This is another experience post. It reflects on how a small business in a small corner of the world with limited resource could significantly enhance their business by engaging with and using social media.
While in Kerala I had a wonderful trip though the Backwaters (Wikipedia) on a Canal boat. These are grand vehicles almost 100 feet long, more floating barge, with a slow cruising speed. They come staffed with a captain, guide and cook. There are hundreds of these majestic ships out cruising this very beautiful corner of the world. The Backwaters are stuck back in time, with a life that still centers around fishing, and rice farming.
I found myself on a trip with Rainbow Cruises. They don't have an obvious website although this appears to be it. They also get representation by various travel agents; which again for an Internet traveler raises issues of trust. From the captain I learned that they have 22 boats although may run more than a 100 (200?) via charters during the season raising issues of how they manage quality control. They are apparently the biggest company in the area. The majority of their business in season is foreign, English, European etc. Communication with clients onboard boats is via limited English for the most part.
While I loved my trip it fell down on key details. These are easily fixed and yet they are lessons learned.
- On arrival at what I thought was the loading point (confirmed in the email booking) I let my driver go. Turned out it was 5km to the boat pickup spot. They didn't have transport. This could have become very messy. Luckily I could call him back. However, introductory communication was poor / no existent. There was no "this is what to expect" in the email.
- There was no suggestion that you should arrive between 12 and 1 to pick up your boat and maximize cruising time or that lunch was included on the first day. As it was a 5+ hour drive to get there I wasn't cruising until after 3:00. I have no idea what I missed out on and how this changed the sight seeeing plan.
- There was no discussion of the route we would take or key stopping point when I first arrived in the office. I'd read Lonely Planet and left it behind. I may well have missed some sites in the backwaters I could have seen. When I got on board the boat I had to ask the captain for a map. His explanation and the level of detail on the map was pretty much a trust me. If there had been posters on the wall, descriptions of key places to visit it would have been much better.
- Turns out they basically had no liquor on board. (I think the staff run a scam on beers and they will happily get more). BYOB is probably a good idea.
- Watching all the locals washing in the lake I asked about swimming; I found i didn't want to go in. However, again some details re water, swimming, etc would be helpful.
- I froze under air conditioning on the first night as there was no blanket only a sheet provided. The pre sailing check didn't uncover this omission. Lists and standard checks are something that is easy to implement and also get the guest to check too prior to sailing; so it is fixed there and then.
- They missed out on a whole group of simple up-sell opportunities. Examples like traditional fishing rods (bamboo poles), small boat or kayak for going down a side canal. I had to prod for shore side visits and arranging a kayak to go down the side canals. These trips or excursions should be made much more explicit. Empower the guest to ask for more by leaving information around. Up sell is completely missed on the web site.
- Onboard I'd expect to see (like you do in almost any hotel) a book of how and where everything is, services etc. I'd also expect a Captains log or guestbook for feedback at the end of the trip. These weren't onboard or provided.
The captain had a cell phone for ship to shore communications. I'm sure there was no radio on board. Cell phones with prepaid cards would provide another simple up sell opportunity. As most guests are foreign and may well want to call home (the rates on prepaid are so so so much cheaper) that they would pay and the driver could execute a recharge as required. Probably in 500 rupee recharges. Basically, the balance left over at the end of the tour is profit.
This group as a charter operator has many times the potential my friend John had at Windermere Estate to create a conversation around guest travels. Managing his own business and the expectations of guests would be enabled by sharing more about what to expect, and what you can expect from your charter. Most of the information above is required on the web and in hardcopy on board. It's important that you recognize you are chartering a boat for no doubt each is unique although many will be similar.
We really should consider how travel has changed and our expectations with it. We fly with electronic tickets, most bookings are confirmed by email (will varying levels of useful detail) and the gestures and security around this paper / paperless system feels less tangible than ever. I believe travelers expect more from their hosts today. Our desire for more information can only be met in two ways. The host can write it... or the host can encourage his guests to contribute. The benefit of the latter course of action is similar to Wikipedia.
This trip is so picturesque that I found myself taking hundreds of snaps. I just searched flickr for "backwaters" and it returned 9000+ photos. The first page were all India. Like my observations on Munnar, if you are in tourism today you must start sharing the tags for your operation and locale. In fact you can share links to searches like these in your original correspondence (e-mail) on confirmation of the booking.
Example create a postcard and in the description use the tags that return searches appropriate to the area. Send you guests away with a pack on how to get and keep in touch, share the experience etc. Let them know how to get in touch with you. Enable them to upload and share photo's or memories with you on your site. Create a group on Flickr for pictures of Backwaters etc. My friend John should search Flickr and find more photo's like this. Similarly YouTube
I have perhaps diverged from my key points. A blog post has power and a well written and linked one may stick to a small company and not go away easily. This post was not meant to be a negative for Rainbow Cruises, I had a tremendous crew, the boat was clean and it was very enjoyable. I'd love the opportunity to go back; particularly as part of a larger group. However, I have had no real point of contact with Rainbow Cruises, I barely have enough details to provide a proper referral. That's costing them dollars.
After this trip I'm convinced that tourism, hoteliers, and small business owners are missing the boat. I'm never impressed with tourism sites like this one. They just say we will sell you anything. I'd much prefer blogrolls that tie to other establishments; that create a sense of all marketing tourism for an area or locale together. The real life example is finding a B&B booked out and asking the owner who they would recommend. If tourism was to adopt blogging, conversations and community then this information would soon dwarf the flyby night type sites. Enabling guests and past visitors to contribute to the tourism experience will keep it vibrant and newsy. Content that is really useful might then find it's way into my search returns.
I accept that the small hotel, even the small charter company has limited resources particularly for marketing. Too often the marketing is a periodic effort; print brochures, update a website, get new listings, trial some advertising, etc. The benefit of creating an open guest and visitor centric site means that this communication is less about marketing and more about connecting and developing relationships with customers. Concurrently management moves from periodic to daily. One hour per day sharing your business would provide a very healthy investment over the course of the year. The tools are accessible and or low cost to get started.
There is definitely a market need out there. It's also clear that all the hosting services (Typepad, Wordpress, etc) are doing a lousy job of framing the how to get started and what to do. While there is a learning curve required I also think it has never been easier. This blogger created a list A cruise through the canals of Alappuzha but failed to link the information.
What do you think? Should hoteliers consider blogging and turn to conversational marketing? Do you think the CEO of Rainbow Cruises should see this blog? What would he have to do to find it? Should he respond? Btw there are a number of Travel Diary sites. Most are poorly done. Travelblog, Travelpod, Travel-Diaries.