In 2009 Dr Alford developed and disseminated a programme of digital marketing research aimed at SMTEs, particularly in rural locations. This evaluated the needs of SMTEs and developed models that could assist them with their digital marketing planning. Alford established collaborative relationships with regional tourism organisations, including Poole Tourism, Dorset & New Forest Tourism Partnership, COAST, Visit Wiltshire, Visit Cheshire and Farm Stay UK in order to gain additional insights into SMTE practice and the challenges they face.
The research found that, although SMTEs are a key component of the overall destination tourism offer and of the regional economy, they are struggling to effectively embrace digital marketing. Owners often cannot access their content management systems to update websites, customer email lists are not used effectively, there is an ad hoc (at best) approach to social media and an inability to track and measure digital marketing. With customers increasingly searching for information online through multiple channels, this represents a significant problem – not only for SMTEs but also for the wider destination tourism.
One of the underlying causes of IT failure was a technology-led approach. This research finding underpinned a series of one-day workshops facilitated by Dr Alford to raise awareness of the importance of digital marketing and having a plan with clear key performance indicators attached. The workshops had a strong marketing rather than technology focus.
Following these workshops, five SMTEs commissioned a new content management system website and have since benefited from an average 20% increase in traffic, measured through Google Analytics. Two SMTE developed an email marketing strategy.
The current ESRC-funded Digital Destinations project comprises 60 SMTEs from the wider visitor economy sector, each paired with a final year student undertaking BU’s Digital Marketing Unit. The project has confirmed and facilitated application of the earlier research findings. There are over 30 blog posts on the Digital Destinations website written by SMTEs participating in the project. Posts reflect upon the impacts of the project and prominent themes include:
- Introducing SMTEs to new digital marketing tools and channels.
- Sharing ideas and knowledge with other SMTEs.
- Highlighting KPIs to measure digital marketing.
- Providing a catalyst to engage further with digital marketing.
- Utilising the resources of the university including student projects.
Dr Alford’s research has also had impact at destination level through his collaboration with a number of regional tourism organisations. VisitWiltshire, for example, orchestrated the following policy changes as a result of the research:
- Establishing an online marketing group (OMG) – the first destination in the UK to do so.
- Embedding digital marketing knowledge transfer in the membership offering
- Putting digital marketing KPIs at the centre of VisitWiltshire strategy
Evidently the impact goes beyond technology, as seen through the change in culture, encouraging SMTEs to become customer-focused businesses.
Further PhD research is developing and testing a theoretical model to understand how ‘Active Seniors’ engage with online media in their holiday purchases. This older, but active, age group is an important target market for many SMTEs and regional tourism organisations.
- Alford, P. and Clarke, S. (2009). Information technology and tourism a theoretical critique. Technovation, 29 (9), pp. 580-587.
- Li, Y., Duan, Y., Fu, Z. and P. Alford. (2011) An empirical study on behavioural intention to reuse e-learning systems in rural China. British Journal of Educational Technology. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01261.x