Back in the late 1990s a Masters student at the Durrell Insitute of Conservation and Ecology, where I was teaching, analysed the images in UK travel brochures featuring wildlife experiences in Africa and Asia. At the time, there were lots of images of hotels and lodges, particularly bars and pool generally without people. Over the next few years, images began to be included of people in the experience, in the game vehicle or sat beside the pool. Initially the images were of tourists alone; later images of tourists interacting with local people, waiters and game guides became more common.
Over the last twenty-five years, this evolution of images reflects the growth of the experience economy and the consumers’ pursuit of authenticity. Starbucks is now 50. They opened their first store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in March 1971, selling freshly roasted coffee beans and coffee brewing equipment. It now has close to 33,000 company-operated and licensed stores across more than 80 countries. Amongst quick food and beverage service outlets, second in size only to McDonald’s.
What has this to do with travel?
Gilmore and Pine use Starbucks as one of their primary examples in their discussion of the consumer desire for authenticity (Authenticity: What consumers really want), a critical driver for tourism. Starbucks success has come from differentiating itself from other coffee shops, in their view, “precisely because it has learned to stage a distinctive coffee-drinking experience centred on the ambience of each place and the theatre of making each cup.” As Gilmore and Pine point out, “nothing kills authenticity like ubiquity”. Starbucks has managed to deliver authenticity despite their scale.
Howard Schultz was the chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Starbucks Coffee Company from 1986 to 2000, and then again from 2008 to 2017. In 1997 he published, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. He explained why authenticity matters to brands, and to consumers. “Authenticity is what we stand for. It’s part of who we are. If we compromise who we are to achieve higher profits, what have we accomplished? Eventually, all our customers would figure [it] out.”
In February 2007, in a widely leaked memo, he wrote that automating espresso creation and bagging ground coffee in flavour-locked packages “have lead to the watering down of the Starbuck’s experience, and what some might call the commoditization of our brand”, “stripping the store of tradition and our heritage.” This, he said, resulted in “stores that no longer have the soul of the past.” He returned to lead the company back to its core values and success from 2008.
This applies to travel businesses and destinations too.