An industry’s responsibility

By Alex Paik on

Today’s travellers are more informed than ever. We are all just clicks away from directories and guides brimming with stats and facts. Aggregated reviews of each and every space and place are backed by user-generated content in the form of pictures, videos, and text.

It is increasingly difficult for Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) to steer the dialogue of their destination, because young travellers, especially the millennials, eschew traditional media for online advice and content generated by their peers. One survey by Ipsos revealed millennials trust user-generated content 50 percent more than traditional media, and it was 20 percent more likely to influence a purchasing decision than other forms of media.

This has given rise to the popularity of peer-review platforms such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, but also to local concierge applications that can help tourists or residents with any questions on attractions or services through simple chat screens.

As visitor perceptions rapidly evolve, destinations need to stay vigilant and flexible in order to help travellers discover the experiences they seek. Once they do so, DMOs return to an informative position with clout, which they can use to lead travellers back onto more traditional, established travel itineraries.

However, when DMOs fail to provide relevant, quality content, young travellers will continue to confer with their peers over professionals for their destination news and content. 

Pokemon Go Tourism in Korea

Last month, thanks to a GPS technology glitch, Sokcho City and nearby areas became the only region in Korea where one could play Pokemon Go - a wildly popular location-based mobile game where players walk to different locations to capture cute monsters that pop up in their smartphone camera screens via augmented reality.

Facebook, Instagram, and blog sites are exploding with game tips and images of freshly-caught Pokemon monsters, all set to the backdrop of classic Sokcho scenery: long lazy beaches, tall mountains, and fresh seafood. 

Sokcho is actually just one of several cities and towns clustered near the North-South Korean border that has access to Pokemon Go. However, Sokcho benefitted the most because of its strong tourism infrastructure and swift, welcoming response from the public and private sector.

Sokcho Mayor Lee Byeong-Seon seized the opportunity with online videos to welcome the massive influx of tourists, promise of extra city services, and information on local foods and attractions. Pokemon Go relies heavily on the Internet, so free WiFi zone maps have been designed, printed and made available on the Sokcho City website.

At the time of writing, every single bus seat and train ticket to Sokcho had been sold out for days on end. Local E-commerce and daily deal sites scrambled to organise chartered bus packages, which also sold swiftly. Even small mom-and-pop shops in Sokcho participated by displaying handmade signs welcoming new “Pokemon trainers” to come grab a bite or quench their thirst before heading back out under the hot summer sun.

The full impact of this combined effort has yet to be seen, but according to Mayor Lee, the city had 5.7 million visitors during its peak summer period between July and August last year. This year, they are expecting a 50-percent boost in tourism due to this once-in-a-lifetime, absolutely arbitrary occurrence.

Gangnam Style: Are we still talking about this?

It may seem like any DMO would know how to recognise what travellers want and embrace large opportunities as soon as they arise, but it can be difficult to discern which trends are appropriate to follow, and how to execute them. Depending on the structure of the DMO, they may face strong pressure from government, stakeholders, or other parties that are wary of how new experiences may shape the image of their destination. 

For example, many travellers, especially business travellers, look forward to the exciting nightlife of Asian destinations, and naturally seek informative guides on where to go. Although it is easier for DMOs to present a squeaky clean image of their nightlife, an impartial view will steer travellers away from DMOs and possibly to places with unsafe advice or even more unsavoury content.

Similarly, despite their allure, it can be difficult to embrace viral opportunities while connecting them with key public objectives on a multi-tier, long-term branding campaign.

In the summer of 2012, Psy’s hit song “Gangnam Style” was literally the biggest thing happening across the world. However, it was barely mentioned in Korea’s international marketing, possibly due to Psy’s past legal issues and some past controversial lyrics. 

Leveraging successful brands to gain awareness

Seoul Tourism Organization was one of the first in the Korean tourism industry to hop on the Psy bandwagon. At the time of the inaugural 2012 IMEX Las Vegas, Gangnam Style had just peaked on the Billboard charts, so Seoul used the opportunity to start a dialogue. The city held a road show called “Seoul Style”, invited a local dance team to perform the song, and played the Gangnam Style music video at their booth in lieu of standard city promotional videos.

As a result, the Seoul booth was abuzz with walk-ins throughout the day from buyers and attendees taking the opportunity to finally see the music video that had taken the world by a storm. Seoul was also able to relate the song back to its strengths as a MICE destination, as the Gangnam district is incidentally where they have their main convention centre, several top hotels, fine dining, and trendiest nightlife areas.

It took nearly half a year for other DMOs, travel agencies, and government organisations to use Psy in their marketing, and this is only after Psy met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and hit one billion views on YouTube. By that point, the world had moved on – including Psy, who put out a new single five months after taking the record for most watched views on YouTube.

Delivering on Korea’s K-pop Appeal 

Many visitors to Korea are drawn to its pop culture, and seek experiences in Korea in relation to their favourite stars and shows. Unsurprisingly, the Korean government is not shy to promote it as a key driver of tourism. President Park Geun-hye recently attended the K-CON music festival in Paris, and has promoted it at many of her official overseas visits. At international trade shows, local and national convention bureaus will often bring K-pop cover dance teams or similar performances to wow buyers and other tradeshow attendees.

However, in terms of actual meetings, delivering a unique K-pop experience poses financial and logistical challenges. The majority of incentive events cannot splurge for a meet-and-greet or private performance from an A-list Korean celebrity. Also, K-pop is an industry of intangible goods protected by creative copyrights, which restricts event-customised usage of k-pop imagery, music, film, and other content.

But since K-pop reflects aspects of modern Korean society, engaging in everyday Korean activities portrayed in K-pop culture has become a fun way of connecting with Korean stars. Meeting planners have brought K-pop into their events with dance classes, cover performance teams, Korean idol style makeovers, and K-pop dance classes.

In another example, in the 2014 Korean drama My Love from the Star, the female lead talks about her love for chimaek (Korean slang for fried chicken and beer). This inspired an outdoor chicken and beer party in Incheon for 4,500 employees of the Chinese health firm Aurance Group earlier this year. A similar samgyetang ginseng chicken soup party was held in May for 8,000 Joymain employees at one of Seoul’s scenic Hangang River parks, which was inspired by Korean drama Descendants of the Sun. 

Great trends are great hosts for great destinations

Of course, no matter how popular a trend may be, it ultimately cannot substitute a quality, comprehensive destination experience. If Sokcho City was not blessed with its seaside towns, succulent squid, and Seoraksan Mountain, tourists probably would have thought twice about hunting pokemon at a remote location just south of the North-South Korean border. 

But in this vast ocean of digital content, trends are a lifeboat opportunity to inspire potential tourists to your doorstep. And DMOs finding creative ways to rapidly respond to trends will open channels to communicate their main brand message that will strongly resonate with the new generation of travellers.

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