PROBLEM/SITUATION: Providing accurate, up-to-date tourism information to travelers.
SOLUTION: A centralized database of travel information accessible via web or kiosk.
JURISDICTIONS: Illinois Bureau of Tourism, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Agency, Illinois Department of Transportation.
VENDORS: Destination Marketing Group, Valassis Communications, Sybase.
Tourists rarely employ a travel agent for trips less than a week long, or vacations not involving major travel. Instead, they seek pamphlets and other information from the state. But while most states possess state or national parks, sponsor special events and festivals and maintain countless tourist attractions, not all are successful at providing accurate, timely information to the traveler. Most simply mail brochures or answer questions by phone.
Some states have automated their tourism marketing by creating static Web sites. There, tourists can download basic information replicated from the states' brochures. Unfortunately, glossy brochures and Web sites can be difficult and costly to produce and maintain.
ILLINOIS TOURISM CHALLENGES
Despite a lack of major national parks, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism (IBOT) has an amazing ability to promote its attractions. In the past, Convention and Visitors' Bureaus (CVBs) maintained relatively accurate and current tourism data, but the state lacked a centrally located clearinghouse where customers could access this information.
Like those of many other states, IBOT's "old" tourism system was generic and unresponsive. It was plagued by a number of problems, including a reliance on expensive third-class bulk mailing and outdated information. Tourism information can change quickly and the state was unable to provide the most current information to customers. This problem was compounded by the method used to update information. The CVBs regularly completed information survey forms and forwarded them to a central publication/information center, but this proved woefully inadequate at maintaining current tourism information.
In the past, IBOT implemented travel kiosks, a Web site, and a central call center, but each operated from separate back-end databases. The state lacked a centrally located database
to provide tourism information in a timely manner.
According to Desi Harris, the assistant deputy director of the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, IBOT's vision was to create a marketing approach "to link buyers and sellers in a creative and distinctive way that gave Illinois the competitive edge it needed. Illinois has a lot to offer, but it's been a well-kept secret compared to the well-known activities available in nearby states such as Michigan and Wisconsin."
TRAVEL COUNSELING SYSTEM
In response, IBOT contracted for the development of a system based on a single product database. The new system combines a call center, a dynamic Web site, and an intranet communication network, developed and maintained by the Destination Marketing Group -- a subsidiary of Valassis Communications.
The foundation for the system is the call center software, a client/server application running on NT with a Sybase database engine. The front-end client application was written in Powerbuilder, and an intranet contains CGI scripting, providing dynamic access to the database. Doug Parks, vice president at Destination Marketing Group, manages the account with IBOT.
Using an intranet, the state's 36 CVBs and four regional tourism development offices are connected to the main database. When tourism information changes in different regions of the state, the CVBs immediately update the information contained in the main database. This system has already reduced the state's workload and proved extremely cost-effective.
Most importantly, with 9,000 records in the system, vacationers now get excellent, up-to-date trip information.
The system provides a "personal counselor" to assist with travel planning. The personal counselor locates relevant travel information and sends it to the customer by first-class U. S. mail, fax or e-mail.
Information can also be obtained self-serve by using the
state's tourism Web site: . The IBOT intranet, integrated with its site on the Internet and its advanced call center software, make the Illinois tourism system one of the best in the country.
An impressive array of static information can be accessed from the award-winning IBOT Web site, including seasonal information, maps, weather updates, links to various theater pages, Illinois sports and transportation schedules.
Travelers will find the Web site trip planner especially valuable. Working off a detailed search engine that accesses the database, the trip planner allows even the most meticulous vacationer to create, view, and print valuable, destination-specific information.
THE STATE'S INVESTMENT
Currently, IBOT maintains the system through regular yearly appropriations. Overall, Harris estimated that "the new system is far superior to the old in terms of cost-effectiveness. For example, the reductions in mailing and printing alone has made the system worthwhile. In addition, by instituting a single product database, IBOT has eliminated manpower costs associated with maintaining numerous smaller databases around the state."
To attract more domestic and international tourists, business travelers, and convention and trade show attendees, Illinois' 1998 fiscal year budget includes a $2 million increase -- to $18,716,500 -- earmarked for marketing. This money will be directed toward local tourism and CVBs located throughout the state. The Tourism Promotion Fund is also being increased by $741,800. That will enable IBOT to respond to the increasing number of calls currently handled by the call center.
While certainly cost-effective, the new system also allows IBOT to target market and advertise through response indicators in the software. IBOT can monitor the number and kind of queries made on the Web site and the call center. For example, if query statistics show customers are no longer accessing information about the Lincoln Home, IBOT can focus advertising away from areas of current popularity, such as Chicago or Lake Michigan, and devote more resources to promoting the Lincoln homestead.
According to Harris, "The new tourism system has completely changed how the Tourism Bureau targets promotion of Illinois attractions."
So far, IBOT and its customers seem satisfied with the new system. "Eighty-five percent of users surveyed indicated that they were either very satisfied or extremely satisfied with the tourism system," Harris said.
"The state has been visionary in its willingness to invest in new solutions that actually meet customer needs," said DMG's Parks. "But they're being practical by using the database in multiple ways to make certain they're getting a return on that investment."
Although the current system is impressive, Harris said it's still a challenge keeping up with the explosion in information technology systems. Each year, it becomes more difficult to stay ahead of other states, especially in the cutthroat tourism business. Illinois has come up with some interesting solutions for keeping its edge in the future.
One is launching a geographic information system (GIS) component in the system. This will provide accurate maps via the Web site, and allow the customer to plan hotels, meals, and side trips along the designated travel route, mapped-out in detail for the weary traveler.
For value-conscious travelers, another future attraction will be a coupon program on the Web site, where customers will be informed of special values offered at events, restaurants, and other Illinois attractions. This will give prospective customers, especially those with cost-cutting in mind, the "best deals" in the state.
IBOT is also currently developing direct e-mailing and faxing of database information to customers who show a special interest in particular areas. For example, if an outdoor enthusiast regularly canoes on Illinois rivers and periodically accesses the database for river information, the bureau may establish a direct link to that customer. After the customer specifies canoeing as a category,
the system will periodically inform the boater of the latest in river conditions, special deals at river base camps, and other special events.
Overall, Harris and Parks promoted the technological flexibility of Illinois' new tourism system. By maintaining a single product database, IBOT is able to deal with new delivery and distribution systems as technology arises. Separate databases make this difficult, but with a single database, delivery systems like kiosks, Web site changes, and upgrades at the call center are manageable. IBOT can make simple changes to the database to incorporate new delivery systems as they hit the market.
The system's simplicity also allows other Illinois agencies to take part in promoting Illinois as a travel destination. IBOT is currently hooked up with a number of sister agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, the Historic Preservation Agency, and the Department of Transportation. State agencies involved with advertising and public relations will eventually be networked as well. This state connectivity gives future Illinois tourists the greatest amount of quality information long before they cross the state border.
John Kost runs the State and Local Services Group at Federal Sources Inc. Previously, he was Michigan's CIO.