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Traveler expectations should be managed from the moment people interact with a travel-related brand. | Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

December 7, 2021

People go on holiday hoping to relax, have fun, and get away from the stressors in their daily lives. Generally speaking, travelers aren’t seeking out controversy, and they aren’t interested in having their perspectives challenged. They know what they want, and they are set on seeking it out.

When it comes to tourism, travelers’ egos tend to be inflated. This is their holiday, dammit, and no one is going to interfere with it. 

Obviously travelers are a key piece of the travel experience. Without them, the tourism industry ceases to exist. So, yes, people deserve time away from their day-to-day lives. They need breaks from their work and physical distance from their normal routines. And, yes, their time and financial investments are incredibly important and should be respected.

Despite this, travel isn’t an invitation for people to simply do as they please. Just because travelers are essential for the tourism industry’s survival, that doesn’t mean they hold the superior hand in the travel experience. They don’t get to do whatever they want wherever they want to do it. They don’t have the right to disrespect people and harm places. As travelers, they are guests in someone else’s backyard. And, as global citizens, they shouldn’t cause undue harm to the planet, waste finite resources, and stomp around the planet as if they, alone, own the place.

So, how do we keep those egos in check? One of the best ways is to use intentional and mindful messaging throughout both the customer (pre-trip) journey and the traveler (on-the-ground) journey.

Communicate expectations clearly.

It is important to state expectations early, clearly, and often. Be upfront with potential clients about the behavior your company or destination expects them to exhibit. This includes providing information on everything from Leave No Trace policies and animal welfare guidelines to tipping expectations, showing respect toward service providers, and local customs, traditions, and laws visitors are expected to follow. 

Just because you’ve tucked this information deep in the pre-trip literature does not mean the information is received. State these expectations in various ways across platforms. If there is something imperative that travelers absolutely must abide by, create a client contract that ensures this information is clearly communicated.

Outline repercussions for not following expectations.

In addition to clearly communicating expectations, let travelers know what will happen if they don’t act appropriately. Will they be asked to not participate in the next experience on the itinerary, or will they be fined? Will they not be allowed to travel with your tour company again? Let people know in advance, and then remind them before beginning activities where there are clear expectations set out.

Ensure intention aligns with interpretation.

Tourism marketing in pre-trip communications often highlights travelers in joyful, carefree environments. This makes a lot of sense because we need to attract people to our tours, destinations, and service offerings. To do this, it’s common to center travelers and indulge their stories and beliefs of what they perceive a travel experience should be like.

However, it’s important that what is presented to travelers during the customer journey — as they’re moving through the awareness and education stages of the buyer’s journey before actually booking anything — is actually what is delivered once they’ve arrived at a destination. 

This isn’t only about ensuring travelers understand how you expect them to act. It’s common to use travel-related buzzwords that aren’t clearly defined, which can lead to confusion and frustration if expectations and reality don’t align. Pay special attention to alignment of intention and interpretation to minimize problems.

Avoid messaging that creates unequal power dynamics.

It is tempting to paint idyllic travel experiences in messaging throughout the customer journey, but it’s especially important to make sure it doesn’t establish inappropriate power dynamics. In other words, stories shouldn’t establish expectations or reinforce beliefs that travelers are entitled to see, do, or experience something that puts them in a superior power position.

This is a particularly easy trap to fall into when promoting community-based tourism experiences, especially through visual media like photography and videos. When local people are depicted wearing traditional clothing or participating in local customs in marketing materials, for example, travelers expect their on-the-ground experiences to reflect this. If these experiences are not made available to travelers, local people may feel pressured to share sacred traditions that are not intended for consumption outside their community or culture.

Reinforce consistent messaging throughout the trip.

Travel brands provide a lot of communication during the customer journey, before travelers arrive in a destination. It is particularly plentiful between the time people purchase travel products and services (like tours, accommodations, and transportation) and the time they arrive in a destination — the “pre-trip” communications. This communication can be overwhelming, though, and travelers may not read or remember all of it. This means pre-trip communication should not be the one single place where you note information that properly prepares travelers for how to behave and act.

Consistent, reinforced messaging matters. From the moment potential travelers encounter a brand through a trip experience, it should be clear what your company stands for, who your ideal traveler is, the kind of experience you intend to deliver, and how travelers fit into that experience. Importantly, actions must follow words, which means people representing your travel brand must model the behavior you expect travelers to exhibit.

Enhance experiences without overwhelming travelers.

Yes, people use travel as a form of escape from their daily lives. While that doesn’t give them permission to do as they please simply because they are on holiday, there’s no need to take the fun out of traveling. In fact, that’s the last thing we want to do through tourism. It should be our goal to encourage people to travel and provide people with excellent experiences. 

However, those working in the tourism industry need to learn to do this while prioritizing local communities over travelers’ expectations, challenging the dominant narrative historically held in place by tourism, and introducing travelers to the problems tourism exacerbates. This is possible — and can even enhance travel experiences — when diverse storytellers and unexpected storylines encourage new ways of thinking, challenges are used as story starters, opportunities for deeper engagement and reflection are integrated into experiences, and storytelling is more transparent and complete.


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