Traveling with Technology

Most states use some type of technology to promote tourism and help travelers, but the benefits are not yet clearly understood.

by / May 6, 2001
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 a drawback. State tourism offices are learning that peoples expectations are different when they use the Internet. For instance, people expect a faster response when they send in a query by e-mail. "We were responding once a day, but I realized thats not fast enough," said Hyde. "We now respond to an e-mail query within two hours."

Web site information has to be accurate and fresh, too. Hydes office decided not to let individual hotels and tourist attractions update the information on the states Web site because they werent always reliable, so the travel office does the updating itself. "Keeping information accurate and up to date is a big issue when using the Internet," Hyde explained. "We have determined never to keep more information than we can keep up to date ourselves. One piece of information that is out of date destroys [our] credibility as a travel and tourism agency."

Virtual and Real Centers

While state travel Web sites continue to surge in popularity, about 53 percent of the population still sets out on a journey with little or no information, according to TIA. Thats why state visitor information centers are so useful. Some of them just contain brochures, while others pull out all stops with films, exhibits, information booths and kiosks. A new visitor information center in Dallas has eight touch-screen kiosks, as well as four terminals where technology-starved visitors can surf the Web, check e-mail and receive faxes.

Virginia recently unveiled what it sees as the visitor center of the future. In January, Gov. James Gilmore announced a $68,000 prototype of a visitor center that will eventually be built at three stops along the states major interstate highways. Unisys Corp. is under contract to build the high-tech sites. Touch-screen Internet terminals will provide instant weather and traffic data and allow motorists to book hotel rooms and tee times at golf courses before they arrive at their destination.

But technology doesnt appeal to all travelers, according to Brian Lang, supervisor of the Painted Cliffs Welcome Center in Arizona and chair of the State Travel Information Center Directors Alliance. He points out that many older tourists are uncomfortable with kiosks. "Theres a generation gap to consider. Older travelers prefer the human touch to high technology," he said.

Government regulations are also a problem. Many visitor centers are restricted by federal law from selling services at the kiosks, according to Lang, because they use federal money to upgrade their facilities.

Another problem Lang has found is that some commercial Web sites dont provide accurate information. "Weve had people pull in here with a printout of a map from the Internet that shows a destination thats off by 80 miles." Lang added that rental car companies, with their onboard navigation systems, have not made any effort to coordinate or collaborate with his visitor center or others in providing drivers with accurate information.

But Lang acknowledges that technology has its benefits at visitor centers and sees a continuing trend toward more technology, especially with the growing role of intelligent transportation systems, which are meant to help people find their way without getting stuck in traffic.

The bottom line is technologys role in tourism will continue to evolve as time goes on. Massachusetts Hyde points out that his office has been retooling its Web site every two years and is currently undertaking another overhaul. "I dont speculate on how fast things are changing," he said. "I just try to make logical choices."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor