From the desk of Petra Hedorfer
CEO German National Tourist Board

Petra Hedorfer, CEO German National Tourist Board

Here you will find regular updates on the current situation from Petra Hedorfer, CEO of the German National Tourist Board.

From the desk of Petra Hedorfer

CEO of the German National Tourist Board

31 August 2021

Dear reader,

As the summer season draws to a close, I would like to resume my series of blog posts. It has been a new and unfamiliar time for a great many of us. The pandemic continues to put restrictions on all our lives. At the same time, many of us have now had a taste of what holidays may be like in the new normal: the freedom, finally, to go where we choose – even if we do have to keep our distance when we get there – and a greater reliance on digital services, but also a sense that we are still travelling in an uncertain environment. Holidaymakers and the tourism industry will need to continue to show flexibility and vigilance.

Right through the summer, we have been engaged in intensive dialogue with colleagues, industry partners and opinion leaders. Today, I would like to tell you about one of the outcomes of these ongoing networking efforts. And I’ll be doing so together with my esteemed colleague Dirk Rogl – tourism expert, Phocuswright travel analyst and deputy director of the German government’s Centre of Competence for Tourism. We explored where our interests and expertise overlap on the subject of ‘People at the heart of the digital transformation’, and have summarised the results for you in this joint opinion piece, which is being published on our own channels as well as on Dirk’s Travel.Commerce blog.

You can join the debate too. Dirk and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to continue the conversation.

People are the most important factor in the digital revolution

An opinion piece by Petra Hedorfer and Dirk Rogl

Fast, comprehensive, personalised and engaging. Accessing information digitally was already hugely popular among travellers, but demand has ratcheted up even higher thanks to coronavirus. Technology will be the defining feature of the relaunch of tourism: Graph-based databases, AI applications, and new approaches in managing visitor flows and business analytics are all coming our way. The technology is tried and tested and the roll-out has begun.

The challenge facing us now to is to help tourism professionals – who are perhaps more used to dealing with people than data – to access and engage with digital ecosystems. It’s an invitation to help shape the future.

The relaunch of tourism is in full swing. It was inevitable that the travel bug would prove stronger than the virus. But it is also clear that the places where safety can be guaranteed, and that are not overcrowded, will be the first to experience a post-pandemic travel boom. And that is the case within Germany.

For inbound tourism, this means that the closer a destination is, the more likely people are to travel there. At the beginning of Europe’s peak travel season in June, the proportion of respondents to an IPK International survey who were willing to travel abroad stood at 70 per cent worldwide. The figure for Europe was nearly 80 per cent. Germany continues to be held in high regard around the globe as a destination of choice. The current reboot of our inbound tourism is being driven by neighbouring countries where people have expressed a strong intention to travel. Think Poland, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

The SINUS market research institute recently conducted a travel survey on behalf of the German government’s Centre of Competence for Tourism. It found that ‘not being overcrowded’ was the most important factor in Germans’ choice of holiday destination. Peace and quiet and safety were the next most important, and it appears other criteria are taking a back seat this summer.

The desire for rest and relaxation was dominant across Europe too. Almost a quarter of respondents to the European Travel Commission’s June 2021 Travel Sentiment Study said they most wanted to enjoy the sun and the beach on their holiday. The coast and the sea were top of the list for 15 per cent of those surveyed, as were nature and outdoors for a further 15 per cent, while just under 10 per cent were enthusiastic about wellness and relaxation. There was also interest in more culturally focused holidays: City breaks and culture and heritage were each favoured by 11 per cent of respondents.

Before coronavirus, it wouldn’t have been too hard to undertake a digital detox. Forget all your cares and escape the hustle and bustle. And leave your digital devices behind? Maybe back then, but certainly not in summer 2021. App-based contact tracing (including with Luca in Germany), admission verification with QR codes and the use of digital health passports have become common and indeed essential everyday routines for the traveller. It’s hard to imagine being able to enjoy a relaxing holiday now without a smartphone. What’s more, the SINUS survey reveals that travellers this year are attaching a huge amount of importance to being able to access relevant news in real time, and that’s not going to happen in an analogue world.

Travel warnings in demand: The pandemic has massively changed what kind of information travellers need and how they want to access it, finds the SINUS survey.
Source: Kompetenzzentrum Tourismus des Bundes (Federal Centre of Competence for Tourism), Das neue Reisen (New Travel), May 2021

In this context, the digital vaccination certificate is one of the keys to facilitating travel. This and other smart digital travel assistants are here to stay.

However, the race to become the most popular digital travel assistant for the post-pandemic era has only just begun. Prior to coronavirus, the tech giants were undoubtedly in pole position with their digital services and personalised offerings appearing not only on compact smartphone displays but also in voice assistants and other AI applications.

Giving alternatives to Google & co. a chance

The German tourism industry’s open data project, which the GNTB is coordinating, is of course primarily about making data accessible. But it is also helping to ensure that Google is not the only one receiving all the best holiday information. Well-structured databases and excellent content that are freely accessible and can be custom queried are key to developing new and intelligent travel assistants and fuelling them with the right data.

This liberation of data opens up big opportunities for the entire tech sector. New business models can emerge and start-ups can flourish, making for a more competitive and more economically vibrant environment.

The Germany-wide knowledge graph is in the starting blocks. The aim is to provide information about Destination Germany in a more comprehensive and more value-adding way than was ever possible before. The graph is able to combine millions of datapoints on visitor attractions, tours and tourism offerings. It is an ambitious project, for sure. But ambition is what we need, because the benefits of this vast pool of data for travellers and the tourism industry will only ever be as good as the digital applications – and most importantly mobile applications – that make use of it.

Personalizing the flood of data is critical to success

Mobile services will really come into their own when a compact smartphone display or, looking further ahead, the instant response of a voice assistant are able to deliver truly personalised content. The sheer amount of data available on the internet now means that the days of having a simple listing of information are long gone. Relevance is subjective and varies from person to person.

For customisation to succeed, the different components that make up the tourism industry need to be more closely aligned, and not just when it comes to providing information. Despite all the challenges involved in data protection, it is important to find the optimum approach to combining the preferences and travel plans of the (consenting) guest. Digital identities are a great way to do this. Self-sovereign identities (SSI) are a kind of digital key that allow people to provide deep insight into their preferences. But only as deep as is necessary or desired.

The digital vaccination certificate is a prime example: No one is obliged to share their vaccination status, of course. But there are clear advantages at the places where people are staying and during their journeys if this data can be accessed on demand.

Another example: Those who disclose their location via their smartphone will have access to location-specific digital services. Add your travel plan, say, and you’ll be shown the optimum transport connection to your onward destination. Disclose your hobbies and interests and you’ll be told how and where at the location you can indulge them.

Digital identities bring a whole new level of convenience to the customer journey, allow additional services to be provided, and help make travel a seamless, bureaucracy-free experience.

Indeed this approach of harnessing the power of personal data carefully and responsibly can actually become a mark of quality for a destination.

Hospitality remains the top priority

Google can already do all of this today, precisely because the company is more than just an internet search engine. Despite having literally billions of users, Google understands that they are all individuals and builds profiles of them to the extent that the users permit. What makes SSI technology so appealing as an alternative is that the users retain control over their personal data. They reveal only as much of themselves as is to their benefit. And only to the sites that they trust.

Trust is of course a valuable asset in tourism too. At its core, a successful holiday trip is built on authentic encounters and attentive service, on the human touch and on sharing moments with others. Destinations and tourism companies see themselves and their employees as consummate hosts and providers of a service. And the trust that this engenders is how guests become regulars, and regulars become friends. It’s a system that has proven its worth for generations, millions of times over. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

This interaction was put to the test with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Global tourism came to an abrupt halt within a matter of weeks, having been on a long run of record years. The key to overcoming the crisis is not to dwell on past achievements, however, but to actively show empathy with guests. The objective now is to establish what milieu these guests belong to (using the Sinus Institute’s milieu typology), to analyse customer centricity and market-specific trends, and to actively target potential customers taking into account the current circumstances. Germany’s inbound tourism industry and the international travel trade are working side by side to look at how the pandemic is affecting the global market and how the impact on destinations can be mitigated through the focused use of digital technologies. International surveys validate this approach.

During the lockdowns of 2020, Germany actually gained market share and became the no. 1 destination in Europe. According to IPK polling from summer 2021, Germany is the place where travellers worldwide consider the risk of infection to be lowest. A McKinsey study, also from summer 2021, finds that Germany’s tourism industry is weathering the crisis relatively well, will have recovered by 2023 and will return to pre-crisis levels quicker than most other European markets.

A database is nothing without a human touch

Tourism is undergoing a digital transformation on an immense scale. The digitalisation of the customer journey from the inspiration stage to the post-trip follow-up is a challenge for all tourism providers, from global giants to independent tour guides, from the organisations marketing the destinations to those that provide services on the ground. What unites them all is a commitment to excellence at every stage of the customer journey, ensuring that guests are managed properly and that they are keen to return.

Ultimately, tourism has always been reliant on the personal touch. We believe it will stay that way, despite what we have said above. Indeed the big tech companies such as Google, Expedia and Airbnb are now themselves looking to local guides, experts and ‘super hosts’ to augment their already impressive offerings. Any database or mobile app is only as good as the people who design it. And every travel tip accessed digitally is only as good as the human encounter it opens the door to.

This all ties in perfectly with the ongoing efforts to make Germany a standard-bearer for sustainability. Our homeland is a leading destination in the global tourism market not just because of the balance it offers between economic strength and environmental stewardship. Equally important is social responsibility, which from a tourism perspective means reconciling the interests of all the stakeholders in a destination – whether they are the guests visiting it, the people living there, or the tourism professionals making the trip possible in the first place.

The digitalisation of tourism would be doomed to fail were it not for the passionate individuals driving it forward and the tourism professionals who communicate with travellers digitally on a daily basis and incorporate digital technologies into their personal interactions. So even if travel apps are becoming increasingly and inexorably important, tourism will still always be about human connection. Do not be put off by buzzwords, codes, and bits and bytes. Let us instead harness their power and share in the benefits. After all, people are the most important factor in the digital revolution. And the opportunities to shape this revolution are as diverse as tourism itself.

That’s all for now, but in keeping with the spirit of the medium, do get in touch to let us know what you think! We’d love to hear from you.

Warm regards,

Petra Hedorfer and Dirk Rogl

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