Conditions are still tough for tourism businesses, says Business Partners executive director Gerrie van Biljon. While the whole tourism cake has grown, it is shared by many more’ operators than in the past. Visitors, although more in number, stay for slightly shorter periods and spend slightly less than in previous years. And most importantly, locals are loath to spend money on holidays and travel as the economy continues its squeeze on them.
In such conditions, says Van Biljon, “you have to be sharper than the guy next door if you want to survive”. He suggests three crucial ways in which tourism businesses can gain an edge.
The first is to scrutinise your product and to reposition it to attract more business. “Is my offering still relevant?” is what tourist business owners should be asking themselves. It is a complex question that requires careful strategic thinking. For example, in current conditions more people are looking for shorter, cheaper and closer tourism experiences. How can you adapt your product to suit these needs? If you are feeling the squeeze because your tourism offering was up till now aimed at the decimated corporate team-building and conference market, can you change it to make it more family friendly, for example?
Most of the repositioning can be done through merely tweaking your offering by adding value. Surprisingly little investment can go a long way, says Van Biljon. For example, it doesn’t cost much for a guest house to design and set up a nature trail or heritage walk, which can make an ordinary stay something really special.
Be aware of the latest trends in tourism tastes when you are thinking about your offering, says Van Biljon. Increasing numbers of tourists seek out specific types of experiences. Sport tourism has become big, and not only around big international games. Tourists come to participate in cycling and running events and golf tours. Heritage tourism, cultural tourism, nature and eco-tourism, adventure tourism and even paleo-tourism have grown to become major sub-categories along with the more established genres such as business and medical tourism. If you could link your operation to one or more of these streams, you could experience a marked increase in business.
More radical repositioning of your business should of course be done with great care and with the right expectations. A tourism business that normally caters for the domestic market can reposition itself for the international market, but don’t expect the overseas visitors to come knocking on day one. The marketing of an international tourist operation is specialised, and takes a lot of time and effort.
A marketing rethink is in fact the second major way in which tourism entrepreneurs can give themselves an edge in a difficult market. Van Biljon says: “It is amazing how many times you find two businesses doing exactly the same thing, but the one thrives because they’ve got their marketing right, and the other one struggles.”
The marketing battlefield has largely shifted online, and any tourism business owner who does not maintain a sense of the trends in social media and on the web will find it difficult to remain relevant.
Also, in conditions where many people are looking for cheaper, shorter and closer holidays, many tourism businesses could find it worthwhile to look for clients in closer communities if they haven’t done so before.
Finally, the more a tourism business invests in staff training with the focus on service excellence the better its chances of survival. The very core of tourism is service, and as standards of service excellence have risen significantly over the past twenty years in South Africa, the kind of service levels required are more than what you simply can expect to come naturally from your employees. Service and hospitality skills need to be taught, trained and honed if you want to remain competitive in the modern market.
For all the difficulties facing South African tourism businesses, says Van Biljon, they can at least rest assured that the base from which they operate is a magnificent tourism environment. South Africa’s scenic beauty, great outdoors, sunny climate, cultural diversity and reputation for delivering value for money has beaten the biggest world recession in living memory. The fact that competition among businesses in the sector has increased is in itself a success story. The way to ensure that you remain part of that success is to improve your business’s offering in this great market.