15 November 2007

Virtual Friendships travel sector

Run with me on this. It's an idea in development...

Virtual Friendships (VF) - seems like a good name for it - is a niche sector that I don't think anybody in the travel industry has spotted yet.

Some market trends just stand out, like the sudden growth in the number of middle-aged parents visiting their teenage children on gap year placements, spotted by a small travel agency in Wales a couple or years ago. They now specialise in making the, sometimes quite domestically delicate & diplomatic (!), arrangements for such visits.

More recently, the marketing intelligence company, Euromonitor International, has just published its 'World Travel Market Global Trends Report 2007' highlighting a few of the latest market trends: Pet Travel (a rise in the number of people travelling with their pets and hotels & travel companies catering for them); Diaspora Tourism (driven by Diaspora tourists who wish to discover their heritage and ancestry, particularly at festival or event times such as Christmas, weddings, christenings, etc); and Debaucherism Tourism (hedonistic young travellers, particularly 25-34 yr old Americans, heading to the Caribbean, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Vietnam, Macau & Dubai to emulate tabloid celebrities by 'partying hard').

I began to think about the possible existance of a VF market a few weeks ago when my son and I were invited by some friends to visit them in Romania.

When I say 'friends' I mean people we spend time with, most days of the week...yet we have never met them.

These are online friends who play and chat together in the world's largest MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), The World of Warcraft (WoW). Over the last year we have got to know each other (and what we look like, what we sound like, what we do, and what we are like) really quite well. Joe and I play on a European server with regular friends from Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Iceland, Croatia and Romania. Three of our Romanian friends live in the same Black Sea town, Constanta and one of our UK online friends will be visiting them a couple of weeks before we go. As things stand at the moment another good online friend from Antwerp is planning to join our trip, and others might too.

It got me thinking. If we are doing it, the chances are other people are also making Real-Life ("r/l") travel arrangements too. It's a common subject in WoW circles. There's even a mini-movie about r/l encounters currently doing the rounds on YouTube.

"Um......yes" I hear you say, "but the fact that you happen to be organising a trip to see some other people from a bizarre fantasy world..... doesn't really indicate a travel 'trend'!"

Ok. Try this on for size.

World of Warcraft may be the biggest, but it is by no means the only MMORPG. It has over 9 million users worldwide including 2m in N. America, 1.5m in Europe and 3.5m in China. (Oh, and by the way, this is not a boy thing. My guess is that at least a third are female).

Now add to that all the other "Web 2.0" places that online friendships are formed...

Not just the well-known ones like Facebook (more than 54 million active users, and doubling every 6 months), Myspace (100 million users); Bebo (40 million users aged 13-24); Second Life (2 million accounts), or even dear old Friends Reunited (9 million members). Nor Windows Live Messenger which last year (can't find more up-to-date figures) was used in more than 60 countries by more than 240 million active accounts...

Think about all the hundreds of thousands of blogs, chat rooms and special interest forums where friendships are kindled and professional relationships developed.

For example I joined a forum of Search Engine Optimisation experts in 2002 and even back then there was a high level of collaboration that spilled over into the real world with people arranging to meet each other at and around overseas conventions, conferences, business and social trips.

OK.

So you reluctantly recognise that there may indeed be a significant number of real world travel arrangements born out of digital world encounters.... so what? What is in it for the travel industry?

Well, a couple of things.

  • Marketing strategy. Maybe re-allocating some advertising budget from traditional travel media to keyword targeted campaigns online would be a smart move for a travel company who wants to develop a new market. If you are a specialist tour operator specialising in battlefield tours or factory visits, perhaps you should be running Google or Yahoo ads on history or motoring forums.

  • Product. In a lot of cases VF travel requirements will be no different to any other. But a few tweeks might make a product more suitable. Using the battlefield/factory tour example above, if you designed a tour for small groups assembling from multiple start points, that would make it very suitable for the VF market. There might be other ways in which a travel provider could develop VF-specific products. Safety and security could be an issue for people meeting in real life for the first time. So a travel agency might offer escorted travel or a 'get me out of here!' facility for clients who find their r/l encounter is not as enjoyable or comfortable as they hoped and want to curtail their visit.

I think that VF could be an un-discovered market for the travel industry and perhaps it is time researchers tried to evaluate its size and potential.

14 November 2007

I wish World Travel Market was back at Earls Court!

WTM at Earls Court
Monday was 'day one' of the annual World Travel Market (WTM) and I was reminded yet again how much I hate the venue.

I've attended WTM every year since 1989. In those days it was held at Olympia, but it quickly outgrew that venue and moved in 1991 to Earls Court. In 2002 it moved to ExCel in the docklands.


So what's wrong with ExCel?

Its design and its location.

Design

I'm sure its marvelous for exhibitors. A vast purpose built space with no impediments (pillars, low ceilings, angled walls) so designers can take flight without restriction, and organisers can fit thousands of people and stands into it. Good access for trucks. Amazing facilities (catering, technical services, etc).

But from a visitor's perspective it is a nightmare. The two identical halls with a central "boulevard" between them are totally dis-orienting. There is nothing to distinguish them so visitors have to spend ages concentrating on maps to work out which way they need to go. In Earls Court you knew the Far East & Global village sections were in the back hall. North America, South America & the Far East could be found on the balcony and the UK & Europe was downstairs.....easy. If you looked around you, you could see at a glance where you were. At ExCel, you toss a coin and set off in the hope you are in the right hall and at the right end of it.

And I'm not just making a silly fuss. It is serious. I was blessed with a good sense of direction. I'm always sub-consciously aware of uphill/downhill, where shadows are, where the wind is coming from, etc. So I instinctively know which direction I'm facing. I'm also one of the few people I know who can find their way back to anywhere after just one visit.....but in ExCel, I am lost.

There are other problems with the design.

The break-out rooms are along endless corridors that run the full length of Excel. The skeletons of journalists last seen heading east or west looking for a press conference, have been found the following year in the wilderness extremities of those corridors! Maybe they recognised the problem (so few journos finding the right room in time) because this year and last they seem to have concentrated more press conferences in the rooms at the Press centre.

And focus. There is no focal point at Excel. There is a programme of events each day at WTM. In Earls Court these were held on the main stage in the middle of the hall - a natural amphitheatre with the balcony all around. I can honestly say, in the five years I have been attending WTM at Excel I have not seen one 'mainstage' event. Occasionally over the PA you are aware an event is going on somewhere... but god knows where!


Location

Earls Court is in London. ExCel is stuck out in some remote industrial wilderness at the end of an obscure branch line of the DLR.

Getting there and getting away is a horrible, complicated and lengthy process.

It hasn't got any better since the debacle of the first day in 2002 when the DLR service was overwhelmed and practically ground to a halt. (DLR executives could look out of their HQ windows overlooking Westferry and see WTM visitors trying not to fall off the packed platform as they were forced to change trains because there were no direct trains from bank to ExCel!)

In fact for me, this year it got noticeably worse. They've 'nerfed' my route from North London. I used to be able to catch a Silverlink train from Highbury & Islington to the Custom House station at ExCel, thus avoiding the DLR sardine trains. That's gone now, for some reason.

Frankly it is simpler, and almost as quick, to get to the NEC outside Birmingham.

I expect WTM is simply too large to leave ExCel - it now attracts 40,000+ trade visitors, including 5,000 exhibitors - but I miss Earls Court.

01 November 2007

Good cruise website, shame about the podcasts

There's an interesting new cruise portal being launched this week.

Inside Cruise is the brainchild of Ideal Holidays (aka Ideal Cruising) part of the Freedom Travel Group.

The site is a social networking site where cruisers, be they expert enthusiasts or first-timers can communicate through forums, reviews and instant messaging and I think it is a brilliant move on their part. It not only recognises the significance of 'next generation' Web 2.0 social media sites. but also the huge community of cruise lovers who are desperate to talk about their favourite thing - cruising.

Don't take my word for it. Just look at the volume of traffic on the well-established U.S. cruise forum site Cruise@ddicts (20,000+ registered users) or the astonishing runaway success of John Heald's daily blog from his ship Carnival Freedom. And there are other competitors too, like the wonderfully named, Ship Happens (forum, news & reviews), the excellent (and independent) CruiseMates, and Cruise Critic.

It's clear that for many cruisers, the space between one cruise holiday and the next is only to be filled up with blissful chat about the last and bliss planning & anticipation of the next. So I'm sure this site will be a success for them, and they'll make pots of money from advertising on the site itself and, their primary interest, selling cruise holidays.

My only gripe is with their own content.

The current stock of commercial videos and images they used to seed the site will soon get replaced with more worthy material from their users... so, no problem there. But their articles are pretty bland. They look exactly what they are - words strung together to make content for search engines to read. These are the sort of commercial articles you could probably buy in bulk from an office supply company or somewhere!

And their podcast clips are appallingly aweful! Now I do have to declare an interest in podcasting, but these are a definitive example of how not to do it. They are SO bad it gives podcasting a bad name.