Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

18 Feb, 2013

PolyU Study Urges Guidebook Publishers to Build Trust, Provide Insights


Hong Kong, Feb 18, 2013 – The most important purpose of a travel guidebook, according to the School of Hotel and Tourism Management’s (SHTM) Dr Simon Wong and Gladys Liu, is to highlight functional information such as attractions, food and new experiences.

In a recent study the researchers show that independent travellers in particular refer to guidebooks to find information that will help them plan their itineraries and travel more efficiently. The quality of the information is also important, and must be “accurate, concise, up-to-date and objective”. These findings will help to inform publishers of the features that travellers find most useful when purchasing a guidebook.

Because travel often involves visiting unknown destinations, travellers need to use guidebooks to help them make choices about their destinations and to plan their trips. Guidebooks provide descriptions of the destination and places of interest, details of accommodation, restaurants and activities, and factual information on the climate, currency and customs. In short they shape travellers’ expectations.

Guidebooks can also be used as reference sources during trips. While those travellers who book comprehensive package tours may not need to make further decisions once they have chosen their destination, the researchers observe that for independent travellers, “an ongoing process of travel decision making may be required”.

However, knowing which guidebook to choose is not always straightforward. The researchers explain that “there are hundreds if not thousands of travel guidebooks on the market”. Amongst these are many that focus on different aspects of the same destination. There is a broad division between those guidebooks that focus on the destination and those that develop a theme, which heavily influences the content. Some provide information on a particular country’s food, accommodation and transportation, whereas others focus on specific activities or facilities such as diving and spas.

The researchers thus set out to identify what travellers need from guidebooks, including differences among different groups of travellers, and to make recommendations to publishers about how they can tailor information to travellers’ different requirements.

The researchers conducted a two-part study to examine the use of guidebooks among Hong Kong residents. First, 15 people who had recently travelled by air for leisure purposes were interviewed about their use of guidebooks before and during their trips. The information thus generated helped to shape a questionnaire with which the researchers surveyed 402 Hong Kong residents who were planning leisure travel in the next 12 months. The respondents were asked about their reasons for using a guidebook and elements of their travel plans such as their intended destination and length of trip.

A majority of the respondents were female (56.5%) and most were aged between 18 and 35 (68.7%). Over half were university educated (59.7%), but the largest single group earned incomes of less than HK$5,000 per month (31.1%). A majority of the trips were to be to Japan, Taiwan or mainland China (59.2%) and most of the respondents intended taking either an all-inclusive package tour or a basic package tour (68.2%). A majority planned to travel with friends (59.6%) and almost all of the respondents indicated that they would travel without bringing children (90.7%).

In analysing the survey results, the researchers identified a range of needs that these travellers indicated they would have when using guidebooks. The respondents noted that “functional needs” or the “immediate and direct utilitarian necessities that must be fulfilled if the trip is to proceed successfully” were the most significant. “Itinerary improvement needs” or the necessity of acquiring “extra information for improving the trip”, were the second most important. Ranked third were “quality information needs”, referring to whether the information is accurate, objective and up-to-date.

One of the less important needs was “travel partners’ needs” – planning a trip according to the specific needs of travelling companions such as the elderly, children or the disabled. The least important set of needs was “sign needs”, such as advising others on vacation matters or answering other people’s questions.

The importance of some of the needs varied according to participants’ age, education level and income level. For instance, those aged between 26 and 45 were less concerned about aesthetic needs – the use of pictures to visualise a destination. The researchers suggest that this group is more concerned that “time is money” than with the imagination; they tend to have higher incomes and travel to escape from their busy lives and seek new experiences.

Differences also emerged between respondents in terms of their “destination, mode of travel, length of trip, number of prior visits to the destination, travel companions and number of children. For example, those who intended to stay longer at their destination tended to place more importance on their itinerary improvement needs. The researchers suggest that “the more time available at the destination, the more flexible and customised the itinerary can become”.

Those respondents with children focused more on special services and facilities and sought information about theme parks, zoos and aquariums. The older respondents tended to be more concerned about their travel partners’ needs than were younger respondents because, according to the researchers, “older people usually travel with their children or their spouse who may have special needs”.

In light of these findings, the researchers make a number of practical recommendations for guidebook publishers. They suggest that the focus should be on providing practical information that can be continuously updated. For instance, users would like information on the opening hours and entrance fees of attractions and how to get there. Information on new experiences would also attract those with higher incomes, who tend to plan more personalised and innovative trips.

As aesthetic and hedonic needs are important to Hong Kong travellers, particular attention should be paid to the content of communications, which might include “word selection, use of visuals and writing style”. Publishers should also remain independent, urged the researchers, because guidebooks that are produced in collaboration with travel organisations may be seen as untrustworthy and less credible.

Overall, the researchers suggest that travellers look to guidebooks to find functional information on a destination. However, differences in the priority given to different needs may vary. Apart from practical information, guidebooks can provide comprehensive information that offers “an insight into prospective experiences” and thus have the “capacity to inspire the traveller”.

Further info: Ms Pauline Ngan, Senior Marketing Manager, School of Hotel and Tourism Management, Telephone : (852) 3400 2634, E-mail : pauline.ngan@polyu.edu.hk