hence our follow-up question: How would you define “local”?

Approximately 80% of the travellers we surveyed defined “local” as that which was unique to a place and the natives that live there. The remaining 20% defined “local” literally, in terms of proximity.

Local = Place + Native

The challenge is every city has many versions of “local,” each tethered to the people who live in a specific neighbourhood or community. The modern traveller navigates the city by their interests and the districts that celebrate those interests – which is no different to the way natives navigate their own city.

Ask yourself “Where do I like to go in my home city, and why?” And you will see a specific route through your city emerge in correlation to your interests.

A native never asks what is “local” in their own city, that strain of self-awareness would be disingenuous. How the native lives is “local.”

There is a tension in promoting “local” experiences. Packaging my Midwestern post-softball moment as an experience on Airbnb’s site would compromise the weekly gathering by the presence of an audience – where there’s an audience a performance will ensue. “Local” by definition is non-performative.

Airbnb attempts to solve the “local” problem by connecting the traveller with a native; whatever experience they have can (technically) be defined as “local,” but the most important thing to note is the traveller still chooses the activity with a native based on their preferences.

As we enter a year where travel brands are seeking to uncover the goldmine that is “Tours and Activities,” personalising offers for in-destination experiences is best achieved by understanding the traveller’s preferences.

Discovering what is “local” is not good enough for most travellers. Every traveller has had all manner of “local” experiences they wish to forget and many “generic” experiences in a foreign land they found profoundly memorable, and the determining factor was their lifestyle preference.

The crux of brand loyalty and repeat business is delivering a positive memorable experience.

Local (place\native) + preference =  memorable experience

The difficulty with personalisation in the travel industry, is travel changes the traveller. If a local/authentic experience is largely determined by the traveller’s preferences, what’s considered “authentic” will grow and change with the traveller.

If you’re visiting New York City for the first time, you should see Time Square. It’s bold and brash and a complete assault on the senses. I challenge you to find a New Yorker that has not been to Time Square. Is that not the definition of “local” – an experience or place, or both that is part of the collective consciousness of the natives?

However, the idea of “local” changes with each moment of contact, with each experience of the destination. It’s unlikely you will consider Time Square a “local experience” on your third visit to New York City.

Everywhere and everything is local/authentic to someone. The term “local” is a marketing tactic that continues to convey meaning by appealing to a generation obsessed with consuming the authentic. To gain authority, convert and earn loyalty, airlines and travel brands should use these loaded terms, but do the hard work of getting to know their customers, so their recommendations are personalised and convert.

Photo by Laird Madison on Unsplash

This is a viewpoint from Matt Walker, chief storyteller at LikeWhereOpinions and views expressed by all guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of tnooz, its writers, or its partners.

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



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  1. Joseann FL

    Thank you. Great article. I especially liked this sentence: local by definition is non-performative. And that the “traveller still chooses the activity with a native based on their preferences.” So, if one wants to earn money in tourism, “true, non-performative local” eventually ends up becoming “performed local”. How then does one market “authentic local”, if this is not part of the preferences of tourists? Is this at all possible? Should one?

  2. Mark

    Very interesting piece Matt. The problem for many travel companies trying to offer local experiences is that they often don’t have the correct people on the ground with the knowledge and experience to know what genuine local experiences truly appeal to visitors. Just my two cents – thank you for sharing this.

    • Matthew Walker

      Mark, Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are absolutely right. And, it’s even more complex: what do you do for large markets where there are multiple versions of “local”? The way we tackle this (and I’m sure there are other ways) is through a hybrid tech and native solution. Our tech defines areas (using many data sources) in human sensory terms and scores each term, but then we validate and build our content experiences (which we call Smart Content because engagement yields customer insights) with native influencer/bloggers. Tech without the native component is invariably generic (populist, which has its place but is limited) in its recommendations; Native without tech is unscalable.

  3. Tony Carne

    Wow – this is a super insightful piece Matt. If you’ve stumbled on this page, you should probably go back up and read this again. The connection between local and context is the absolute gold that sits in this piece. We find travellers in general want to experience something that is already of interest to them – but in another locale where that experience has a different nuance and adds another layer to the subject around which they already know and like. As You say, ” the determining factor was their lifestyle preference”.

    I think the problem for most travel brands and their engagement with “local” is they don’t know any local people and therefore can’t connect the final dots to a tangible experience for their customers. Most try to accomplish this purely through content and recommendations but the experience of visiting a cool local bar/hole in the wall/gig is profoundly different if going alone than going with someone who knows the “Why” and has the anecdotes and backstory to connect that place for the traveller in the fullest way.

    Content is still important, especially at the inspiration phase but follow through is equally important if you want to make those efforts to captivate a customer and their engagement with You to become a repetitive behavior. The simple message of: “here is some cool local info I think you are interested in, please fly on my plane there” I don’t think will cut it. Iceland Air’s Buddy program has been one attempt that has come closest to what the future might be (especially if going to compete with a platform play like Airbnb) but the question is, how do you scale that? We’ve got some ideas around that.


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