5B: The Business Case for Visitor Information
Browse this section:
- carrying out service audits
- defining the core customers
- key services to consider offering
- operational and performance management – a list of identified practices which support planning and development of the Tourist Information service.
This section draws largely from the Tourist Information Handbook developed by Tourism South East in 2007.
Across the country the operation of T/VICs varies according to their:
- destination location
- primary customer base.
In most cases the funding and management of a dedicated T/VIC is provided through local authorities. However there are examples where the service is run by active tourism associations, chambers of commerce, private businesses and individuals, National Parks or is contracted to a third party such as the local DMO or Regional Tourist Board.
Regardless of which entity has funding responsibility, the service should be managed professionally and with an eye to proving a good business case.
A favoured mantra in the business world is "failing to plan is planning to fail". It is damaging for any business or service to fail to take account of changing needs and circumstances. Business opportunities may be missed, staff skills under-utilised and sooner or later supporting evidence for continued funding may be required. The following information highlights suggested requirements and areas for consideration.
A service audit focuses on core strengths, roles and capabilities. It can be performed internally (ideally with a "critical friend" involved) or externally (involving someone knowledgeable about the service). Key elements include:
- customer satisfaction survey
- industry satisfaction survey
- internal SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)
- defining core customers
- defining key services.
For more information on surveys see Section 3 Destination Monitoring.
Defining the T/VIC’s main customer groups is a worthwhile exercise. All service users are important, but which are the majority and are they changing? Are they:
- visitors asking for assistance
- Small and Medium Enterprises and micro-businesses seeking bookings
- local residents buying event tickets
- service managers and holders of the purse strings?
What differentiates the customer groups is the type of information they require, and how and when they require it.
- Visitors: generally seek detailed information or suggestions about "things to do" and "places to see" that will provide them with a better overall experience. They might require assistance finding somewhere to stay, or finding an alternative if the pre-booked option doesn’t meet their expectations. They might partially remember somewhere from a previous visit and want some help to remember it.
- Small/micro-businesses: use the T/VIC as a source of support and advice as well as opportunities marketing such as the destination management system, room booking service or website.
- Local residents: may use the service to collect up-to-date information about places to visit and things to do. They may use the booking facility. A good T/VIC generally stocks a selection of local souvenirs, maps and guidebooks that make great gifts.
- Managers/funders: expect the T/VIC to fulfil a role as a friendly and visible face of the managing organisation. They may also recognise T/VICs as a valuable source of data.
Forward thinking T/VICs respond positively to internal and external change and are alert to potential commercial opportunities, new services and support roles they can fulfil. These will vary according to location, political will and core customers – not all T/VICs need to generate income, or provide a booking service. The following suggestions represent some of the services and roles offered by T/VICs that place them at the heart of the destination.
Accommodation booking involves providing a service for businesses unwilling or unable to find an alternate route to market. It assists visitors who haven’t pre-booked, and also those unhappy with their pre-booked choice. The service is valuable, but the number of people using it is falling.
Information and displays can be provided free of charge or as a fee-paying service and their use is largely dependent on the available space and local competition. This is a growing revenue source for many T/VICs. One of the most popular and useful services is subject-based Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), which can be applied to many areas – attractions, events, history, names, local legends, etc.
Retail merchandise is often used to offset staffing costs and falling revenues from accommodation bookings. Possibilities are limited only by budgets, display space, storage space and imagination. Local arts and crafts and bespoke souvenir items provide an element of destination distinctiveness.
Books and maps remain staple items although prices are increasingly undercut by larger bookshops and stationery stores. Pocket money items for children and light weight souvenirs for carrying overseas should be considered.
The opportunities for commissions and rental income depend on available space and local business support within the destination. Advertising fees can be applied for website listings, local publications and window/wall displays. Displays of local arts and crafts or foods are another good income source and raise the artist’s/organisation’s profile.
The new technology plasma screens increasingly seen in T/VICs provide a welcome distraction for service users waiting in a queue, as well as providing options for places to see and things to do. Supported by local tourism, hospitality and leisure businesses, the TIC can receive a percentage of the advertising revenue.
Depending on other local outlets, there can be a role for T/VICS in providing a range of services predominantly for local people. These range from National Express coaches, AA motoring organisation and National Trust memberships as well as local leisure cards. Ticket sales for events are popular and often mean a seven-day-a-week service for the organisers.
One potential drawback is an unwillingness to pay a commission that reflects not just the marketing and service advantages offered by T/VICs, but also the amount of work involved in monitoring, tracking and processing payments for third party organisations. No matter how good the cause remember that providing the service takes T/VIC staff time and should command a fair price.
T/VICs can have a role in developing destination-specific information that can be retailed or carry a small advertising cost (such as guides to local eating and drinking, venues for events and functions).
They can also be involved in keeping local information points and boards up to date and liaising with the destination manager for accurate information about tourism, hospitality and leisure businesses, especially the SME and micro-businesses. This would incorporate information fed back about business conditions, new facilities, awards, etc.
Providing other amenity/council services can involve selling a wide range of products, for example:
- fishing permits
- car park tickets
- bus passes.
The difficulty here is reconciling whether this is provided as a free service, or whether there is an opportunity for reimbursement (internal or otherwise).
Additional service options can incorporate providing:
- Bureau de Change facility
- wedding or conference organisation
- bicycle hire
- Internet access point
- postal service
- guided tour reception area
- professional box office.
There are a number of identified practices that support planning and development of the tourist information service. These outline summaries are by no means exhaustive, but they can assist decision making about what might benefit a particular T/VIC.
The T/VIC business plan or service statement should be informed by the results of the customer feedback, industry feedback and staff SWOT analysis. It should guide all decisions relating to the service and generally cover a period of three to five years, with service targets being reviewed and updated annually.
At a minimum it should include:
- priorities (expressed as short/medium/long term)
- links with other strategies
- service aims and objectives
- annual income and expenditure budgets
- SMART targets (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed).
Many destinations are members of Destination Performance UK (DP:UK), where, for a small annual fee, they are grouped by type for benchmarking and sharing best practice (cities, counties, rural, resorts). As well as networking, a key benefit is the ability to compare similar types of destination.
In December 2005, DP:UK published Advice Sheet No 8 – TIC Benchmarking Establishing Performance Indicators. It contains examples of a detailed benchmarking matrix, guidance note and an operations matrix. Members of DP:UK can access the advice sheet for free from the DP:UK website.
Mystery shopping – the evaluation of a service by people posing as ordinary members of the public – is not about "catching someone out". It should be an honest, unbiased critique of service provision. When received, positive feedback can be used as a benchmark and to inform all members of staff. When feedback is negative, it can serve as a pointer towards better management through training, mentoring or general organisation.
From a customer perspective the benefit of a real-person service is the ability to send a multi-point email and expect it to be answered. Questions left unanswered disappoint the customer.
Many TICs have developed FAQ lists (Frequently Asked Questions) about specific events, attractions and themes that work as a quick and easy reference source. Customers get a more efficient service and staff time is freed up for more challenging requests, retail sales, bookings, industry networking, etc.
The challenge is for staff to look at all aspects of the request – the FAQ may cover 80% of it, the other 20% needs to be provided as well or the customer receives a reduced level of service.
If retail forms a vital part of meeting the business plan income targets, then specialist knowledge can mean the difference between success and failure. A retail plan commonly identifies the following core areas.
- Layout and design – how attractive is it for visitors to spend time in the centre thus encouraging impulse buys? Are there opportunities to pick up and handle items before making a purchase decision? Are there clearly differentiated sections for retail, free information and other services? Is it better to have a section for slower-selling, high-value items or fast-moving, low-price goods? Is there adequate space for visitors to move around and access what they want without getting in the way of other visitors?
- Branding and use of logos – does the T/VIC promote the destination loud and proud or could it be any TIC, any town? Is the service guilty of logo overkill? Does the local community feel ownership of "their" T/VIC?
- Merchandise selection – regularly review suppliers. Are they the best? Do stock lines meet customer profiles? There might be a good argument for selling local arts and crafts as a service for the local community and to provide a sense of place – even if they are not the most profitable lines. Would a local person think of the T/VIC first if they wanted something specific to the destination? Is there a good mix of items to cover a range of pockets and interests? Is thought given to seasonality and special events? Who keeps an eye on what other retailers are selling?
- Pricing policy – different multipliers apply for gifts, foods and confectionery, local crafts and books. Knowing the top ten best sellers and their relative profit margins is essential for monitoring sales and income. The level of information provided by the till system software is crucial. Who monitors the competition?
- Stockholding – an established T/VIC aims for stock turnover four times a year. Make efforts to move old stock through discounting and special offers. Why not try ebay? Allow flexibility in the purchasing budget – if sales exceed the purchasing budget increase it proportionally, and reduce it where sales don’t meet expectations.
- Training – do visitors feel confident that they are in the hands of well-trained professionals? Are members of staff comfortable with selling and sales techniques or apologetic and uneasy? Is the concept of up-selling established? How quickly is an empty shelf or holder re-filled?
Most T/VIC management accounting systems identify a "contribution" from retail or commercial activities, but these figures are not analysed in terms of cost of sales, income per square metre, income net of VAT and credit card charges etc. This means that it can be very difficult to identify "profit" in the commercial sense of the word. In some organisations, the "total achieved contribution" is the only figure that is considered and analysed, ie as spend per head.
Some T/VICs are empowered to re-invest the income generated within the TIC, on additional services or staffing. This provides staff with incentives and tangible service benefits. Identifying how above-target income will be measured and used keeps a commercial operation focused.
A written policy or procedure provides a well-reasoned argument to explain the particular stance taken, and is as important where the service is provided as an income generator as it is for a service provided "free of charge."
When awkward situations arise and members of staff are questioned about why they will or won’t operate in a particular way, written procedure becomes invaluable. Over time most T/VICs evolve unwritten rules or guidelines relating to aspects of display space, sales, and bookings. Whether shaped by limitations of space, political decisions or perceived fairness, all members of staff should understand the policies and be comfortable explaining them.
Key areas that might need written guidelines include:
- window display areas
- poster display space
- leaflet racking
- ticket sales commission policy
- items accepted for retail
- liaison with other information providers
- sustainability – waste/water/energy efficiencies
- equality of opportunity
Questions to ask include restrictions or limitations: will any poster or display be accepted so long as it pays? Will the poster or display conflict with expectations of the TI service as fair, impartial and inclusive? What is the rationale when challenged why this poster won’t be displayed but that one is?
There will be the event organisers pleading that as a small charity event they can’t afford to pay the 10% commission – can the service afford to have staff tied up in all the necessary paperwork, auditing and accounting without it?
Many TIC members of staff are questioned about the accommodation booking fee or the exact level of service the TIC provides to a particular business. Brighton VIC annually provides an industry value statement which is personalised to each partner business. It sets out:
- the total value of bookings made to the business (£)
- the number of business referrals made
- clicks through to the business’s own page on the destination website
- clicks through to the business' own website
- specific marketing campaign enquiries
- inclusion in media features
- value of media features
- key economic and performance date for the city
- a summary of the marketing activity undertaken
- a reminder of key reasons to remain a partner business.
Being able to provide this kind of document is a powerful tool for proving to the industry the worth of the service at a time when businesses are bombarded by free or low-cost opportunities elsewhere.