Time for destinations to question their website strategy

Let me start by asking a question: Should NYC & Company be selling hot dogs to tourists?

Or should the Paris Visitor Board be making and selling croissants? Or VisitBritain be making and selling fish and chips?

NB: This is a guest analysis by Doug Lansky, travel writer, author and speaker.

Even if these DMOs/CVBs could make them better than most of the current sellers and, as a result, slightly improve the visitor experience, I think most would agree it’s probably not a great use of their resources.

Why? Because there are plenty of others whose core business model is to make hot dogs and croissants and pub food, and those businesses already do it quite well within the free market.

So why, when there are thousands of free-market visitor info sources from Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Time Out Guides, Arrival Guides, NY Times, The Guardian, Nat Geo Traveler and tens of thousands of apps, and blogs, are destination marketing organizations still spending so much time and money putting out visitor info online and paying to drive traffic there?

Many DMOs would argue that their sites are better or more trustworthy than the other sites. In most cases, they’re not.

They might look fancier, but more than ever, people want raw and honest opinions from blogs and TripAdvisor.

And given the choice, most people trust independent journalists over a collection of what is essentially press releases and content often taken straight from the attractions own brochures.

Even in those cases when DMO sites are better, what’s the value of putting it out there among the hundreds or thousands of other sources and then paying a small fortune to push traffic and create content for it?

It feels like we’ve lost sight of the main purpose of these sites: to make sure visitors can find good information on the destination and use that information to book aspects of their trip.

Instead, it feels like many DMOs are using their sites to try to position themselves as the spider in the web, driving traffic to the site, then linking to stakeholders and sending them some traffic (though this is not necessarily the most efficient nor cost effective way to drive traffic to them).

According to research from Expedia, only 6.4 percent of visitors even visit a DMO’s website before traveling there.

And for those who do, the same research shows they also visit an average of over 30 other information websites.

If DMOs weren’t paying to generate much of their traffic, chances are that 6.4% figure would be far lower.


If the official websites of New York, Paris or Berlin were down for a month, would those cities get one less actual visitor?

Would someone who is searching for information on those cities (or any other destination) think of the following?

“I see 30 great websites, but I don’t see information from the official DMO site, so I’m just not interested to go there any more.”

I’m not suggesting DMOs stop using their website, just reposition it.

There are areas where the DMO can contribute much needed online information – information that no one else can provide. And that’s information on:

  • MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions)
  • Tourism statistics
  • Educational programs for stakeholders
  • Media contacts
  • Media resources

By media resources, I mean providing updated photos and videos that anyone and everyone can use for free.

They’re not just for bloggers; large print and online publications are always trying to get hold of great, free images and videos and the easier you make it for them, the more likely it is to get used.

We often talk about how the age of information is changing things. But that also means organizations need to adapt.

NB: This is a guest analysis by Doug Lansky, travel writer, author and speaker.

NB2: Destinations image via Shutterstock.

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  1. Kevin Bate

    Hi Doug,
    It’s worth noting the Expedia study did not actually claim “only 6.4 percent of visitors even visit a DMO’s website before traveling there.” The following is directly from the study details:

    “Qualifications for Inclusion in Segment:
    In order to be included in the analysis, consumers had to have met both of the following criteria:
    •Booked a vacation package at one of the following online travel agencies (OTAs) between October 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013 (Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, CheapTickets).
    •Visited a destination marketing organization (DMO) website during the 45 days leading up to the time of booking.”

    The study is claiming that, of those meeting the criteria to be included in the segment, 47.2% of *site visits* were to OTA websites (this represents multiple visits to multiple OTA websites)…versus 6.4% of site visits to DMO websites (which is nearly the same as the 6.8% of site visits to planning and review websites such as TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, etc.). So this study was not representative of overall DMO site usage, and was intentionally structured by Expedia Media Solutions to serve a specific agenda (I won’t get into that here).

    By comparison, Destination Analysts’ 2015 State of the American Traveler Study showed that 30% of respondents used a DMO website to help plan travel – and 63% of those people visited the DMO site before they had decided to travel to that destination. http://www.destinationanalysts.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/State-of-the-American-Traveler-Winter-2015.pdf

    I appreciated your post and think it’s healthy for DMOs to constantly evaluate website strategy. Just thought it was important to share some context regarding the numbers you shared.

  2. Ashwin Kamlani

    Rafael try telling that to the destinations who are doing it well and producing real volume:
    1. Those bookings are free to the hotels instead of paying OTA commissions. In fact, it’s their only completely free distribution channel.
    2. Customers can book in ways that they can’t on OTAs
    3. The Hotels can empirically measure the impact that their DMO has on their business
    4. The DMO can provide their suppliers with insight about booking trends, lead times, and more
    5. The DMO builds a database of people who have traveled to their destination so they can bring them back later
    Just to name a few reasons why DMOs should take bookings if they can do it well. There are many more.

  3. Rafael Cardozo

    Doug, I agree with your comments for the most part. DMO’s really need to shift their resources towards content creation and content marketing to support the private sector. That does not mean the the other aspects of lead generation for hotels and attractions is not a worthy cause. What a good DMO website can do is level the playing field for smaller hotels that cannot afford a large digital footprint. A good DMO website goes beyond listings and provided a microsite experience that allows the smallest of properties to showcase itself in way that it could not afford otherwise. The job of a DMO however is to inspire tourism, not sell it. This is where many DMO’s loose their way. Adding transactional booking engines to DMO websites is fools errand. Inspire, inform and support… then let the private sector take it from there.

  4. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Ouch… but quite right.
    Today’s “puffery” is hidden in “reviews”. The days of Vance Packard it was – based on a variety of other factors. Has any DMO actually stepped up and really thought about what their mission is with their website? Probably not.
    Most DMOs refused to accept bookings. Now they are regretting that decision. Its rather too late.

    There are many ways to fix this. First think about the product rather than the image of how the politicos think the product should be thought of.


  5. Ashwin Kamlani

    Hi Doug, I think it is healthy to ask the questions you are asking, but I think you are missing a big point. Tripadvisor is primarily used for very specific information about one particular property, activity or restaurant. NatGeo and many others may write a content piece about an interesting experience or something interesting about a particular destination. But these are all bits and pieces and only the DMO sites do a good job of painting a bigger picture of what a destination offers. If you wanted to visit Seattle but wanted some information on what the different neighborhoods were like, I think you’d have a hard time getting that type of information from Tripadvisor. You could certainly post the question in a forum and wait for a destination expert to respond but not everyone wants to post questions and wait for answers. I have my own theories about why only 6.4% of travelers visit the DMO website before visiting (although I would argue that just because Expedia says so doesn’t make it true), but I don’t think they should stop being the most unbiased and comprehensive resource of destination information. Let me ask you this… if tomorrow Tripadvisor went offline, do you think people would stop staying at hotels? Yet, I doubt you would argue that Tripadvisor is useless and should stop offering reviews of hotels, activities and restaurants because Google, Yelp, Expedia, Booking.com and others also offer reviews. Without DMO sites, people would still travel and visit destinations, but they wouldn’t have an easy way to learn about the destination as a whole before visiting and get as much out of their visit and experience. Totally agree by the way that the main purpose of these sites should be “to make sure visitors can find good information on the destination and use that information to book aspects of their trip.” If you also agree, I’m not sure I understand why you are arguing that “putting out visitor info online” is a waste of time and money. Thanks.

    • Doug

      Hi Ashwin,
      You make some valid points. I especially like your line about TripAdvisor going offline. If that happened, people would still stay at hotels, but I’ll bet that many would be staying at different hotels. Once people know where they want to go, they use TA as a source to find a good hotel fit. You could make that same case with good information from DMO sites, but only in smaller cities/regions where there aren’t as many independent blogs/apps/sites offering similar information. As an experiment, you might pick a few major cities and conduct a fairly typical search (things to do, kids activities, best restaurants, etc) and see what comes up and compare the quality of the info you’d use if you were a tourist. (I have done this.) My guess is that in most cases you’ll find that not only are there dozens of links for the same basic info from independent sources, but the more useful info will often be there as well. If the DMO sites wanted to improve their value to visitors, they could study what’s being covered on other sites and then try to fill in the important gaps — but I don’t know of any DMO sites taking this approach. Then the next question becomes: what happens when independent sites start providing this info as well?

  6. Andy Ryan

    100% agree with this analysis. Those areas where DMO’s can contribute may be the less sexy side of the industry, but they’re the ones where they can really differentiate themselves from consumer-oriented media and review sites, and, especially, where the DMO’s knowledge, expertise and network can truly add to the bottom line of a destination.


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