One of the first things Kevin Bowler, chief executive of Tourism New Zealand, did when he came into the job three years ago was to ensure the images of the 100% Pure campaign that appeared in markets in Asia had people in it.
“It’s a very successful campaign, 13 years now, but it tended to be focused on empty landscapes and beautiful vistas but it didn’t show people and the accessibility and from customer research in Asia, we needed to show people and the ease of access to these landscapes.
“Of course, empty landscapes are very attractive but Asia needed more reassurance around infrastructure and accessibility around people.”
Another thing that he did was to put a in place a digital strategy – prior to joining Tourism New Zealand, he was inaugural CEO for start-up Yahoo!Xtra, a joint venture between Yahoo!7 and Telecom New Zealand – and today, its consumer website newzealand.com has become an important resource for the organization.
In January 2013, the website had the biggest month in its history with 1.5 million visits and 235,000 referrals. For the year ending 31 January, the site attracted 12.1 million visits, up four percent on the previous year, and 1.6 million referrals were generated to industry- an increase of 18%.
“It’s becoming a very successful metric for us,” said Bowler.
The website, which was relaunched a year ago, saw substantial changes in the last three months with at last 17 additions made including different languages, localized sellers and a channel for suppliers to provide their own content. “It’s easier for suppliers to drive content especially in the special interest areas,” said Bowler.
Most of the organisation’s marketing budget is now spent digitally – up to 80% and, in some markets, 100% – with funds going towards search engine marketing, paid display, rich media and content advertising. Its two main social media channels are Facebook (900,000 fans) and Weibo. “It’s a good vehicle to engage people, push our content further and link them to newzealand.com,” said Bowler.
It’s doing some “rudimentary analysis” to measure the cost of acquisition via social media channels by measuring the link from social to dot.com. “We reckon it’s providing us $1 million worth of advertising and perhaps in user-generated content, 10 times more.”
However in terms of cost of acquisition, search is still more effective, he said. The value of social is in the engagement with customers.
Asked what role tourism boards had today when there was so much user-generated content about destinations with people more inclined to trust “the crowd” versus an official body, Bowler said there is still a role for the board to provide official tourism information and an environment where people can get the best of all worlds – official information, operator-based information and social reviews.
He also sees the board as more of a referral agency vs a recommendation. “As a government agency, we are a little cautious about picking winners.”
As such, taking the website to a transaction model was not being seriously considered “although it remains an option”.
What it wants to focus on is to help people to move around the country and a trip planner on the website is getting strong usage.
In the last three years, he said there have been huge changes in customer behaviour from markets in Asia. “When I started, China was dominated by group travel but now we are seeing independent travellers – couples in their 30s and families.”
Understanding these new customers is paramount to Bowler. “We are a marketing-oriented organization and we have to keep customers at the centre of our thinking and we’ve been building up that knowledge the last three years.”
Given New Zealand is a niche destination, it’s focused on who it calls “active considerers” and these tend to be in the older age group, 55 years and older, pre-family stage travellers, 20+ year old professional couples. “This seems to be true of the US and Europe and some parts of Asia, Japan in particular.”
From China, it is seeing couples in their 30s and families, while India is predominantly family-driven.
But even while it’s invested heavily in a digital strategy to reach customers directly and to facilitate their planning, Bowler believes that for a destination like New Zealand, the travel agent will still be important for a long time to come. People want to move around and complex itineraries require travel agents. “It’s like buying a new car, you research online but you buy from a car dealer.”
However he said a change is happening. “Our trip planner is making it easier for people to plan their own itineraries and from Australia, where we get a lot of repeats, it’s an important tool.”
Singapore, one of its most matured markets in Asia, is seeing a big shift in customer behaviour. And China, which saw a 35% growth last year, is seeing a rise in mono-New Zealand visitors with a greater length of stay. “The quality end is growing fastest.”
The appointment of pop star Yao Chen (left), with 33 million followers on Weibo, as brand ambassador has helped drive this market segment. Her own wedding in the country last year when she posted holiday and wedding photos via social media channels resulted in around 7,000 print and on-line media articles across China and discussion on Weibo topped 40 million items.
Two other markets of promise are India and Indonesia and Bowler said it would be stepping up its social reach in these two markets as it was seeing a growth in independent travellers. (With a direct air link between Jakarta and Auckland, Tourism New Zealand is set to open an office in the Indonesian capital shortly.)
With more people now wanting to share during their travels, Bowler is conscious of the need to make connectivity more accessible while travellers are on the road. “Hotels are anxious to keep their margins high, roaming is still costly. It’s be ideal if wifi access was free and it’s something we need to embrace.”
This is even more important if its new mobile app, currently under development, is to be used well by visitors. “We want them to download the app before they come and with connectivity, it will connect them to things they can do as well as services.”
Acknowledging that there are a lot of apps out there, he said that no one in New Zealand was doing a particularly good job. “With 1.5 million customers on our website, we have good distribution.” It’s yet to be decided if the app will have booking capability.
As important as Asia is to New Zealand, Bowler said Australia will continue to be an important market. With 1.1 million visitors from Australia and 200,000 from China a year, he said it would still be some time before the latter catches up. “We want a diversity of visitors.”
In 2012, New Zealand attracted a total of 2.565 million visitor arrivals, down 1% from the previous year (2.601 million), which was boosted by visitor arrivals for the Rugby World Cup. However, the 2012 figure was up 2% compared with 2010.