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How Research helps Tourism Brands Prosper in a Dynamic Travel Industry

By Paige Rowett
Published on February 3, 2017

Understanding the market in which you operate is essential in creating a robust tourism marketing strategy – for both destinations and operators.

At Tourism eSchool, we work closely with MyTravelResearch.com, which is an insights and consulting company established and run by Carolyn Childs (based in Sydney).

Being an internationally recognised expert in the field of research, we invited Carolyn to pen an informative article on how tourism operators and destinations can leverage research to make sound decisions regarding product development and marketing, to remain competitive in our dynamic tourism industry.

It’s a rather long, in-depth article, but we figure the more informed you are the better, so a cup of Dilmah and 5 minutes of your time will be in order to work through this one 😉


Tourism is a highly attractive industry – many people dream of setting up their own business. But that’s because they are seduced by the glamour of travel. If you are reading this, you’ll know that the reality is often different. Whilst it’s an emotionally rewarding business sector, running a tourism business is hard work. The economic margins are often wafer thin, the margin for error is even smaller and there is seldom enough resources to do everything that you would like to.

So what can you do to make it easier?

Before she was my business partner in mytravelresearch.com Bronwyn White was Qantas’ most successful saleswoman in Melbourne. To combine her passion for Qantas and Marketing, she moved into the Qantas Market Research team in Sydney. As she studied the reports to get up to speed, she had an OMG moment. Seeing things through the customer’s eyes was so powerful that she thought ‘Oh My God, HOW much EASIER would my job as a saleswoman have been if I had of known all this?’

Research is there to make your life easier

To me, this goes to the heart of research. Its purpose is to make your life easier by equipping you with the confidence to know how to allocate those scarce resources of time and money. For example:

  • Do you target the fast growing Chinese market? Or do you stick to more traditional markets? If you know how big the opportunity is and what they are looking for you can work out if your product, service or destination will appeal to them. If they aren’t ready for you yet by keeping an eye on the market you can see when the time is right?
  • Once you’ve decided that you want a particular segment how do you reach them? Where do they look for information? By understanding this, you’ll ensure that every dollar you spend on marketing gets well spent.
  • Do you need to upgrade your product? If you know what your customers think of the product then you’ll know if that’s what they want. In one famous example, a hotel wanted to know whether to insert a widescreen TV in the bathroom. They asked guests what their priorities for improvement would be and free wifi and late check-out were far more important! Only a very tiny minority were interested and very few were prepared to pay more for the privilege. Without that research, they would have spent a great deal of money for scarcely any return. Often we are too close to our own business or destination – the customer looks at it clearly.
  • Want a new campaign or a new brand. If consumers don’t like it you’ll have wasted significant resources – and have to reshoot or redesign something.

So that’s the why of research. I always think that’s important to establish that before you start thinking about the how. Because if you don’t know why you’re doing it, you will find it hard. If you know why you are doing it, then it won’t feel like work at all. In fact, using research can be pretty addictive!

Probably my first and most important piece of guidance is not to be intimidated by the concept of research. It doesn’t have to be large, grand and expensive. Start small, use existing resources and use the savings and gains you made to grow your research activity.

Where to find relevant tourism research online

Although the tourism industry in Australia faces many disadvantages, we are gifted in having some of the best publicly available research in the world. I’ve included lots of the key links to help you bookmark the resources you need.

Tourism Bodies / Associations

If you need to understand visitor trends, needs and behaviour the research pages of Tourism Research Australia and Tourism Australia are a great free resource. The standard National Visitor and International Visitor Surveys reports enable you to benchmark how you are doing compared the rest of the industry.

But both produce other reports which can really help understand specific markets or situations. So if you have a specific challenge it is always worth visiting their sites to see what is available. For example:

It’s also worth making the time to attend a Tourism Australia industry briefing. This gives you an opportunity to ask the insight team questions and drill down. Take a look at Tourism Australia’s Industry Briefing >

We also find that our ‘frenemies’ are helpful too. I regularly use the insights produced by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Visit Britain, Tourism New Zealand and Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (US). Don’t forget broader trends can also be found on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website (for example if you are interested in Inclusive Tourism trends on people living with disability are vital for understanding).

For more specific knowledge, it’s always worth adding to your bookmarks list the research pages of your State Tourism Organisation (or STO) and where relevant RTO or LTOs.

Industry associations are also a fabulous source of insight. It’s a core function of most of them to provide this. Obviously much of the information is for members, but most will have useful information to provide both policymakers and to tempt you to join. Don’t just think about the ones you belong to and think global, not just local.

I recently shared a fabulous report on the ROI of destination advertising produced by the US Travel Association (USTA) with a client in Australia who commented it was just ‘Gold’. Similarly the Destination Management Association International has some great free resources on the value of destination marketing. Transnational Tourism bodies like the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) (great for economic benefits information for lobbying) and the European Travel Commission (ETC) all produce a mixture of both free and paid reports.

Google Insights

Google is your friend here so don’t be afraid to search for things and try terms like ‘research on Chinese tourists’ or ‘research on mobile trends’. The more you search, the more Google will serve you great stuff. Because I am searching for this kind of material all the time, I often can find reports that even my research clients can’t find! Google is also your friend in other ways. The team at Google funds a lot of research to understand key trends in digital marketing. Again add https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/ to your bookmarks (this is the US page, but you can find a dedicated Australian one there if your clients are primarily domestic).

Commercial Insights Providers

Beyond Google and associations, the age of Content Marketing has meant that many commercial insights providers are showing their capabilities by publishing free research. We know that the best way to win insight business is to show you have insights. If you haven’t signed up for our newsletters you can do so here. At MTR we have our own ‘frenemies’: – research companies whose research we love and respect (and quote when it is publically available and relevant to our members). Just a few of those would be PhocusWright (especially its digital research), TNS and Ipsos. Skift is a kind of hybrid that produces research.

Look for insights internally

We always remind people that they are often sitting on a goldmine of information internally. Beyond what you observe from day to day, if you look at patterns in your enquiries, bookings and customers you might find surprising results.

What are some things you can find out?

  • If you are in hospitality, what types of things end up in the bin or left on plates. A number of airlines have changed the way they serve fresh fruit and salads based on this type of observation. Rather than offering it to everyone, they tend to offer a ‘healthy choice’ and put smaller salads on other plates.
  • Do you keep a record of frequent queries you get for services you don’t offer. If you don’t again you could be missing a great product opportunity. I set up a database of airline products when I worked for the International Air Transport Association (IATA). I thought it would be too complicated and too expensive. But by the time I told the fourth airline we wouldn’t, we reassessed and found that changes in technology and the right business model enabled us to offer that service: one that saved airlines thousands of dollars.
  • Check out your reviews and social media feeds. Are there any consistent themes in the customer feedback – either positive or negative? Reviews are a great and free source of research. Yes a bad one can sometimes hurt, but if you are seeing the same comments consistently then you have an opportunity or a challenge. It’s particularly important if it is from someone who fits your core customer profile.

You can also conduct your own research

Tools like Surveymonkey offer a free questionnaire tool for studies with few participants and less than 10 questions. Google now offers a low cost research panel to help you find the right consumers.

But if you aren’t ready for that a few simple questions can often give you lots of great information.

Asking both customers and enquirers how they heard about you can help you plan your marketing resources better. I’m sure that many of you do this, but I am always surprised by how many people don’t! By keeping a track of this over time, you can see how it is changing as well. Better still, customers love to be asked – it shows you are genuinely interested.

One of the best examples I’ve seen was a service launched on the Tamar Valley Wine Route in Northern Tasmania. Most of the winemakers now will offer you a service where you can buy wine at any of the wineries on the route and when you are reach a case full, the winery will box it up and send it for a standard charge for you.

They built this following observations when the Spirit of Tasmania launched Sydney services. They were curious to see how many people visited the wineries from the service. So they asked people where they came from, how they got there and which airline they flew with.

What they found was that most of their customers continued to be fly in visitors. As such, they often only bought 1 or maybe two bottles – and tended only to visit fewer wineries. So they introduced the service and saw purchases soar. They didn’t find much attrition in those who were buying whole cases (as they tended to be a very specific type of wine buyer). All from three little questions (and a bit of collaboration – which is also a great tool).

DIY vs Outsource

When’s the right time to do more full on research? To some extent that depends on three things:

  • The size of the challenge you are facing
  • The risks to you and your business if you get it wrong
  • The budget you have to spend. I’ve deliberately left this until last. Generally the first thing that people think about. But actually, if you answer the first two questions you might find that you would want to spend more than you first thought. If you are making a decision that could bankrupt your business does it make sense to skimp on avoiding that.

Your budget will help you decide whether to take it in or out. The other question is whether you have the resources, time and capacity to do it.

If you do decide to give it to someone else, have a look around and see who has done work in this area. Ask for recommendations from organisations like yours.

I’d always get competitive quotes, but never more than 5. Firstly, you are going to dedicating time to reading the responses and secondly it means that you aren’t taking a lot of time from separate people.

Things to include in your research brief:

  • What your opportunity or challenge is
  • What you are trying to achieve or find out
  • Any preferences you have on what is to be done or how it is to be done
  • What the process for deciding is including deadlines, submission procedures and any must have requirements (e.g. insurance)
  • Budget. This one is always contentious, but put simply this enables an agency to work out if they have a chance of winning or whether they should go for the project. I’ve literally had people send me specs for a project that would cost $100k to run and then discovered their budget was $5k! Most consultants charge for time so every unsuccessful bid in effect raises the cost of research for everyone else.
  • Encourage creativity in the brief as well.

If you decide to do the research yourself, it’s important to remember that unlike an external agency you are not a neutral party! All of us have inherent biases, but beware of ones that confirm your thinking – aim to seek contradictory views. Research on research by Mckinsey has shown that companies that do this are at least six times more likely to succeed.

Finding the time to do your Research

I quite often do a talk on how to find and use free research. One of the most frequently asked questions is around ‘That all sounds great but how do I find the time?’

Firstly, I’d say if you are making big business decisions, research is like marketing or financials. Its part of your job and what you signed up to do. Business is pretty unforgiving and a competitive sector like tourism more so.

But there are some tools to help you.

  • Routine. Unless it’s a very big project the best way to do this is to build this into your routines. Diarise a visit to the TRA website once a month and if your schedule changes reschedule the time.
  • Process. I’ve references bookmarking and signing up for newsletters in this. Those sound tiny steps but they will make it easier for you to get to the key sources – or have them come to you. When an EDM (electronic Direct mail) comes in scan it quickly and if it has relevant info then either read it then or schedule a time to do so. Keep a page of useful links by topics.
  • Reframing the task. Stop thinking of it as work but start thinking of it as an outcome – a better and more successful business. It’s easier to find the time if we focus on the positive.

If you still don’t have the time, that’s what businesses like ours are for!

Once you start using research, you will find that it gets easier and so does your life. Like I said at the beginning the real benefit of research is to give you the confidence to plan and run your business well!


Phew, that’s it!

Well, if that isn’t an article to bookmark for future reference, then I don’t know what is!

We thank Carolyn very much for her insight and helpful advice and hope that you are able to implement some of her tips to create an evidence based tourism marketing strategy for your business or destination.

And, if you have any other helpful links to tourism research, then we’d love you to pop them in a comment below, so we can all stay on top of our research game!

Paige Rowett

Paige is a tourism marketing specialist and co-director of Tourism eSchool. Paige is passionate about working with tourism destinations & operators to create sustainable marketing strategies, specialising in marketing strategy, customer advocacy, customer experience, content marketing, website strategy, search engine optimisation & blogging.

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