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11 Jun, 2007

Whither Tourism Brands In a World of “Homogenised Culture”

KUALA LUMPUR — National tourism boards need to start speaking out “against turning every country town into a showcase for global brands,” the chairman of VisitBritain warned last week.

In a keynote presentation at the World Tourism Summit convened here by the UN World Tourism Organization, Mr Christopher Rodrigues said, “The more global companies and global media seek to create a homogenised culture, the more travellers crave the unique sights, sounds, tastes and smells of a country.”

The remark was all the more interesting because Mr Rodrigues’ is a former President and Chief Executive of Visa International, and has also worked with other brand-name companies like American Express and Thomas Cook.

The pros and cons of branding was the focus of considerable debate at the summit between some prominent brand-name tour operators and hotel groups who hyped it up while local and regional operators indicated that no brand was so big that it could not be vigorously competed against.

Mr Rodrigues said that while globalisation does have some advantages, for the travel & tourism industry it “brings another challenge – the need to maintain the right balance between our cultural heritage and the development of new attractions.”

He said it is good to have globalised standards for things like environmental care of beaches and road signs (in order to enhance safety), and “we like to be able to get a Starbucks coffee anywhere from Seattle to Sydney.”

But he added, “it is abundantly clear that travellers the world over want to engage in local culture and local food and local history. The more global companies and global media seek to create a homogenised culture, the more travellers crave the unique sights, sounds, tastes and smells of a country.

“Today’s Tourist Boards have a responsibility to speak out against turning every country town into a showcase for global brands. We need to understand what’s best in our national brands and national culture and nurture it. And we need to applaud innovation…I believe the explosion of interest in sustainability is a harbinger of popular demand for a more balanced world.”

Delegates at the summit also heard Thies Rheinsberg, Director Corporate Development of the German tour operating giant TUI refer to tourism destinations as being participants in a “beauty contest” who would have to build up their brands in order to be selected by the consumer for their next holiday.

However, he ran into flak when questioned intensively about how much money the brand-name tour operators actually leave behind in a destination, especially their all-inclusive resort s and the fact that they also owned many of the hotels and resorts in which their guests stayed.

Mr. Reas M Kondraschow, Executive VP of International Development, Wyndham Hotel Group International said that over 30% of the global room stock is in the hands of global branded hotel chains, each of which has a number of sub-brands under their portfolio to cater to different segments.

He said that when global brands develop outside their country of origin, they “work at pushing out the local competition by introducing standards in product and service that the local brand may not provide. Many times they either build new product or they convert facilities to their brand, thereby benefiting from being the ‘new and fresh face’ on the block.”

He added, “Of course as global brands search for better ways to capture guest share of heart, mind and wallet, the independent hotel brand will continue to battle for its share of opportunity. The independent brands will find it increasingly difficult to define their differentiation and market position. Many of them will succeed because of location and their personal brand attributes but in conclusion the guest is the ultimate arbitrator on which brand delivers the brand promise and the value proposition.”

Jeff Jarvis, a Monash University professor who has studied the phenomenon of backpacker visits to Australia , said that young budget travellers of today had little interest in brands. “They prefer to stay and eat in all the local places because they know that the money goes directly into the hands of local people at the grassroots level,” he said. “They have no interest in a McDonald’s or a Starbucks.”

Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes said he believed strongly in branding but that he was keen to build the airline into an “ASEAN brand” because there are not many around. “We have never been scared to take on the bigger brands,” he said, noting that although the low-cost airline would in future expand into places like India and China, it would maintain its focus on Southeast Asia and ASEAN.”

Mr Anthony Wong, the CEO of Asian Overland, an independent company and one of Malaysia’s best-known inbound tour operators who has fended off many takeover bids from brand-name giants, said small and medium sized companies could compete against the bigger brands if they made good use of the Internet, established alliances with like-minded operators, ensured good customer satisfaction and product delivery, and worked diligently with other stakeholders like tourism boards and airlines.

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