Massachusetts, like other states, saw interactive kiosks as a bold leap into the future for its tourism program. The self-contained information booths were installed at information centers around the state in the hopes that tourists and travelers would flock to the high-tech, self-service machines for information. But a funny thing happened. Not many people used them. People lined up at the help desks where they could talk to a real person, not at the kiosks, which couldnt offer a human touch to travel assistance.

What happened in Massachusetts has occurred elsewhere around the country at state visitor centers. Center directors find the kiosks lack of use troublesome because of the work it takes to keep the information up to date inside the self-contained terminals. By 1999, only 14 states were using interactive kiosks to distribute travel information, according to the latest survey by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA).

On the other hand, all state tourism offices have a Web site that can present and distribute information on where to visit, stay and eat in the state. Some even accept online reservations.

Just as it has done with the rest of society and the commercial sector, the Internet is changing the nature of tourism promotion, according to Jonathan Hyde, deputy director of domestic marketing for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. "The Web enables consumers to choose what information they want and in what order they want it," he said. "It has turned the tables."

Spending and Promotion Up

Americans love to travel and states are willing to spend to promote tourism. In 2000, state governments spent $644 million for travel and tourism promotion, up nearly 13 percent from the year before, according to TIA. The money was spent on a broad range of promotional activities, including the operation of 436 travel information centers -- an average of eight per state.

Besides visitor centers, states have traditionally spent large sums of money on printed material to promote tourism. But an increasing amount is now invested in the Web. States budgeted a little more than $4.6 million in 1999 to design, develop and maintain their travel Internet sites, an 89 percent increase from 1997, according to TIA. And these sites are busy. The average tourism office Web site receives 190,000 hits and just less than 19,000 user sessions per week.

Every states Web site disseminates information, but more than 37 states also have Web search engines so visitors can find places to stay, eat and things to do. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow some form of e-commerce to take place, such as online reservations, while others sell banner ad space. In Massachusetts, online reservations have proven to be a big success ever since the states Web site sold 20,000 hotel rooms during the first three months of operation.

Yet despite the increased investment in and use of travel Web sites, few states have seen any reduction in demand for print material for tourism and travel. Only 16 states have been able to reduce printing and distribution expenses because of the Internet, according to TIA. Massachusetts is one of those states that has modestly reduced its print budget because of the Internet. But according to Hyde, nobody has any clear answers as to what is the appropriate balance between technology and more traditional means of promotion and marketing. "Its an interesting exercise we are trying to figure out," he said.

Hyde said the Internet allows his office to deliver more accurate information than it does with print material, which can sometimes be as much as 16 months old and still be in circulation. "With our Web site, we can change the information every day and deliver it as each consumer wants it," he said.

But for every virtue the Internet brings, there is also

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor