How to save West Dorset’s Tourist Information Centres: lessons from South Korea

Bridport Tourist Information Centre

New research finds that tourists who use social media visit Tourist Information Centres more often.

So, when West Dorset District Council suggests that it could stop funding TICs because “developments in new technology and in consumer behaviour require a radical change in information delivery across the tourism sector,” the council may be about to make a mistake.

Because the biggest trend in modern internet usage is for more and more time to be spent on social media.

Tourists want proper, reliable information from real people they can talk to so as to make sure they’re getting the best experiences for themselves and great material to share online.

Those are the most important findings from new research done by academics in South Korea, published in the international journal Tourism Management.

Rather than choosing to stop funding TICS, could West Dorset District Council instead help to make them busier, more useful to tourists and to the areas in which they’re based, and more financially successful?

West Dorset District Council is consulting until Friday, July 3 on the future of Tourist Information Centres in Bridport, Lyme Regis, Dorchester and Sherborne. Forms can be picked up from TICs or the survey can be done online at West Dorset survey on Tourist Information Centres

Tourist Information Centres in West Dorset: the background

Leisure and tourism bring some £165m to the West Dorset economy each year – considerably more than the £105m garnered in Weymouth and Portland.

Just under one third of the total amount of money spent by tourists in Dorset is spent in the west of the county. (That’s Dorset excluding Bournemouth and Poole. Source: West Dorset Economy and Labour Market profile 2013, Dorset County Council). In 2012 3,400 people were directly employed in West Dorset’s tourism sector.

This suggests that the Tourist Information Centres in Lyme Regis, Bridport, Dorchester and Sherborne are a pretty important cog in a rather vital economic machine.

Last year 419,000 people stepped through the doors of the West Dorset TICs and in Bridport, half were local residents. Another 30,000 people wrote, phoned or emailed.

The TICs are under threat – West Dorset District Council reckons it can save itself £300,000 – that’s the TICs running costs – a year.

But who, in the current economic climate, is likely to step in to fill the gap?

Will the internet and social media fill the gap? Actually no, the contrary may be true, according to new research, as Jonathan Hudston discovers.

There are two main reasons for West Dorset District Council reviewing its funding of Tourist Information Centres in Lyme Regis, Bridport , Dorchester and Sherborne. Firstly, the council wants to save at least £300,000 a year. Secondly, the council suggests that times have changed so much that TICs are out-dated and increasingly irrelevant. As one WDDC document asserts: “The way in which visitors access information has changed in recent years. Developments in new technology and in consumer behaviour require a radical change in information delivery across the tourism sector.”

At first glance this seems like common sense. We all know that desktop computers, laptops, tablets and mobile phones have become almost ubiquitous, and that many people use their gadgets a lot. The key fact is that we spend more time on social media than we do on anything else online; around one and three-quarter hours a day on networks such as Facebook, YouTube, What’s App, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Foursquare, Google+, Ello and others. (Source: GlobalWebIndex). Put another way, the average amount of time online that’s spent on social media is just over a quarter (28%). For younger people particularly, social media is now more important than searching the internet.

Lyme Regis TIC on Twitter

New research into Tourist Information Centres

What does this mean for West Dorset’s TICs? As luck would have it, a rigorous new study into the effects of technological and behavioural changes on TICs has just been published in the June 2015 edition of the international journal Tourism Management.

The findings of this article suggest that West Dorset District Council may, partly, be right – but that it’s more likely to be wrong.

The piece is entitled “Are the days of tourist information centers gone? Effects of the ubiquitous information environment”. It’s by Seong Ok Lyu and Jinsoo Hwang of the Division of Tourism at Dongseo University in South Korea. They used a sample of 2,033 tourists and included 514 responses in their final data set.

One immediate objection might be that the South West of England has nothing to learn from South Korea. But there are at least three good reasons why the work of Lyu & Hwang is worth considering.

Firstly, the South Korean model of TICs is similar to the UK’s; they’re mostly run by local government and non-profit organisations.

Secondly, South Korea is more advanced than we are. It has the fastest broadband in the world and the second highest percentage of smartphone-owners. Where South Korea leads, it’s possible to fancy that places like Bridport and Lyme Regis may one day follow.

Thirdly, the avowed aim of the article is “to examine the impacts of recent rapid changes in the information communication environment, characterized by the wide dissemination of mobile devices, on tourist demand for TIC visits. We also aimed to provide useful TIC management implications to help the traditional elements of tourism promotion adapt to the ever-changing technology landscape, and to look for new tasks that will improve tourist experiences.” In other words, the piece has explicitly been written to be relevant to other countries. And the fact it’s been published in a reputable, if rather niche, academic journal, suggests that it’s reckoned to be useful.

Expected results

Some results were what you might expect and could be taken to support the argument that TICs are heading for the knacker’s yard. Younger people were less likely to visit TICs than older people (eg tourists in their 40s were 16.3% less likely to visit TICs than tourists aged 50 and over).

Furthermore, “the use of the Internet to search for travel information decreased the demand quantity of TIC use by 27.6% and dropped the probability of visiting a facility by 18.5%… Tourists’ perceived usefulness for mobile devices also decreased both the actual number and the likelihood of visiting TICs.” In other words, TICs are less used by people who can find what they want online and who trust in their mobile phones.

Unexpected results

However, Lyu & Hwang also got results opposite to what they expected. It’s these findings which could usefully be taken into account when reviewing the future of West Dorset’s TICs (and, for that matter, any others under threat).

The key point is that “tourists’ experiences using a variety of social network services [eg, Facebook] encourage them to visit TICs more frequently and increase their probability of visiting a facility [by 20.8%]”. This is particularly significant when the biggest trend in modern internet usage is for more and more time to be spent on social media.

Tourists want proper, reliable information from real people so as to make sure they’re getting the best experiences for themselves and great material to share online. That is what the evidence suggests.

As Lyu & Hwang put it: “Because social network sites allow users to effortlessly upload their travel experiences and photos, as well as to broadcast real-time content using mobile devices, many members of social media are eager to acquire location-based information about specific travel destinations and attractions… In this sense, social network service users are likely to show greater demand for TIC visits to obtain a wealth of travel information and knowledge from the conventional information sources.”

So, the “radical change” envisaged by West Dorset District Council may not simply be to stop funding TICs.

Bridport TIC on Twitter

What are the implications of the research?

Firstly, “TIC operators need to utilize social network sites for successful travel information distribution.”

Secondly, they need “a better understanding of what types of travel information are searched [for] by tourists. In other words, the real-time provision of tailored travel information to different social network channels can be beneficial for increasing TIC visit demand and user satisfaction.”

Thirdly, not all information online is reliable or satisfying or even findable. “In this regard, tourists may be willing to use the classic knowledge brokers to check the quality and reliability of travel information they already obtained by using both online and offline sources… Traditional tourism facilities are still important promotional elements that play a central role in determining the quality of their clientele’s experiences.” It’s important for the economic health of an area that tourists stay, have a good time and spend money.

Fourthly, Lyu & Hwang suggest that TIC operations can be successfully improved by means of the so-called O2O (online to offline- or click and collect) business model, under which “consumers are firstly attracted and make payments by way of online platform, and then visit real stores to gain the purchased products”. In other words, you might, for example, buy a book online then go to a shop to collect it. “With the usage of this O2O approach, many TICs are likely to provide more realistic and destination-based travel information to visitors who previously obtained knowledge from a variety of online channels.” Such an approach could create opportunities for TICs to earn more revenue from sales and services.

Could Tourist Information Centres become busier, more useful, and more successful?

Working from the implications outlined here, it’s possible to imagine a revamp of TICs under which they become busier, more useful to tourists and the areas in which they’re based, and more financially cost-effective. It will be interesting to see how seriously West Dorset District Council looks at alternative possibilities – or whether its sole concern is simply to save at least £300,000 a year and stop funding Tourist Information Centres in Lyme Regis, Bridport, Dorchester and Sherborne.

One comment

  1. Cllr PATRICK COOKE says:

    Just for the record as a councillor on WDDC I do not agree with the first main paragraph of your article.
    “So, when West Dorset District Council suggests that it could stop funding TICs because “developments in new technology and in consumer behaviour require a radical change in information delivery across the tourism sector,” the council may be about to make a mistake.”
    We as councillors are not about to make a mistake. Officers may think technology has moved on but I know councillors want to see West Dorset’s tourism promotion make use of these advances and keep TICs open for business as well. We will almost certainly need help from others to achieve this but there should be no doubt about our ambition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *