Monday, June 7, 2010

SOTA Conference 2010: Is it really the holy grail of tourism?

Attended the SOTA Conference 2010 two weeks ago and it certainly got me into relooking at our tourism industry from a different perspective. By the way, SOTA which stands for Standard Online Tourism Architecture is essentially a web 2.0 platform which enables connection and collaboration through multiple tourism services parties within themselves as well as to the customer.

It allows everyone (tourism resellers, retailers, hoteliers, etc) to be online (a subscription away) because of its web platform. This immediate connectivity to a claimed market worth USD 200 billion also brings competivity to a whole new level. Those who adopt the system now and make a strong presence for themselves will strive strong in the future, but it's hard to say the same for late adopters and laggards, although SOTA claims that this platform will ensure everyone is on a level playing field. Well... I think it's a catch 22. You cannot afford to not be on the platform but at the same time, being in it seems to me, is as good as being in the sea of sameness, possibly undifferentiated from many of your competitors because access of information is given to anyone and everyone. Also, being both a traveller and a marketer myself, I feel a little torn. In this conference, consumers are represented in dollar signs. Honestly, I wiggled uncomfortably in my seat as I have a hugeeee discontentment with that concept.

Question is: If I'm a travel retailer, will I still be able to make it 'big' without relying on SOTA? Yes, if you have big dreams and intend to secure a dominant market with equal investment to dispose (think Trip Advisor scale, AirAsia, etc). And no, if you are a small player and are contented with your current share of the pie. Well, of course, you can always get onto the platform and wean yourself out of it later. Reason for my thoughts is, any web 2.0 platform essentially builds on customer relationship management. The more purchases a user makes on your site, the more trust you are essentially building with the person. Therefore, this could be a tool very beneficial to those who have an existing database which they want to continue building a strong relationship with as every transaction increases the trust value and secures almost a guaranteed return purchase. The newcomer will have a lot to catch up against the established players.

To retain competivity, it really means that SOTA subscribers need to invest in advertising dollars to command more presence. The attractiveness of these packages put together, again is up to the creativity of the retailer. Sad to say, a lot of the packages in the SEA market are almost a Xerox version of another. The last thing you want to do is to start something which may cause everyone to start scraping margin walls. The creativity of the retailer is then dependent on their ability to analyse strategic segments and forecast certain trends which may allow them to create 'specialised' package (think Lonely Planet concept).
Just imagine SOTA as a brick and mortar mall providing self-contained, ready-to-move-in units for each vendor as a shop. Your edge will come in three forms: Design, Customer Service and Value-added Service. While we are dependant on the publishers and partners to provide 'content', there is a huge opportunity in constantly revamping the packages to keep up with (forget about the 1 million customers) your customers. If they're happy, they will lead others to you without your advertising dollars. This is the ultimate beauty of 2.0. If you're an 'owner' wanting to grow your business, my advice is to purchase multiple 'shoplots' on SOTA. Each with different travel packages targeting to different strategic segments. Each with a different shop front, window display and customer service approach. Targeting to 18 year olds is hugely different from 80 year olds, you get my drift. I just feel that it's a shame, we do not put much emphasis on design 2.0 when all else is upgraded!
Just remember SOTA is just a 'tool'. It's not the holy grail to tourism, but it can certainly propel the state of our regional tourism economy to the next level (before the West gobbles up that part too). But what really gives you the edge in 2.0 business is still... going back to customer value because innovative and creative marketing that is consumer-centric still tops the decision-making chain. The problem to SOTA adoption is not so much of the 'fear of technology'. I reckon it's the mindset.

Don't use technology just for the sake of technology. Use it wisely and strategically, and the rewards are great.

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