Tourism consists of two separate journeys: The customer journey and the traveler journey.
The customer journey is integrated into the sales and marketing process, and this process is fairly universal across all industries. It requires thoroughly understanding who your potential customers are, identifying their challenges and motivations, and communicating the ways your particular product or service meets their needs or desires by connecting them with the right solution using the right messaging on the right platforms at the right time.
The ultimate goal of the customer journey is to make a sale. In the case of tourism, this means, for example, booking a trip with a tour company, buying plane or train tickets, and reserving accommodations.
Travel is a strange product, though, because even though the initial transactional part of the journey is over, the traveler journey is just beginning. During the traveler journey, a person visits attractions, participates in activities, encounters information and a wide variety of stimuli, and interacts with different people.
Both of these journeys are significant for their own reasons: One attracts and grooms potential customers, convincing them to invest hard-earned time and money. The other is the manifestation of this purchase.
These two journeys are two different pieces of a singular event, but they must work in tandem in order for the full potential of a travel experience to be realized.
Accurately Represent Reality
Have you ever bought something that looked and sounded one way in an advertisement only to receive a product that didn’t match your expectations? Maybe it was the wrong color, fabric, or design. Or maybe the description sold you on a higher- or lower-quality piece than the one you received.
How did that dissonance make you feel? Did you feel like you’d been cheated in some way? Disappointed, frustrated, or confused? Even if the product was an upgrade, did it catch you by surprise because it wasn’t what you were expecting?
Your marketing and sales team is trying to attract people to your travel product or service, but it’s essential that what they promise can actually be delivered. Or, if it can’t be promised (such as activities that might be derailed as a result of the weather), that caveats are clearly communicated.
Just because it’s easy or appealing to package a place or experience in a certain way doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
One of the hiccups that can occur during the customer journey specifically in the tourism industry is the desire to show destinations as pristine and picture perfect. While enticing photos might draw potential travelers in, showing the stunning view without the crush of crowds or the beach without the piles of garbage creates the wrong expectations. Similarly, selling a destination based on it’s common narrative (“Amsterdam is a party city”) may attract the wrong kinds of people to a place that is unsuitable for a certain kind of traveler.
It’s worth noting that unexpected, high-quality surprises can be a very good thing in tourism. Who doesn’t love a room or rental car upgrade? However, make sure any potential upgrades in reality match the persona identified for the customer journey. For example, don’t communicate that a tour has a casual, backpacker vibe if an “upgrade” consists of higher-end accommodations with strict quiet hours and no community spaces.
Additionally, just because it’s easy or appealing to package a place or experience in a certain way doesn’t make it the right thing to do. People involved with the customer journey must work closely with those involved with the traveler journey to ensure the buyer persona is properly defined, a destination or experience is clearly understood, potential caveats and barriers to enjoyment or access are communicated, and reality is accurately portrayed.
Build a Cohesive Storyline
Most people’s trips follow a fairly common cadence. They pack an itinerary full of “things to do” then bounce from site to site to check them all off. While this kind of trip definitely helps people get a taste of what is located in a particular place, it rarely offers in-depth context that helps tie all these pieces together.
Trips can feel disjointed when the only thing holding activities together is that everything just happens to be located within close proximity to each other. Far more powerful is a theme or common thread. While this leaves some information out, it also offers a sense of cohesion that furthers understanding about something specific in a place that has been shaped by complexity over the course of several generations. This can happen in a singular activity or experience (what I call a micro-story), or across several activities, a destination, or the entirety of a trip.
For example, a city walking tour that points out the highlights of a specific destination can feel like a jumble of names and dates without any context to ground them. However, one focused on urban street art, architectural history, or local food surfaces a specific, often more memorable story of a place. This is a micro-story, one in which the walking tour serves as a narrative arc for a singular theme.
Savvy companies encourage marketing teams to work with on-the-ground guides and partners to surface stories that can be shared early in the customer journey and reinforced throughout the traveler journey.
Cohesion can also be integrated throughout the entirety of a trip or destination. It can be general (such as an emphasis on culture) or specific (like restoring coral reefs). Sometimes it’s subtle, such as simply highlighting conservation efforts every time travelers engage in an outdoor activity or suggesting activities and sites related to a certain historical event. Or, it might be the driving force behind an itinerary, such as a “dueling narratives” trip I took in Israel and Palestine that specifically integrated lots of conversations with local people about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This is an intentional practice, and it shouldn’t only happen once travelers have arrived in a destination. Savvy companies encourage marketing teams to work with on-the-ground guides and partners to surface stories that can be shared early in the customer journey and reinforced throughout the traveler journey. Not only does this provide content that is uniquely specific, but it invites travelers to explore storylines of specific interest to them and cracks open the door for new ways to approach a destination or experience that they might not have considered — even if they’ve visited a certain place before.
Surfacing themes or different ways for travelers to tie together seemingly disparate activities helps people make sense of their experiences. It provides much needed (but often not provided) context for better understanding and awareness about why a place is the way it is.
Empower Travelers to Tell a Better Story
Marrying the customer journey with the traveler journey through intentional storytelling also sets up the conditions for the post-travel story. This is the story that travelers share with other people.
Think about your own travel experiences: What do you say when someone asks how a particular trip was? If your trip consisted of visits to a lot of unconnected sites, how do you communicate that with other people? Do you simply list all the places you visited?
Surfacing ways for people to engage in storytelling throughout the customer and traveler journeys rather than being passive consumers creates the conditions for travelers to become storytellers themselves.
By nature, humans are storytelling creatures. They are not data-driven. When people simply visit a bunch of sites without any story tying together a single activity or a series of activities, it’s hard to verbalize the narrative of that experience. There isn’t much of a story to tell.
However, when travelers are engaged in a micro-story, or their trip consists of several interrelated micro-stories, they then have a story to tell other people. Sometimes these stories are complete, sometimes they are complicated, and sometimes there’s more to uncover or explore. Regardless, surfacing ways for people to engage in storytelling throughout the customer and traveler journeys rather than being passive consumers creates the conditions for travelers to become storytellers themselves.
This is when travelers have something meaningful to say about their trip. It’s also when they become word-of-mouth ambassadors for the places they visit and the experiences they have. This is the story that keeps on giving, and there’s no way to put a price tag on that.