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Experiential tourism – Going beyond the usual

TBME’s Charmaine Fernz explores the concept of experiential tourism, its impact on the travel industry and what lies ahead…

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“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then, turns you into a storyteller” – Ibn Battuta. These words resonate in every sense with the concept of experiential tourism. The term, which was coined around the 1980s, has become the new buzzword within the tourism industry. It is a result of technology advancement resulting in emergence of a social platform, which in turn, empowers and educates the end consumer. The rise of social media has in a large way changed the way today’s traveller go on a holiday. In a bid to cater to this evolved traveller, every segment in travel is looking for ways to imbibe this concept into their promotional strategies. However, the fact still remains that there are many pieces to be put together.

An Adventure spot in Russia

The Concept

A very relevant question is ‘What is experiential tourism?’ The answer to which is immersive, personalised, customisable travel and the list goes on…However, simply put, it is people who create meaning through direct experiences. These people can be varied segments that comprise the tourism industry. An experience is created right from the time a holiday is planned.

As Mamoun Hmedan, managing director – MENA & India, Wego.com say, “The experience starts from the moment a traveller starts the planning of a holiday right from the search, to the booking and the whole experience itself. We have noticed that nowadays people are saving on their travel and spending more on experience. There has been a significant mind-set shift.”

This shift in a traveller’s view can primarily be attributed to prominence of social media and its trickling down effect. Social mediums be it Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram undoubtedly have made it possible for people to share their experiences be it good, bad or ugly. These mediums have pushed word-of-mouth marketing to the next level, literally.

Geet Bhalla, co-founder of HolidayME puts it out very simply,”there has been a significant shift in the way customers are looking for their next holiday. This is not just specific to the Middle East market but other markets too. Traditionally, a traveller looking for a holiday would pick up the phone and speak to his travel agent. Today’s travellers first get on to Google before they take the next step, it is here where OTAs come in to share our experiences.”

The essence of the matter is to catch travellers at that deciding stage and shape his views thereon. This brings us to an obvious questions, when did the change take place? It’s more like a chicken and egg story, of who came first.

Music tours gains momentum

The Metamorphoses

If one has to go back a couple of years or even a decade. Travel was a luxury of a select few and all about packaged tours. The idea was to get as many sights as you can capture in your camera. Travel agents and tour operators played to the masses and planned out holiday products. The whole ‘experience’ factor was not in the spotlight besides the destination showcasing its unique offerings. This percentage of traveller were in single digits cause the traveller then was all about sight-seeing.

There has been a drastic change over the years with the advancement of technology and emergence of social media. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram gave people the opportunity to share experiences, give constructive feedback and propelled a change in the business of travel. The tour operator was no longer just selling standard packages. They had to be more informed and provide value in order to have a competitive edge. Travellers wanted to go beyond the regular and this made travel companies rethink their strategies.

As Rajesh Pareek, Group CEO of Musafir.com says, “The experience becomes relevant when it is not focused on profit and loss. A company needs to understand that it is all about doing the right hand-holding along with the right service, so you end up surprising your client in a positive way rather than negative.”

Effect of the global recession in 2008 also had a significant impact on travel. The whole concept of value emerged and with it innovative new concepts across verticals of aviation and hospitality. The focus also moved to the millennial travellers who made informed decisions.

“There have been very interesting changes to the way people travel. This has been more evident this year. Travellers are not looking to stay in a traditional hotel room, they are looking for unusual inexpensive designs like the Airbnb style or new boutique hotels. Air travel is moving from full service to low cost carriers. The objective was all about exploring a place and what mattered most was the experience,” added Mamoun.

Art tours

The new traveller

The new-age traveller is definitely more informed and empowered. As Simon Press, senor exhibition director, ATM says: “Today’s travellers are seeking more than amenities and creature comforts; more than a sight-seeing tour and a picture beside a famous landmark. The increasing trend is for an immersive style of tourism, which encompasses different areas of local life – culinary, culture, history, shopping, nature, sports, halal, theme parks, wellness and spa, medical tourism and extreme luxury – and can be the basis for a holistic travel experience, by connecting with a place rather than just visiting it.”

If we have to go by this norm, tourism boards have been the first to delve into the whole experiential factor. They have showcased varied facets of a destination to lure travellers and keep them coming. As Salim Al Mamari, Director General for Tourism Promotion, Ministry of Tourism, Oman explains, “This concept is not new for a destination like Oman that has a diverse range of experiences for visitors in various locations – from beaches, to deserts, mountains and wadis. They offer some very unique experiences for visitors. For instance, the Frankincense trail in the Dhofar region, scuba diving and snorkeling in the Damaniyat Islands, camping in Sharqiya or exploring the old forts in Nizwa and Bahla are all very unique experiences for visitors looking for a slice of the real Arabian experience.”

So what has changed now? It is undoubtedly, the awareness coupled with stronger penetration of social channels have changed the way people view travel. The ideology of enhanced disposable income is making today’s traveller speak his mind and insist on choice, which is going beyond the regular. They are not looking for run-of-the-mill packages.

Gourmet tours

Changing travel patterns

Today’s travellers want every segment of travel to given the multiple choices to choose. As Amruda Nair, Joint MD & CEO, Aiana Hotels says: “From Aiana’s perspective, our first interaction is at booking stage, so if we can gauge the properties being considered, we can have itineraries precurated based on their personalities.”

It is certain that the traveller is not looking for cookie-cutter options. They are looking for more flexibility coupled with more technology integration but all at a value.

Elaborating further Nair adds, “We see a lot of people looking for interaction at a ground level, with the local community, their objective is to be able to learn something while on a holiday or even acquire a skill. To cater for this from an Aiana perspective, in our Munnar property, we have a spice picking trail. Here our guests pick the spices, go back and learn how to cook a kerala-style meal. As a give-away they get to take the recipe cards and apron home. We certainly believe that today’s traveller are willing to pay for the experience, if they see value.”

To cater for this ever-evolving segment of experiential travellers, tourism boards have especially studied travel patterns and curated ideas. An example being Oman, where the Ministry of Tourism is working closely with all its partners to ensure that visitors get to experience the unique facets that go much beyond the typical desert experience. The key aspects of Oman that can be classified as experiential are centred-around history, culture and activities such as diving, spa and wellness, camping, sailing, trekking and golf.

Companies like Musafir.com adopt a more technological approach with its virtual reality campaigns. Customers looking to go on a holiday through Musafir.com can immerse themselves in their preferred choice of destination through this campaign.

Hikers explore Ras Al Khaimah

Ras Al Khaimah is also another destination within this region to focus on this new breed of travellers. As Haitham Mattar, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah TDA says, “We are looking for people seeking adventure tourism as well as wellness. The idea is to connect with yourself. These experiences can range from mountain safaris, star gazing or even driving through the beautiful canyons. Our focus is experiencing the connectivity with nature while at the same time learn about the culture and heritage.”

Interestingly, even today in Ras Al Khaimah, locals who invite tourists to their homes. There are also still places where you get fresh baked local bread, local tea / coffee and meals.

Dubai too takes on a very technological approach, as Issam Kazim, chief executive officer of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (Dubai Tourism) says, “We continue to work with industry partners to innovate and deliver inspiring, experiential and shareable content. For instance, a social listening tool called ‘BrandWatch’ helps us track relevant conversations that use Dubai-related keywords, enabling us to always be aware of social media exchanges about Dubai, respond to queries and engage with audiences across the digital space. This is in addition to creating and curating our own platforms to promote Dubai and its offerings. These include the ‘Visit Dubai’ Instagram page and new ‘Dubai Calendar’ app.”

Considering the various strategic approaches adopted, one can safely say there is no one idea that fits all. It is undoubtedly more and more about customisation, understating your customer and finally making sure it is not just a package that is experiential but the complete process. This will ensure the ‘repeat’ factor in today’s competitive world.

Sports activities at Munich Airport

An Airport Encounter – Munich Airport

This European airport takes the concept of experience to the next level. Visitors can join locals as spectators at polo or tennis matches, surfing competitions, volleyball tournaments, as well as Audi and BMW show-cases, all at the airport. During major Soccer events, a huge screen displays the action in the Munich Airport Center (MAC).

From end of November to end of December, the airport is transformed into a Christmas winter market, the longest-lasting winter market of its kind in Europe. Under the roof of the Munich Airport Center, more than 40 market stands invite travellers to partake in an ‘Old World’ Christmas feast. Bavarian specialties and handicrafts are plentiful with the tempting aromas of mulled wine, sweet roasted almonds, sausages and gingerbread.

This year will mark the 19th year of this successful Christmas market. A huge ice-skating rink sits in the middle of the market, along with over 450 real Christmas trees.

Passengers with layovers or time between flights can try the Napcab sleeping cabin, developed by Munich Airport. Napcabs offer privacy to beat jetlag. These innovative pods provide a comfortable bed for sleeping or relaxing, and self-adjusted music and lighting. Napcabs are located in Terminal 2 and in the satellite terminal and can be booked by the hour, directly on location.

New Visitors Park with the Visitors Hill: The increased playground area of the Visitors Park will be newly de-signed to educate as well as entertain children as “they travel around the world” here. The area is then divided into five continents with jungle gyms, swings and sandbox toys designed and constructed in association with each continent. A rope slide runway connects the different parts of the world so children can travel “around the world” as they play, riding camels in Asia, surfing in North America, or climbing a rope jungle in South America. (Parents, meanwhile, can enjoy the beer garden that overlooks the play area). Another favorite is the Viewing Hill in the Visitors Park. Kids can climb up 172 steps to the viewing platform on top of the Viewing Hill overlooking the airport. Telescopes offer a fantastic panoramic view of the apron and the ongoing flight operations on both runways.

What’s trending

  • Taking a cue from the Kuoni annual trend reports 2017, we see that hobbies are becoming holidays. Many travellers are looking for photography tours, pottery or even painting tours
  • For Middle East traveller, the new norm is doing away with the regular and exploring new territories. Destinations such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Tblisi, Eastern European countries and Asia are being explored more rampantly.
  • More holidays but shorter durations rather than long month-long vacations
  • New segments being explored such as disabled-travel, Single Income Ladies, silver generation
  • A shift from the touch and go tours to the more immersive
  • A professional approach to tourism

Nature trails

Kinds of experiential tourism offerings

  • Gourmet tours
  • Culture tours
  • Art tours
  • Turtle watching
  • Star Gazing
  • Spa tours
  • Heritage tours
  • Ghost tours
  • Adrenaline-filled tours / extreme adventure tours