The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the world’s social and economic engines. With travel restrictions in place, tourism has been one of the sectors that’s suffered the most. Restaurants are closing down, airlines are downsizing, hotels are hoping to attract teleworkers to cover fixed costs. Without a viable vaccine the way we travel might never be the same. Or will it? Will traveling patterns return after a new equilibrium between an economic restart and safety is found?
As Marketing Director of Visit Flanders, Elke Dens oversaw the astounding success of the Van Eyck Retrospective in Ghent. Even before its opening, nearly 50,000 tickets had been sold. She’s been a champion of a shift in paradox towards an “economy of meaning” where economic growth is no longer the ultimate goal. She’s been a key advocate for the inclusion of the local community in the reception of tourists. For Dens, a circle of virtue is found at the nexus of travelers, local residents and business owners. She was selected as Marketer of the Year 2019 Belgium Association of Marketing; she’s the acting Chairperson of the Marketing Group at the European Travel Commission.
In the current environment of uncertainty, how is Visit Flanders leading the way toward flourishing ways of traveling and finding value in it? How can society turn the crisis into an opportunity for change? With World Tourism Day around the corner, Elke Dens speaks with Travel Tomorrow about the challenges affecting the travel industry, Regenerative Tourism, and more.
In 2002, you researched and wrote about Telework. What are the pros and cons of the concept now, as well as in a post-covid area?
Back then one of the main challenges we noticed was the issue trust. Employers were a bit uncertain. Twenty years later, the situation has changed in some regards, and especially now because of Covid-19, we’ve been “forced” to experience telework and the results show that the trust can be there.
We also conducted a research and found out that for employees, the balance between telework and going into the office was on average two days at home. You don’t feel too isolated or lonely at home, and you also keep the rapport with colleagues while going into the office part of the week. One of the drawbacks if you only do telework is that you could lose the coffee-corner moment when you chat with your colleagues.
I’m thankful, if you can say it like that, for what the confinement has brought about because it has made us experience telework fully, also for employers. We see that it is really a possibility for almost everyone.
In that sense, the Covid-19 era has caused a breakthrough in this domain of life. Of course we don’t know if we have dealt with all the potential barriers, but we have learned a lot.
An important part of both Europe’s marketing strategy and Visit Flanders Plan called ‘travel to tomorrow’ is: Repositioning its stance from growing travel for the sake of the economy to creating an “economy of meaning”, in which elements like storytelling are crucial. What are the steps that Visit Flanders is taking to accomplish Regenerative Tourism?
Although we have been guided on our Travel to Tomorrow journey by Anna Pollock, the expert and pioneer in regenerative tourism, the term “regenerative travel” was deliberately not introduced as a concept. It was quite unknown in tourism and might have distracted the focus on shifting from volume growth to flourishing as an end goal. But the goal of flourishing is a critical aspect of regenerative travel that is a quantum leap beyond sustainability. ‘Flourishing’ is a term developed both in positive psychology for human beings and in ecology for all life forms. It therefore has both a human/psychological/well-being/performance dimension and an ecological, systems health dimension. It is easy to understand when you talk to people.
Especially in Flemish it translates easily in the following strategic shift: van groeien naar bloeien (from growing to flourishing), and people know what you mean. And that is really necessary if you want people involved and engaged in the change. Of course flourishing Flanders is based on a regenerative system. Just like soilmates which is a concept from Flanders on food based on the same regenerative system.
The terms regenerative which is being applied in many sectors – economics, agriculture, community planning and the built environment, business – revolves around the need not to simply fix individual problems to but build the capability of participants any system to self-organize, regenerate, thrive and evolve. Crucially it involves new patterns of thinking that are based on observing how nature works rather than how machines are designed and work. In tourism it means developing an operating model that optimizes benefits to all stakeholders as opposed to maximizing the benefits to a few shareholders. This means the needs of the individual (employee), business, community and environment must all be met and held in balance.
The purpose of a living system is not to simply get bigger but to develop its unique potential and contribute to the health of the whole. Hence flourishing.
What are the main obstacles to Sustainable and Regenerative Tourism?
There a lot of challenges linked to consumerism, exploitation of resources, and so but it’s the system we live in. You cannot blame anyone. That’s how we were raised, to maximize economical profit. We live in a capitalism idea. Growth growth growth. I believe we are reaching the end current of the model.
I mean, we could potentially go on like this for another ten years but at what cost? It’s very human to just ignore problems. Covid-19 is just this little wave and then you have this big wave which is climate change: for how long can we afford to ignore it?
There’s what some people call “green washing”. Re-use your towel and you feel good about yourself because you’re helping the environment. The truth is that it’s good but it’s not enough.
In the current model we focus almost entirely on the short term, it’s all part of this consumerist model. And to some extent it’s normal, people are losing their jobs. They’re worried. But we have to find a balance. You look at how indigenous people used to live. Close to nature. If we listened to them the situation would be very different. Our relationship with nature has been severed.
And then you have to think about the future generations. More and more people would like to see the world. They deserve to see the world. If we want everyone to be able to travel and see the world, we all should do it a little bit less frequently. But when we do it, we experience it deeply.
I believe that those who promote tourism need to change the offer. Look at the kinds of offers out there: a bunch of short, frequent city trips, but what do you get out it? It’s not about quality but about quantity.
What do you think is the most effective way to encourage tourists to care about a destination?
By working together with the tourism sector with the offer that you give to visitors. The typical souvenir shops that do not really offer value but just disposable trinkets.
I believe we need to start from the supply side, the tourism industry itself.You could say society right now is on the brink of a recession and people are worried about expenses, they experience mental fatigue when choosing and go for the easier, cheaper option. It’s the supply side who ought to start steering the landscape of choices to create change.
I also think we need more philosophers. We need to question ourselves and our choices a lot more. I don’t like to judge people on their behavior but from a marketer’s point of view I can tell you one thing: You can change what you offer
Behavioral change takes time. We need to find ways to change the system as a whole.
What have become the main challenges when marketing a destination in Covid-19 times?
I’ll give you two words for Covid-19 times: creativity and flexibility. You need to have the mental space to have new solutions because you realize the current solutions are not applicable.
These days organizations face what I call the roller coaster effect. Normally ones makes a 1yr or 5yr plan, which would determine what a tourist destination wants to accomplish.
Now we are implementing a sort of scenario-planning. You look at the possible outcomes and plan as you go. You need to adjust, you need to be agile. It’s just the reality. Adjust and adjust some more. Adjust our offer, our market, our communication, our tone of voice so that it fits the current reality.
The Van Eyck Exhibition in Ghent was a success. How could an exhibition like that be successful these days? How do cities, museums, festivals, etc. have to be to re-define themselves in light of the current situation?
We always look at reviews from big data to find out how visitors feel about our museums and attractions an event or exhibition. That’s a way for us to know how we’re doing, and to improve ourselves. What we saw from the result of this summer was that, in general, people were more satisfied than in the past. This came as a surprise because we expected it to be worse — you have to wear mask, you have to make a reservation, etc. The results show that this “abnormal” situation caused by the Covid-19 measures, didn’t reflect in worse satisfaction rates. On the contrary, we have seen a higher satisfaction. We assume visitors appreciate having the museum or attraction more for themselves.
I also want to mention that for the Van Eyck Exhibition, when the lock-down started, many people were disappointed because they had been waiting to see and then they couldn’t. What we came up was a concept called “Stay at Home Museum”. It was meant —-especially though not only—- for the people who couldn’t see the exhibition. There were Q&A sessions with the curator on Facebook live, and you could see people were passionate about it. I think this model of “Stay at Home Museum” will remain for the long run and be a complement to the on-site visits.
The travel & tourism sector has been impacted and is eager to go back to pre-covid “normal”. Will there be significant, permanent changes towards sustainability and a reining in of over-tourism? How so, and what needs to happen?
We have seen an increase in domestic travel. What I like about it is that people have begun to re-appreciate places that are not far away. They are becoming conscious of one thing: it’s not necessary to travel to the end of the world to have a pleasurable experience. Doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t do it, but domestic travel can also offer meaningful value for them. It gives people a sense pride and belonging to the place they live in. And this has greater value.
People will perhaps combine one domestic and one international trip, instead of two or more international. I’m talking mainly from a European point of view because I’m aware that for some people domestic travel might be the only option.
But like in many fields, Covid-19 has created a serious impact on our collective consciousness about travel now and in the future. This consciousness will keep on putting pressure on the travel industry forcing them to rethink and reinvent travel in the long term. The travel industry will need to take up more responsibility than ever in the past.
I’m hopeful, I’m an optimist, yes. I think there is really no choice. It’s not about if but rather about when the real change will happen.