Social Media – a curate’s egg for tourism?

Social Media – a curate’s egg for tourism?

The concept of the “curate’s egg” was first used in the British satirical magazine Punch by George du Maurier in November 1895. The curate was too timid to complain of his bad egg, protesting that some of it was good. Originally used to mean that something was bad, in its modern usage it generally means that it has a mix of good and bad elements.

Word of mouth, recommendations and referrals are major drivers of bookings in the travel and tourism industry and one of the drivers of Responsible Tourism. Generally people are reluctant to recommend accommodation and experiences that their friends and relatives may regard as irresponsible.

Disintermediation can provide market access for sole traders, households and micro-enterprises in the developed and the developing world. Uber has provided opportunities for people with cars to earn income by providing personalised transport at prices lower than established operators. In many countries there is concern about safety and the employment status of the drivers. Uber’s application for a new licence in London was rejected by Transport for London in September on the basis that the company is not a “fit and proper” private car hire operator. There has been an outcry from users but Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, wrote to drivers accepting that “there is a high cost to a bad reputation”, he went on

“It’s critical that we act with integrity in everything we do, and learn how to be a better partner to every city we operate in. That doesn’t mean abandoning our principles – we will vigorously appeal TfL’s decision – but rather building trust through our actions and our behaviour. In doing so, we will show that Uber is not just a really great product, but a really great company that is meaningfully contributing to society, beyond its business and its bottom line.”

Airbnb has been a market disruptor, having a major impact on the housing market: in some places encouraging second home purchase and rental, in other places raising rents and displacing local people. It emerged as a P2P platform in 2008 to enable people, to rent out spare bedrooms, at the heart of P2P is trust.  As Airbnb has grown, de-professionalising the provision of accommodation, there have been issues of security for both the property owners and the guests. Unlike the B&B and guesthouse providers there is often no resident host and no regulation. Airbnb has not been an entirely ‘good news’ story. City after city is moving to demand that Airbnb enables local tax to be collected and working with national tax authorities to ensure that the income is taxed. Airbnb is no longer only used for the P2P in the sharing economy – it is now also a B2P platform used by professional intermediaries like Airsorted. The regulators are always behind the disrupting new technologies, struggling to keep up.

It is through user generated content, social media, that the quality and the experiential value of the tourism service is validated. Social media is 21st century gossip, amplified gossip, with the power to do good and ill. It is a 21st century curate’s egg. In his Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, argues that it was our development of gossip that drove our development of language and that gossip was essential if we were to be able to function in groups of more than 150 individuals. It was gossip that cemented communities and informed opinion about who could be trusted and about personal strengths and weaknesses. Useful around home and at work and equally useful when thinking of travelling – if there are people who know about your destination in your social circle.

Before the advent of social media the guidebooks provided information about places, to stay or to visit, which might otherwise be provided through gossip. This information had the merit of being in print and overseen by an editor and publisher, although it could be less than objectively impartial, it had a higher degree of reliability than social media. The writer had something to lose if there were substantiated complaints, they could be held accountable, and they had to be responsible.

Not so with social media. A friend – so here we go this is gossip – overheard a conversation at another table in one of my favourite restaurants in Faversham as the dinner party came to the conclusion that they were not going to get away at the Red Sails with demanding compensation for a poor meal on social media. There are plenty of people who see it as sport to reclaim money from restaurants, hotels and tour operators through spurious complaints. In June ABTA launched a “Stop Sickness Scams” campaign warning holidaymakers that they risked prosecution and imprisonment for fraud.

Most of us develop quite high level skills in assessing the gossip that we here and in deciding what we discount, what we retain for reference and what we pass on. We know that we are more likely to believe and repeat gossip which echoes our own thoughts and feelings – the echo chamber effect.

Comments on review sites like Airbnb and TripAdvisor are amplified gossip. Anyone and everyone can read this amplified gossip, and if you look at the comments left by particular reviewers you can get a sense of their prejudices and whether or not they are likely to see the property or experience the way you do.

Airbnb are now seeking recognition for the work they are doing to open market access for the informal sector in developing countries. The new programme was presented at the Global Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth at the end of last month with UNWTO, the Government of Jamaica, and the World Bank Group. Working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA). Airbnb trains SEWA members on home sharing, hospitality, quality standards, and responsible hosting practices. The initiative started last year and so far they have listed 18 SEWA homes. There is another initiative beginning in Langa Township in Cape Town. These are small beginnings. It is early days for Airbnb’s new initiative unlocking Airbnb’s potential for underserved populations. Already on the main Airbnb site there are 170,000 reviews of stays in Langa, it will be interesting to see how many new households Airbnb adds through this initiative.

In November 2017 The Shed at Dulwich was TripAdvisor’s top-rated restaurant in London and rated 4.8 on Facebook. It was a fake. It had a website with great photographs and a dedicated mobile phone number to take bookings. It was vague about its location and tantalised diners by making it available by appointment only. Friends wrote rave reviews. It was exposed in The Times and a range of other mainstream media on 7th December and TripAdvisor has delisted it – at the time of writing it is still on Facebook. The Shed at Dulwich was a clever fake, there is a lot of fake news about.

TripAdvisor lists Jay Fai in Bangkok, a street vendor with four stars. She has been award one star in the latest Michelin Guide – the only street food vendor to receive a star, 18 others were placed in the Bib Gourmand category. Social media are not the only route to market for the underserved.

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Harold is WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor, he puts together the flagship Responsible Tourism programme at WTM London which attracts 2000 participants each year and the programmes run at WTM Africa, WTM Latin America and Arabian Travel Market. Harold has worked on 4 continents with local communities, their governments and the inbound and outbound tourism industry. He is Managing Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and chairs the panels of judges for the World Responsible Tourism Awards and the other Awards in the family, Africa, India and Ireland. Harold works with industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists and undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is an Emeritus Professor, and Founder Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration which he drafted.

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