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Tourism’s Pain Points Can Be (Partially) Resolved with Better Storytelling


Published on May 4, 2021


COVID-19 set the tourism industry back over the past year. But, the pandemic can’t be blamed for all of the struggles tour companies, destination representatives, and other travel service providers had long before that.

The good news is, as you start to flex your tourism muscle again over the next couple months, you can address common pain points head on. How? With mindful, strategic, and intentional storytelling, of course.

It’s important to understand where we’ve been to create better habits moving forward. We know that tourism is beneficial in many ways, but it also has a lot of negative impacts. The tourism model is built on a foundation of colonialism, and traditional messaging within the tourism industry upholds this colonial model. For example, this messaging reinforces an idea that travel is comfortable and a form of escape, and that the traveler should be centered above all else. This, in turn, perpetuates and accelerates negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts.

This, of course, is not necessarily beneficial for local communities or the people who live there. And, it’s far more likely to have a negative environmental and socio-cultural impact than a positive one.

And yet, by and large, those working in tourism have continued to work within this destructive cycle and narrative. It’s comfortable, familiar, and what the industry as a whole has propped up for quite some time.

But, why do we lean into this cycle? It’s not helping your business. It’s not helping your competitors’ businesses. 

Your company has pain points. In fact, you share common pain points with other travel service providers. Every business has its pain points — challenges your company struggles to overcome. Having a clear understanding of what they are and why they exist is the first step to addressing them within your company.

The second step is to harness the power of strategic storytelling to resolve them.

Pain Point: It’s hard to compete in a crowded marketplace.

It’s hard to say exactly how many tour operators exist in the world. Pre-pandemic, the number floating in the industry as a possible estimate was 130,00 global operators. That number doesn’t even take into account residents offering excursions through platforms like Airbnb or apps that connect travelers to local, under-the-radar bespoke guides. 

Though COVID-19 has put a number of companies out of business, the hard truth is that travelers can choose from a multitude of travel service providers.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your company use its messaging as a differentiating factor?
  • How does your story differ from your competitors’ stories?

Strategic storytelling solution:

Every brand started from a spark of an idea, a conversation, a need or desire noted by an individual. And every individual believes in, supports, or stands for something. 

You need to be very clear about what your brand is, what it stands for, and how to communicate that with potential clients. Consumers increasingly want to support and align themselves with companies that embody meaning, are clear about their values, and are far more than just a logo.

Pain Point: Finding financial stability and profitability is a challenge.

When every company offers similar products and services, the differentiating factor between them often comes down to price. If given a choice between two trips that resemble each other — destination, trip duration, quality of product and service, similar activities — and there isn’t a brand preference, most people are more likely to choose the less expensive option.

In order to make a profit, though, this race to the bottom line doesn’t serve your company’s financial potential. Plus, it often undercuts local people and communities. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who does your company attract when you focus on price?
  • How do you express the value of your offering when your differentiating factor is based on cost?

Strategic storytelling solution:

Value isn’t just about price points. The value you offer is related to the positive impact you have on people and the planet. It is related to the businesses and social impact initiatives you support through your work, the citizen science projects travelers participate in, the conversations they have along the way, and the story your travelers walk away with as a result of shaping their travel experience with you.

This is an experience built on intention, and it takes more effort and financial resources to build. But, it’s also the experience that attracts a higher-quality, higher-paying client who is more invested and interested in a trip that does more than just hit the “must-see” sites.

Addressing this pain point requires fully developing an experience that is meaningful and impactful, but then going one step further. You must move beyond what and communicate a story of why and how

Pain Point: Your company hasn’t clearly defined what its unique selling point (USP) is.

If a low price is not the differentiating factor your company leans on, you need to be very clear about what your USP is. Most people who get into the tourism industry do so because they love traveling, but also because they see a niche that isn’t being filled. Think about what drove your company to go into business. That’s a good starting point for identifying your USP.

The other challenge with this pain point is that you may be clear about your USP, but you don’t know how to communicate it to potential customers. If that’s the case, you aren’t fully capitalizing on its potential.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What makes your company different and unique?
  • Why should a traveler choose your company?
  • How are you communicating your USP?
  • Are you using the same messaging as every other company?

Strategic storytelling solution:

We all know that famous saying from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” This is partially true for the tourism industry. A better, more accurate saying would be: “If you build it and tell people about it, they will come.”

The problem is that, for far too many companies, what they intend to communicate is actually different than what is interpreted by potential customers. Not only does this fail to tell a more accurate and interesting story, but failing to match intention and interpretation can attract the wrong traveler and establish the wrong expectations.

Pain Point: You struggle with how to promote tourism when the act of travel itself is environmentally harmful.

The climate crisis has finally taken its (rightful) place front and center on the global stage. No industry, destination, community, or individual is immune to the consequences of a rapidly warming world. 

In the tourism industry, the climate narrative was largely shaped by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who advocated for people to stop using airplanes for transportation. Flight shaming shook the foundation of the tourism industry, and, many would argue, rightfully so. A recent study published by Global Environmental Change found that frequent-flying “super emitters” who flew 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) — the equivalent of three long-haul flights a year, one short-haul flight per month, or a combination of the two — represent 1% of the world’s population but caused 50% of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018. 

And that’s just travel’s negative environmental footprint caused by flying!

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your company doing to address the environmental ills caused by tourism?
  • Are you communicating about the environmental problems caused by tourism with clients — or do you avoid sharing this information?
  • Are you transparent in your communication?

Strategic storytelling solution:

Lean into uncomfortable conversations! Instead of avoiding the dark corners that hide the environmental and socio-cultural problems caused by tourism, we must start talking about them. Shielding travelers from the problems they exacerbate doesn’t empower them to act differently.

Be upfront about a destination’s challenges, but also surface any solutions that exist that address these challenges. This has the potential to activate meaningful action in travelers, because it shows them what is possible. In addition to creating awareness, supporting local solutions, and seeding the capacity for further positive impact, it also creates a compelling story for travelers to tell other people, which further differentiates your offering from others.

Pain Point: A lot of your company’s marketing and communication emphasis is placed on attracting customers.

In the tourism industry, there are two separate journeys: the customer’s journey through the sales funnel and planning process, and the actual journey itself once someone has made the decision to travel. Strangely enough, there is a lot of emphasis on the first type of journey — throughout the customer’s educational process and up to the point of decision-making — while minimal attention is paid to the traveler on the ground. 

The same is true with the focus on communication: Service providers place a lot of emphasis on their messaging for would-be customers but don’t think nearly as much about storytelling once travelers have arrived in their destination, during their travel experience, and after they’ve returned home.

From a sales and marketing perspective, this makes sense. The potential traveler has become a money-paying customer, and now that the cash is secured, those working in tourism can turn their attention to helping other would-be travelers through the sales funnel. 

Travel is a strange product though: While the transactional part of the journey is largely over once someone has turned from a prospective customer to a paying customer, the traveler journey is just beginning. Arguably, that’s when the real opportunity for thoughtful engagement emerges. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which part of the customer journey does your company’s messaging emphasize?
  • Who is catered to?
  • What is the messaging?
  • Have you thought about what story you share during and after the travel experience?

Strategic storytelling solution:

Take full advantage of travelers’ undivided attention and invested interest while they are in a destination to tell more dynamic, honest, and interesting stories. These are the kinds of stories that can only emerge from the specific history, culture, activities, communities, and residents found in this unique corner of the world. Again, these are the kinds of stories that travelers can’t wait to share with others when they return home — that’s word-of-mouth marketing you can’t put a price on.

Don’t discount the opportunity to continue the storytelling process by staying in touch with travelers after they’ve returned home. Help travelers continue their learning with recommendations for books, movies, music, or podcasts that explore the themes that arose during a trip in more detail. On post-trip surveys, ask what they’ve learned and how they’ve changed their habits or behavior. This will help you refine your storytelling throughout the entire traveler journey in the future.

Pain Point: Getting return customers.

There’s a reason a lot of your company’s marketing budget goes into attracting customers: Travel is a major investment, and people don’t purchase travel experiences without serious consideration.

Tourism isn’t immune to figuring out how to turn one-time travelers into loyal customers, but given the investment in a travel product or service, the stakes are high for companies that unlock the ability to do this. There is a cost and time benefit of attracting return clients. Each time they travel with your company, the cost per traveler decreases, freeing up precious financial resources to invest in other parts of your business.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • If you have clients who have traveled with your company more than once, why do they travel with your company?
  • How can you tap travelers to be ambassadors for your brand and stewards of the environment and destinations you represent?
  • Where would you invest additional financial resources if you could find the magic formula for building a returning client base?

Strategic storytelling solution:

Don’t think of travelers as one-and-done clients; think of this trip experience as just one story among many that you can share with them.

During any single trip, tap into all aspects of the traveler journey to surface interesting and unexpected storytellers, perspectives, and encounters. Create a narrative that doesn’t necessarily have a neat ending by surfacing aspects of a theme or topic throughout a trip; this is the story that is still in progress. It is a story that keeps travelers talking about, questioning, and engaging in conversation with others. Tour companies that can expertly weave nuance and complexity using strategic storytelling techniques set themselves apart from competitors and are well positioned to welcome return clients.

For those representing destinations, disrupt the dominant narrative. The story travelers most frequently hear is the story that has been shared over and over again, but there are lots of interwoven complexities that make up a place: A long history and the development of culture. Capitalism and colonialism. Conservation efforts and grassroots movements. Conflict and solutions. 

Help travelers discover a destination through multiple entry points told from various perspectives. This gives people a reason to visit multiple times as they peel back the layers revealing a destination that is far more than a two-dimensional backdrop.

The waitlist for Strategic Storytelling: A Master Class Series is now open. This four-part, a la carte series addresses these pain points and offers the skills, tools, and resources you need to tell more responsible, inclusive, and intentional stories in your travel-related career.

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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