The power of social media.

Service industries have long understood the value of customer feedback as an effective tool to measure customer satisfaction and loyalty. Businesses were able to use this vital tool to boost performance and service recovery and improve competitiveness to inevitably increase profits.

Traditionally, businesses would issue surveys directly to the customer through survey cards on restaurant tables or in hotel rooms, an email request or via telecommunication. However, with the proliferation of online technological advancements consumers can provide product reviews at their convenience for the entire world to see, a drastic change from the norm.

Online presence have mushroomed with third party websites such as online retailers, travel websites, web portals, social media platforms which allow consumers the ability to share video , images, and messages in real time. Today, these media platforms and third party sites, such as, Expedia, Trip Advisor, Yelp, Twitter and Facebook are so powerful that they are shaping the business model for the travel and tourism industry.

This web era have caused a paradigm shift giving online reviewers an unparalleled freedom to voice their opinion from ratings, ranking and tweeting which has had profound implications on the tourism and hospitality sector. With the travel and tourism industry unprepared for consumer’s onslaught of posts mostly negative, have forced many operators in the industry to chide away from engaging in social media platforms.

Trip Advisor, one of the world’s most popular review site for the travel and tourism industry has offered proprietary space for reviews on accommodation at every destination in the world in which their slogan suggests “Reviews you can trust”.

Interestingly, research has shown that online consumers are motivated by factors such as experiential, cultural, age, gender and educational factors. This feedback from the consumer can be categorized as opinionated, opportunistic, truthful, deceptive or revengeful. It can be argued that customers believe their own reality and therefore if customers regard fake reviews as credible, than management must assess the content and deploy the appropriate strategy to offset any negative consumer reaction that may engender.

In 2010, trip advisor were forced to remove their slogan because of numerous legal action from travel operators who showcased the many flaws in trip advisors methodology. In other words, the algorithm of trip advisor do not take into consideration variances, nor can it manage the weighting of posts.

In fact questions have been raised by many in the international travel and tourism industry in understanding how trip advisor can recognize fraudulent or fake reviews or even to rank their business?

The fact is whether service industries love online media reviews or loathe it, online media is here to stay and therefore the travel and tourism industry must be innovative to integrate social media components and survey handling strategies.  Obviously there is no cookie cutter approach on dealing with this and businesses whether large or small must have competent staff to deal with the sensitivity of online responses.

It is important to understand that this revolution of digitization has opened opportunities for businesses in the travel and tourism industry with various channels that has attracted millions of active users. For instance, Facebook attracts 500 M, Twitter about 21 M and Trip Advisor over 34 M and growing. These online billion dollar companies have been spending millions in improving its product to stay ahead of their competition.  Therefore businesses should embrace this technology to drive traffic to their official websites where more information can be provided for direct booking, promotions and incentives to a wider target audience.

Another perspective for the travel and tourism is to understand that consumers of all generation desire information 24/7 and this information allows service industries to develop personal relationship with the customer that goes beyond post-sales. The consumer feedback which is statistically presented from the online channel will help the establishment to be more focused, innovative and relevant to maximise sales revenue opportunity.

Therefore, it is essential that the travel and tourism industry should embrace the powerful tools of social media in their strategies, but it can also mean that the already complicated job of being a hotelier becomes even more complicated!

Being Blue Washed

          The Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) under the European Commission is a non-profit organisation that developed the Blue Flag certification for beaches and marinas which started in European countries in the later part of the eighties(80’s). Blue flag symbolises the compliance of beaches, marinas and boat operators in four major areas:  Environmental Education and Information Provision; Water Quality; Environmental Management; and Safety and Services. FEE has propagated around the world with as much as 3203 blue flag beaches and 646 blue flag marinas around the world that flies the blue flag pennant.

               In 2002, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) initiated a pilot project for referred to as the Caribbean Blue Flag campaign which FEE approved for one year 2004/2005 in five destinations: Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Bahamas. Since that time CTO, together with CAST (Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism) have initiated alliances to provide funding and support for eco projects for the region. Blue Flag criteria is very strict with clear mandates which must be met with before approving an applicant for the program.

Blue Flag is an eco-label which is not commonly known to many travellers except for a few “eco conscious” travellers, mostly Europeans, who are supportive of destinations concerned about its industrial, waste water or sewerage discharges in the ocean. Part of the programme includes posting of signs to alert the visitor of the safety and quality of the water at the beach.

Stakeholders such as tour operators, investors, resorts, B&B’s, restaurants, marinas and residents within the community are key players in ensuring the “health check” of the natural resource and will benefit from blue flag programme if implemented correctly and if sustained for a period of time.

Many first world destinations understand the stewardship involved in ensuring compliance for a sustainable tourism product and of course they will maximise on the blue flag label, as a primary marketing tool.

The cons of blue flag occur if compliance is ignored, as in the case of one the Caribbean destinations and several beaches in Ireland. In such circumstances Blue Flag will withdraw from the destinations with penalties, an advisory notice would be listed on their website and of course, destination marketing would have to reconsider communicating this change through various media.

Furthermore, destinations engaging the traveller of Blue Flag compliance must appreciate the traveller expectation, otherwise, be prepared for social media tirades for the removal of blue flag from the destination. Of course, if this occurs, then this communication would connote negative perceptions about the destination sustainability practices.

Destinations can be attain Blue Flag accreditation at an annual cost ranging from €2600 to € 5200 for membership; consultation Fees; annual visits; training for resident employees to name a few. These costs, levied on the state, requires a long term strategy incorporating annual financial budget for the international membership and consultations ,  marketing , and stewardship of the project which ought to be measured to show the population that there is a return on investment in the invested marketing tool.

The Caribbean region’s most “saleable” tourism resource, our beaches and our rivers have been effectively marketed for years, interestingly research has shown that Blue Flag has had an insignificant role in motivating visitors to the beach. In fact researchers claim that Blue Flag is of no real importance for bathers who enjoy remote beaches and diving experiences.

According to Vision 2020 report, Trinidad and Tobago have embraced two major eco labels Green Globe and Blue Flag since 2008.  The report disclosed that Maracas Beach Facility, Las Cuevas, Vessigny Beach Facility, Manzanilla Beach Facility, Store Bay Beach Facility and Pigeon Point Beach Facility would be hoisting the Blue Flag. Since this project was initiated consultants and appointed employees have been sponsored by the tourism public institution to facilitate the process and at a cost.  Today, the project is still in abeyance despite a recent proclamation in 2014 of a Tourism Development Company memorandum of understanding with an organisation, Ascelepius Green Team, empowered to implement the Blue Flag initiative.

If Blue Flag was accredited since inception, Trinidad and Tobago should have had established eco investors, better and cleaner environment, employment within communities, a saleable and marketable tool for tour operators and marinas, and if marketed correctly there would have been an increase in bound eco travellers to the destination.

But let us face reality, Trinidad and Tobago coastal facilities are besieged with stray animals, unkempt facilities and surroundings, unattractive concession areas, poor drainage issues, unsafe foot paths, contaminated rivers, poor recycling and dumping habits by vendors and visitors to the facility, life guard facilities that need improvements and many other related issues. Can Blue Flag really be implemented in our present situation? Are we being blue washed?

Trinidad and Tobago tourism authority have been complacent, relying on luck to safe guard its natural resource with a short term quick fix to mitigate any situation that may occur. For seven years what has Trinidad and Tobago done about Blue Flag and has there been consultations with stakeholders?

Has the Tourism sector considered collaborating with other state authorities (Marine Affairs, Local Government, Environmental Management Authority, Ministry of Environment and Water) and the private enterprise to engage in developing sustainable best practice? One can therefore only assume that there are resources, financial and otherwise for the recent 2014 proclamation of deliverables by the TDC.

Perhaps, the powers that be, should consider alternative solutions which will require organisational restructure and to some extent revisiting the Tourism Policy Framework before consulting with FEE.

Let me identify just one area of contention which require immediate revision, and that is to consider having one reporting body for the lifeguards and projects (such as Blue Flag).  In other words cluster all comparative operations to develop a Beach and Marina Facility Unit mandated to oversee the marinas, camp and fishing sites, concession facility, car park facility, allocated beach sport facilities, beach facilities (washrooms, changing rooms, chairs and umbrellas), lifeguards, life guard support units. In this way standards can be developed locally for our natural resources which will put the destination in a position, if necessary, to embrace the true concept of Blue Flag.