Thomas Stoeckle leads strategic business development at LexisNexis Business Insight Solutions (BIS). A marketing communications researcher and business leader with more than 25 years’ experience, he believes passionately in story-telling through robust data evidence and compelling visualisation.
Originally from Germany, Thomas has been living in London for 17 years, working with clients all over the globe. In a fast-changing world, he relishes engaging with partners and clients on finding and building better solutions for their communications challenges.
Forever a digital Neanderthal among digital natives, he is keenly aware that today’s complexities demand fluency in the three languages of business, technology, and of course humans.
Thomas is co-chair of the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission, a frequent speaker at industry events, and commentator through articles and blog posts. Together with his friends and ex-colleagues Neville Hobson and Sam Knowles, he produces a regular podcast on the challenges and opportunities of big and small data, in particular for marketing and communications.
In recent years, he managed to combine his professional focus with his desire for travel and curiosity for other cultures. Thomas led a team from LexisNexis and other agencies, including Chinese travel marketing experts SPRG that undertook one of the most comprehensive surveys looking at the changing perception of Maldives as a holiday destination.
Commissioned by the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, the summary findings were presented in September 2016 to an industry gathering held in Male’. He also participated in the Hotelier Maldives GM Forum held earlier this year, where he presented the latest updates on his research, touching on media monitoring, social media listening, crisis management and influencer marketing. He also moderated a panel on the ‘Appeal of Destination vs Appeal of Brands’.
In an ongoing conversation with Hotelier Maldives, here we publish the first segment of an interview with Thomas where he shares his insights on how the destination can best leverage new and emerging trends and technologies to better position the destination and benefit from the dynamics in an ever evolving market.
You have been involved in a very comprehensive survey of data looking at the changing perceptions of Maldives as a tourism destination and corresponding changes in traveller behaviour and industry performance. What would you say are the most pertinent issues that Maldives as a destination needs to focus on?
Perhaps the most pertinent issue affecting not just the Maldives, but any destination worldwide, is a sense of uncertainty and discomfort in the world. I am writing this under the fresh impression of the London Bridge terror attack. The political events of 2016, with the UK voting to leave the European Union, and the US voting for Donald Trump as president, an increasing sense of global uncertainty and a wave of neo-isolationism: all this is having an impact on travel and tourism. And it is bringing challenges and opportunities for the Maldives, above and beyond what we find in our study.
It is clear from our data that the Maldives are one of the most admired destinations worldwide. For example, the Maldives have a much stronger social media presence, than Mauritius or the Seychelles.
However, this presence does not always translate into a leadership position when it comes to arrivals and growth. We need to understand why that is the case. If other destinations are doing better in converting social media presence into travellers, then we need to understand why and how – to emulate, to replicate, and to be more successful.
Today’s travel market is more fragmented that ever, and travellers are more informed and more demanding than ever before. This is not likely to change. If anything, it is a growing trend. From the perspective of managing destination marketing and promotion, this creates more opportunities. However, in a crowded and highly competitive market, these are opportunities that are becoming harder to realise.
And this is where technology and data can help build better and smarter solutions. As more and more of the research and decision-making, as well as conversations and sharing before, during and after trips, is happening online, there is more and more data to collect, to look at, to analyse and learn from. Whether it is transactional business data that helps understand how people choose and buy travel and accommodation, whether it is chatter on social networks where people share information and experiences with their peers or post reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor or Booking.com: all of it is available for analysis.
As in so many other areas, I believe that smart data analytics – and better decisions based on better data – will become an ever more critical success factor. Therefore, I would see the adoption of a data-driven, more integrated approach to destination marketing and promotion as the most pertinent issue for the Maldives. Understanding and predicting the shifts in traveller behaviour, understanding and predicting the dynamics between global and regional political events and holiday decision-making, understanding what works and doesn’t work and course-correcting swiftly – those are the skills that will determine long-term success.
After decades of strong performance, we are now experiencing a stagnation in visitor arrival and even a decline. Are there any immediate steps that can be taken to revert this scenario?
Maldives tourism is in its 45th year. And this is a 45-year old that can look back over proud achievements. But it is also a 45-year old that may have to change some habits and learn some new tricks. When we look at arrivals data since 1972, we see steady growth for decades. The exceptions are 2001 (global recession and 9/11 terrorist attacks), 2004 (tsunami effects) and 2009 (post economic crisis).
What such high-level data are not showing, however, are complex multiple causes and drivers which can be complementary, or exacerbating, or they can be offsetting each other – at least on the surface. For example, when arrival numbers from Western Europe were slowing down and in some cases declining, after the fall of the Iron Curtain there was increasing traffic from Russia. And when Russia slowed down, there was already growth from China. In recent years, however, we are seeing a slowdown from all main markets without an upward push from a new growth driver (emerging markets, such as South Asia, South East Asia and the Middle East, are an exception with year on year growth of 24% since 2011; but overall figures are not big enough to outweigh the larger markets).
Addressing the issues, there is a more immediate, tactical perspective, and a longer-term, strategic perspective. In the short-term, due to the dominance in absolute numbers, there needs to be an ongoing focus on China and activities that will help reverse the negative trend.
Recommendations from Chinese marketing agency SPRG included a strong focus on key customer segments (especially honeymooners and young couples), understanding their motivations, their decision-making processes and purchasing channels. Listening carefully to the social media buzz to respond more directly to their needs, and run PR and advertising campaigns that address those expressed needs.
Longer-term, it will be critical to put monitoring and research tools and analysis and reporting processes in place that will support and drive data evidence-led management and decision-making on all levels. Solving problems will start by understanding the root causes. If arrivals from a certain market are declining, yet outbound travel from that market to ‘competitor destinations’ continues to grow, then the reasons behind that need to be analysed and understood: Is it a perceived lack of value for money? Is it the inconvenience of travel time? Have other destinations upped their game with improved marketing and promotion? The research will help ask the right questions and guide the ways to answer them.
In terms of emerging scenarios and markets, what should the Maldives as a destination focus on?
One of the main emerging trends appears to be a ‘back to basics’ approach: hospitality understood as human empathy. Luxury understood not as opulence, but as unburdened simplicity. Scarcity and prestige not based on price and brand name, but exclusive, personal, authentic experiences. People are increasingly driven by spiritual and emotional motives, rather than ostentation. It is less about luxury goods, and more about luxury experiences: inner fulfilment, self-esteem, a sense of belonging.
With hundreds of coral islands, pristine white sandy beaches, lush palm trees and abundant marine life, the Maldives provide a unique natural setting to benefit from those above-mentioned trends. However, these tropical features by themselves are not enough to create successful long-term differentiation. Travellers will increasingly be seeking transformational experiences that go beyond spa treatments. This will include learning and education, perhaps switching off and ‘detoxing’ from the hyper-distractedness of modern life, as part of an all-encompassing sensual and spiritual journey. Differentiation in the smart luxury segment of the future is likely to come from activities focusing on these areas.
One of the defining features of our times is that change has become a constant. Not only is emerging market growth changing tourism, we are also seeing fundamental generational shifts which are as yet not fully understood and where marketing – not just in tourism – has yet to adapt. Mindsets and (virtual) communities matter more than demographics when it comes to people’s identities, and what they care about.
Recently you moderated a panel at the Hotelier Maldives GM Forum on the theme ‘Appeal of Destination vs Appeal of Brands’; how critical do you think the overall perception of destination is for brands for performing strongly?
Before I can attempt an answer to this question, I think it is important to reflect on what a brand is, and what it stands for. A very good analogy – and one that I cannot claim credit for (it is discussed in this Fast Company article) – says that brands are like people, and people are like brands.
They have a soul, personality and behaviour, a rational and an emotional side. They need love and attention. They can be strong or weak. They can stand out, or they can be unremarkable. They need to have a reason for being. They need to have clarity about their purpose and values in order to perform confidently and successfully. Sometimes, they need to change, or even ‘reinvent’ themselves, in order to realise their full potential.
It seems to me that Brand Maldives is at that point where change or reinvention is required to achieve full potential. Whilst you have a strong legacy brand, which might not be enough to succeed in light of the complex challenges that we have already touched on. Think of it as the difference between ‘table stakes’ and ‘game changers’: palm trees, sunny blue skies, white sand are table stakes. On that level, you are competing in a crowded market.
Everybody in this crowded market will be seeking the magic formula that helps create a unique identity, an exclusive positioning. I believe that the secret in finding and then grooming that game changer in the dynamic between the destination and the hospitality brand will be a shift toward the customer-centric perspective that I mentioned before.
When you think of the decision-making process of a traveller – the purchase funnel, so to speak – it starts with generic considerations (where do I want to go, when do I want to go), and then it becomes increasingly more specific (what are my expectations, what do I need to get out of it, what matters most to me).
The consideration for a destination in that sense is generic, just motivating a preference for broad categories (I want the sunshine, I want a nice beach etc.). But strong brands focus on the tourist, not on the destination. You win if your brand is more aligned with your customers’ values than your competitors. Your potential customers expect the same table stakes as a standard. But they will make their decision on something altogether more personal, which will be about their intent and purpose. Truly understanding and leveraging such a customer-centric perspective will be the winning formula in future.
Can you share any thoughts on the brand of the positioning of the Maldives at present? Do you foresee any favourable directions for a change of strategy?
When I mention Maldives in a conversation – that fact that I’ve been there or will be going again, the fact that I’m involved in projects there – there is usually a positive emotional response: people smile, and express gentle envy. In that sense, it is a strong brand with emotional appeal.
That is an asset and a good starting point. To make this future-proof in light of multiple challenges, disruptive trends and increasing competition, what is required is a more distinct positioning and proactive management. Marketing is becoming ever more data-savvy, with micro-messaging focused on specifically defined and identified targets.
Travel has always been, and will always be a highly emotional personal experience. The stories you can tell of explorations and adventures. The images you can share. Again this is not new, but not least through sharing opportunities on social media, there is a lot more of it.
A successful destination brand will be a successful storyteller – and to craft, the right story for the right target audience, insights gleaned from data analysis will help. You need to understand the emotional needs of your audience in order to tell an engaging emotive story. And when the actual experience matches or even exceeds that story – that’s when you start creating new loyal ambassadors.