Over-tourism and the MICE industry: more responsibility, better partnerships and changing mindsets

Over-tourism is currently an urgent topic being discussed by travel professionals globally. It’s addressed mainly on the leisure travel side, without sufficient coverage on the MICE front. Therefore, we wanted to tackle this issue and examine possible approaches to help event planners solve the problems destinations face due to over-tourism and suggest solutions. There are popular destinations which have a high influx of travellers, and other destinations which need this particular piece of business because they require the economic benefits that a healthy and sustainable tourism flow can bring. 

To cover all the above issues, we hosted an Event Planners Talk panel discussion of founders and business owners with Pauline Kwasniak from TurnedSee, Joel Francisco Vicente from LineUp Events Factory and Portugal Incoming DMC and Laura Notarbartolo from Italian Special Occasions DMC and I moderated the session. The event took place during the ITB Berlin and MICE Night on 7 March 2019 at the International Club Berlin.  

Over-tourism and MICE: where’s the problem? 

We understand the problem of over-tourism and leisure travel, but what are the issues with respect to MICE? The associated problems occur when leisure and MICE travellers clash during the high season, and event attendees don’t receive the opportunity to experience the country in the best way (for example, having a negative experience due to long queues, expensive venues and hotel rooms). Therefore, if you really need to have an event in that period, you can diversity the activity and do something which is more local rather than only ‘mainstream’ activities. 

Examining the highly popular destinations such as Barcelona and Lisbon, do such cities really have a low season? Portugal, and Lisbon in particular, have become highly popular in recent years, and have therefore become increasingly crowded. Lisbon is yet to witness significantly high levels of over-tourism because it has the capacity to grow. The question is how to balance the leisure area and MICE. The city has to be clear regarding the kind of tourism they want to attract; in recent years, the city has grown primarily due to low-cost carriers, but in fact, MICE is a business that offers more money to destinations than such low-cost carriers do. Therefore, here we can talk about tourism which is of a higher quality and generates increased profit. Countries such as Portugal, Spain and Italy have good highways which provide links to other countries and cities within 1–2 hours’ drive, with many places to discover. The role of a destination management company (DMC) or a local event agency is to present clients with the various options available. 

Leisure travellers stay longer and spend less, MICE travellers stay shorter and spend more 

MICE travellers use less resources, spend more money and tend to extend their stay for shopping and other activities. All destinations are therefore fighting for MICE tourists. At the same time, MICE comprises only approximately 7% of travel activity worldwide, and there is therefore another more than 90 percent of travellers to account for.

How do you educate the planners about the options available, particularly when they want the most popular destinations? How to respond to such requests? 

For example, Laura once had a request for an Amalfi Coast event in July for 200 people. She suggested to the potential client that it would be a nightmare bringing a group there and that they would most likely not enjoy going there. Eventually, the potential client chose a different country. In that case, the North of Italy (such as Piedmont or the Aosta Valley) would be a more suitable location to travel to in July because this area is equally as beautiful and is less crowded. 

It’s important to provide options for the clients. However, at the same time, it’s not only the offer that has to change, but also the requests on clients’ behalf. If a company decides to have an event abroad, it needs to let delegates experience the destination in a meaningful manner. 

How can this change happen? 

The private small companies need better material to promote their destination. For example, videos of new locations. On the other hand, governments and tourism boards also need to provide training for DMCs. There are a small number of DMCs who are innovating, but the rest are traditional and have been behaving in a relatively similar manner for 20 years and continue doing this business because they are comfortable with it. Therefore, clients need to find the right partner at the destination that has the capacity to present (and execute) other event programmes.  

The role of technology to introduce innovation

Technology provides a way to communicate the new options available. It’s there to assist event planners, DMCs and people promoting their destination and not to take the business away from them. Pauline’s business promotes venues that otherwise wouldn’t have access to MICE buyers, or they don’t know how to sell due to a lack of experience. She added that it would be easy to add overcrowded destinations on her platform and to do what everyone else is doing in order to ensure a higher level of business. However, TurnedSee has a mission to do it from a different angle and wants to participate in saving the planet.

How to use social media and blogging to educate event professionals? 

Social media has a great deal of responsibility and can be used to create a positive impact. For example, Laura shares her knowledge about the country on her blog, and also performs site inspections for networking with venues. She believes in sharing the knowledge rather than keeping it to herself because a strong network, when everyone is working towards the same goal, can be one solution for over-tourism. 

Infrastructure: the breaking point? 

How to overcome the challenges of lack of access to a destination? Infrastructure is highly important, and when large groups arrive for a 2–3 day event, and if the organisers want to position the group outside the city centre they need to have a highway because they want to be transferred directly. Flight schedules can be also a challenge; for example, when there are flights in the summer but not in winter, after the busy summer season, resorts are empty. The Algarve area provides such an example. 

Flights are crucial, and if clients love a destination but there is no flight connection it becomes hard to sell. But it’s important to note that when event organisers choose a non-capital destination, there is a better value for money, even if additional time is required for transfers. 

How to present a destination that people may not be familiar with? 

The larger destinations are associated with a certain image that makes people want to go there. How can DMCs or agencies promote a destination that no-one knows, to their potential clients? According to Pauline, the MICE industry is relatively low key at the moment with the rise of social media, where everyone can be an influencer and promoter. Destinations should encourage ordinary people to share their user-generated content about a destination, but the destinations themselves should also track such content and engage with their visitors online. It’s necessary to spend money on professional videos and celebrity endorsements, but also critical not to forget about user-generated content, activities and competitions, in order to get visitors involved. 

Start from the why

As mentioned previously, local companies should suggest alternatives and by doing so, they will move away from ‘what’ we want, to ‘why’ we want it. The top-tier destinations may not be always right for the objective the client is aiming for; therefore, it’s important to have an open mind and generate an appropriate discussion. Joel added that having the right partner is key. They should be able to provide all integrated services and solutions and also deliver outside the country. They will need to work out the needs for the group size, and if necessary, also work with another DMC abroad.

How to provide the ultimate bleisure experience (combining business and leisure)?

How do you go about complementing the MICE experience with ‘ticking the boxes’ for leisure activities? According to Pauline, for MICE, yes it’s good to place the delegates in a prestigious hotel for one night or a dinner function to have an experience, but they don’t need it for the whole duration of their stay. Another suggestion is to pick a venue that has a 360 view of the city; in this way, you feel ‘immersed’ without going there. Pauline doesn’t like the ‘tick-the-box’ exercise. It’s overcrowded, not enjoyable and she would rather see it from a distance. 

Top solutions to overcome the problem of over-tourism 

According to Laura, the solution is to suggest the right region in the most appropriate season to travel, combined with extensive destination knowledge and a focus on higher-quality tourism. According to Joel, governments should start promoting and helping other destinations (within the country) to be more visible. Pauline stated that promotion is essential, and that more money should be allocated to promotion and marking, rather than primarily for selling. Anything can be positioned in a consumer’s mind as a cool place to visit, and therefore it has to be promoted in the correct way. 

Joel also added that the concept of sustainability should be applied by destinations and recognised for it, for example when they win an award for it. Such an approach can encourage people to think in different ways as well as help change things for the better. Pauline added that small companies can also influence governments. They shouldn’t think that if they are a small player that they don’t have a say — all of us should assume a responsibility for our destinations. Solutions should also come from bookers, and requests must also change to become more sustainable. Today, we are becoming increasingly aware of a destination online, but then we subsequently need the real experience. After sending all information material, Laura recommends potential clients to come to a site visit. The moment they see a particular destination, the feedback will be positive because they are likely to enjoy the experience. 

Next, Joel recommended to have a good mix between leisure and MICE at the destination. When we talk about MICE destinations, it’s not necessary for MICE to change, but rather we need to also promote other destinations for leisure and low-cost travellers. Because large cities have better conditions for big events, they have bigger hotels, congress centres, and therefore it’s easier to move leisure tourists to other places. It’s impossible for a small company to promote a destination at scale; therefore, a government should do it.

Lastly, Joel asked: ‘How can we evaluate the success of tourism for a country? Is it by the number of beds sold?’ That means that hotels are supported to sell beds. However, hotels are just the hardware, a hotel can’t sell a solution for a complex and multiple-day event because they don’t have the expertise to provide an integrated destination experience. If a government wants to sell a solution, they require more DMCs and events on the exhibition stand (e.g. – ITB Berlin) because these companies have the capacity to do something new.

Incorporating corporate social responsibility (CSR)

What are the advantages for companies to integrate CSR and give back to local communities? What activities can groups do to leave a positive impact? Pauline shared an example of an initiative in Ireland where companies became involved in building parks for autistic children, and they had to pay to get involved. It left the destination with something that people had built, creating a positive impact. Laura shared an example of her project called ‘Creative Italy’, where participants can sign up to learn a traditional craft and develop an awareness of why the ‘made in Italy’ symbol has become so famous worldwide. Apart of the activity description, this project cannot currently be booked online. People who are interested to participate first should speak to Laura and understand what the activity is about and then book it according to artists’ availability. Some artists also don’t speak English, and hence it is necessary to have the support of a local expert. In Lisbon, Joel’s company involves small local businesses in team-building activities. They work together with small local stores and create a budget per team to manage where the teams need to discover and buy something from the store.

Clients should arrive with an open mind because how can customers ask for a ‘wow’ experience without being willing to try something new, such as a new destination? 

More responsibility, better partnerships and changing mindsets 

Coming to final conclusions, Laura stated that we have a significant responsibility towards our planet. Tourism gives a lot to every country and its communities. As tourism professionals, we need to do our jobs properly. And that leads, according to Joel, to finding the right partners and those who can think differently and propose different things. Pauline wrapped up by noting that we shouldn’t underestimate the era we live in today because we have an amazing opportunity to re-educate young people. ‘Things that are important and famous to you, are not necessarily important to those who are 15 years old we have an opportunity to change their mindset, and maybe make a small city in Northern Italy as important as the Coliseum.’  

Photos: Thomas Loris, Loris.tv

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Comments (2)

  • Valerie 5 years ago Reply

    Hi Irina, thanks for this article!

    Especially the meeting of business travellers and leisure travellers can hardly be avoided. I think, in my case, hotels have to clearly define their target group and stand by it. I have worked in business travel hotels that have accepted bus trips in the summer months – a supposed summer slump. Exactly at this time there were many complaints from (fewer) business travellers. This does not leave a good impression and one can assume that this traveller will not return. I think it boils down to specialisation. Or very strict revenue management with the corresponding market segments. This requires courage, however, that hoteliers rarely show their courage in the face of growing competition.

    Best wishes

    The MICE Blog 5 years ago Reply

    Excellent feedback and insights, thank you very much Valerie! As you say very correctly ‘define their target group and stand by it.’ Couldn’t have agreed more. When the hotel or destination successfully position themselves in the market and are known by their target group for their product/ service offering they will be successful in the long run. As a professional industry we shouldn’t look for short term gains.

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