In October 2009, I wrote a discussion document on the way to market Samoa post-Tsunami. It was to have been presented at a tourism event but my supporting speaker got bumped, and therefore so did I. In essence, I suggested that Samoa had only three messages it could market – one defensive, one neutral and one extraordinarily positive.
Here is the report that I wrote:
Considerations and suggestions for the recovery of Samoa’s tourism industry
A personal report, summary and thoughts by Dennis A. Smith (www.dennis.co.nz)
17 October 2009
Issued to SPBD, CSL, STA, SHA, KVA, Trevor Stevensen, Aggie Grey’s, Sinalei.
In October 2009, I visited Samoa for 10 days on what was supposed to be a holiday with my 15 year old daughter. It seems that I spent more time in meetings with tourism operators and others doing business than holidaying but we both loved your country and really enjoyed our time there.
I’ll never forget my daughter Rebecca leaning back in the bar of Trevor’s resort in Manase sipping a cold drink casually say to me, “You know Dad, I think that I could get used to this!” A Mastercard moment if ever there was one – priceless!
When the Tsunami struck, I was in a unique position in that I had already completed 50 hours personal research on Samoa’s web presence, and had already spoken with Fasitau Ula from Auckland STA on the need for Samoa to lift it’s web presence. The Tsunami simply raised the importance level of my “mission” by a large factor!
I am grateful to those of you who have shared your time and ideas with me while I was there. Some of you helped me understand the culture. Some of you helped me understand the tourism industry. Others gave me insights to the politics and economy. I tried hard to prepare appointments ahead of time and worked hard to get around as many of you as I could. In fact I only managed to meet the Minister of Tourism on an “extra day” I had in Samoa because I mucked up my time/dates (My usual destination Fiji doesn’t cross the time zone from New Zealand like Samoa does!)
Please feel free to share this report to others in the industry if you feel it appropriate. Understandably it is only weeks that I have been involved with Samoa and was only in town for 10 days so I’m very happy to be corrected or enlightened on any issue contained.
Background as I see it
Samoa is a small South Pacific nation of 180,000 people that in the last decade has been relatively quickly emerging from third world status.
It has a warm tropical climate, extraordinarily friendly, outwardly happy and relaxed people with a very laid-back approach to life.
Its local economy appears to receive substantial support from remittances (from Samoan ex-pats in NZ, Australia and the US) and international aid.
Prior to the 2009 Tsunami it had developed a relatively small tourism industry by international standards but a vital and important industry to the economy of the country. In the wake of the Tsunami tourism has n There is however a massive groundswell of goodwill towards Samoa following the Tsunami, particularly from New Zealand but also globally. This is a unique opportunity for Samoa in that the 2004 Tsunami was so big and distributed across so many countries that goodwill was quite dissipated.
Perceptions vs Reality
Globally in both mainstream and online media, coverage of the Tsunami (and the consequences for Samoa in terms of loss of life, infrastructure & property damage with the subsequent loss of tourism) has been strongly negative.ow been decimated with massive cancellations and little new visitors other than disaster recovery personnel.
Headlines such as “Paradise Lost” with associated photos of devastation in the South East of Upolu are imprinted in the minds of the majority so that now there is a strong public perception that Samoa has been wiped out, and of course by implication is still a danger zone.
The reality of course is that the bulk of the country was untouched. Only 10% of accommodation and only 20% of the coastline was affected, and infrastructure in the affected areas has now been restored. Many resorts are rebuilding. Some are reopening shortly.
The reality is definitely not the public perception however.
Following the Tsunami, the Samoan Cabinet has allocated WST$500,000.00 (NZD$270,000.00 or USD$200,000.00) towards rebuilding Samoan Tourism. I’m told that the Samoan Tourism Authority operated last year on a WST$3,000,000.00 budget (NZD$1.6m, USD$1.2m) increased substantially from the year before. I visited Samoa (over our preferred Fiji destination) as a direct result of this promotional work.
Current predictions for recovery range from the buoyant to the pessimistic depending basically on the personal opinion of the individual offering it. Larger resorts that already have a strong reputation and existing client base are in a stronger position to leverage repeat business, but while all have a vested interest in putting Samoa back on the tourism map each of the major players naturally has their own opinions, agendas and interests.
I predict that Samoa will have extreme difficulty for many years bouncing back from the recent negative press. For many, just as Bali now equals bombers, and New York & London subways equals Terrorism, so too will Phuket & Samoa always equal Tsunamis
Approaches to marketing
In determining the best way forward, the Samoan Government, the Samoa Tourism Authority, the industry (primarily represented by the Samoan Hotel Association) and the people of Samoa have some challenging times ahead.
They will need to determine not only how they rebuild their shattered tourism economy but also when they should do this. No matter how hard I try to think positively for Samoa, I think that things will never be the same.
If Samoa’s marketing objective is to undo the damage that the Tsunami wreaked by telling the world that they are now all good and open for business, Samoa will need to be very sure that any marketing spend is not undone with another earthquake or Tsunami or even a cyclone. A very big call! Even the risk of another major event will have put some people off Samoa for life.
Rather than abandoning ship or trying to fight the tide however there are other options – perhaps diversifying into niche markets. I saw untapped opportunities within Samoa with eco and cultural assets relatively undeveloped. I would think that the geographical location makes a perfect position for Northern Hemisphere/Southern Hemisphere meetings. I found 4 hours a comfortable journey and the same distance again to American playground Hawaii makes Northern/Southern Hemisphere meetings much easier than the long haul. With a bit of work around the edges (like a decent Internet service and consistency of customer service issues) I would be happy to recommend Samoa as a business destination.
Another approach (one that I see as the most productive of all marketing efforts) would be to invest into building strong web relationships with supporters of Samoa while the mass of public goodwill exists. I suspect that this window could anything up to 6 to 9, maybe even 12 months (more in New Zealand and with ex-pats of course). Investing into systems to capitalise on global goodwill, is long-term thinking but is very doable, and can be very cost-effective, particularly if it used modern Internet technology and systems. This too would be amazing insurance against any future adversity because a “Web Friend of Samoa” is going to step up to the mark at just such a time that they are needed.
I predict that a traditional marketing campaign undertaken along the lines of “Samoa is back” will not necessarily draw visitors to the Samoan shores and could even be a costly exercise in futility. Holidaymakers from New Zealand will naturally compare Samoa (and the risk of a repeat earthquake/Tsunami) with Fiji (with its unsavoury political situation) and with the Australian Gold Coast (with no major tourism issue). Australian holidaymakers will of course eye New Zealand as a more desirable destination.
Vision Setting & The Internet
As at 2009, Samoa has a poor digital footprint. Except for a few notable exceptions, it has low quality websites. Many operators have nothing; FUM (Fresh Unique Meaningful content) is virtually non-existent; interactivity is not offered and so therefore only exists on third party websites such as Trip Advisor and so on. Samoa simply does not cater to the needs of the modern Internet savvy world with comprehensive and upmarket web coverage. The most likely cause of this is because it has itself limited poor and expensive internal Internet facilities. While this is changing and will improve given time, Samoa does have a large resource of web-savvy ex-pats and a massive goodwill that it can capitalise upon.
It just needs vision, structure, seed capital and application.
The Samoan culture appears to me to be one of the most laid-back in the world (well it’s certainly up there, anyway). Almost exclusively any progressive business in Samoa appears to have been set up and/or is run by outsiders who have moved to the country, perhaps has married a Samoan, or a Samoan who has return to the country to help family and doing business is a part of it. I suspect that as a result of this cultural influence there is a degree of pessimism and negativity surrounding doing business with and in Samoa. While never actually spoken so directly, the elephant in the room is the idea that “Nothing will ever get done here”. The words corruption and nepotism are also sometimes bandied about with a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink, you-know-how-it-works” attitude towards officialdom.
This essentially negative attitude contrasts however with a small percentage of the population in government and in business that are progressive, forward thinkers. These are the ones that recognise the value of customer service, and plan for Samoa’s growth and progress. This document shares ideas on how key thinkers and leaders in Samoa can embrace a vision and use the Internet to solve a problem and build themselves a stunning future.
Using the Internet is now the most effective way to share a vision and engage with the developed world. The Internet is the communications technology of the age. Just as those who ruled the waves in the days of ships were able to gain maximum benefit, and likewise those who owned the railways benefited most from American expansion to the West, those who embrace and utilise the Internet are the winners today.
Engaging with the Internet is far more than having a nice website and promoting it, although that must of course occur. It is more than providing good online pre-purchase information systems and booking systems as important as they are. It’s more than just opening up a blog or a chat group in social media circles.
What I am talking about here is taking a “thought leadership” role on the Internet in a given niche.
Web Thought Leadership
Thought Leaders are the visionaries of this world. They are the people that understand the way things really work in a given niche (for example like tourism in and to Samoa in the wake of the Tsunami). They are the ones to see opportunities and strategise ways to give people benefit and achieve a given objective. They are the leaders that set a vision that others follow and while there are seven factors that are critical to web thought leadership, a key part to this is the development of systems around a good idea, product or a cause.
This ingredient (viral replication) is the difference between people who are ON the Internet and people who UNDERSTAND the Internet.
Twenty years ago, Ireland reinvented itself as an IT country (essentially out of nothing) and became recognised internationally as a country with vision, unity of purpose and commercial success. For years, other countries beat a path to their door to learn from them and to emulate their thought leadership role in the industry.
A web thought leader is one who takes this same role as Ireland performed on the Internet, not necessarily relating to a whole country per se, but if the Samoan government and business leaders want to, with a bit of effort they too can be thought leaders in the web.
My vision is that within a year, Samoa will become recognised internationally as a web thought leader and an example of a nation that turned adversity into a success story by understanding not only the importance of their web presence, but also HOW to use it to tap into newly created global goodwill for their benefit and prosperous future.
For commercial reasons I will keep it brief here and share greater details at a later time but an effective Internet Strategy would essentially contain four stages.
1. The Plan
Samoa needs a clear vision and strong leadership. It needs to unite behind a common vision that will achieve all its stakeholders’ best interests. It should complement and support whatever the STA, Government and industry wants and mesh with any offline promotional and marketing activities.
2. Commercially acceptable web presence
Samoa needs to lift its web presence to a commercially acceptable level. At the moment it is clearly not serious about how the world perceives it in the digital space. Every inbound tourism operator, resort operator, accommodation provider, and tourism related service needs to have a decent modern website with good FUM (Fresh Unique Meaningful content). The country needs a modern information portal that is meaningful and constantly kept up to date. None exists at present.
3. Appointing Web Ambassadors
A Samoan Web Ambassador programme should be implemented ASAP. This should be a state-supported scheme allocating privileges within Samoa (similar to an OBE, Knighthood, Chiefdom, Keys to the City or other recognisable award) for influential web businesses, personal web leaders and other centres of influence that engage with and build Internet based business for Samoan tourism.
The primary purpose of a developing Web Ambassador scheme is to feed virally generated business into web-based systems with replication and structured referral business generation so that the country has a source of sustainable high-value clients.
Without wanting to cause offence to the people who are and have been working hard for Samoa, as an outsider gradually falling in love with the place, I see Samoa as a land of missed opportunity. Those in the know of course remind me constantly that “We’ve come a long way in the last few years”, so I respect the current situation but Samoa has an awful lot to offer the world and it certainly needs help with getting it out there after the Tsunami.
Apart from the web strategy that I’ve very briefly mentioned above, an idea that Beverley Barlow from Aggie Grey’s has been suggesting I think now has real merit and really interests me. An international Samoa Day (probably a date in March or April to feed into the peak season) that celebrates the Samoan culture and country would be an excellent focus for web based as well as offline activities.
I have in mind a myriad of other ideas for activities, services and publications, as I’m sure you will all have as well. It might be possible for me to help you bring them together. I enjoy a challenge and once onto a project I rarely give up or give in until it has achieved its stated purpose.
It sometimes takes a crisis to take us to another level of maturity, and if what comes out of the Tsunami crisis is collaboration, unity and a successful web strategy for Samoa, then I will feel that good has come from bad. If I am involved I will feel privileged to have been a part of Samoa’s comeback.
I have put a personal proposal to the Minister of Tourism to provide Internet strategy consultancy to Samoa should he want it, and will return to Samoa to help should he ask for such assistance. In the meantime I will leave these comments with you to share and talk about as you see fit.
Nothing happened of course and the SWAP programme has grown with my seed capital and efforts – based on some of the above thoughts.
I have taught from last year that there are essentially three messages post-Tsunami Samoa can deliver:
- We only lost 10% of our accommodation – essentially a negative message
- We are back in business – a neutral message
- Come and help us, or share our pain – an enormously compelling theme
The huge international goodwill outside of Samoa towards this country is seeking an outlet or an opportunity to engage. It is my opinion that there are hundreds of thousands of well-wishers and people who would love to be able to help – if they only knew how, and had an opportunity put before them.
Habitat for Humanity is one opportunity but is limited to builders and tradesmen. SWAP is another but while we are moving forward as fast as we can it is limited in scope. I wish we could do more and sooner, and I look forward to the growth of the SWAP project so that hundreds, if not thousands of people can come here to help a country in need.
Whatever people can and will do to help, the marketing of Samoa now needs to be built around inviting people to meet people; encouraging cultures to engage; and with an authenticity in marketing (that simply does not exist when pictures of beautiful white safe beaches conflict with the images and knowledge we have of devastation and possible danger).
For years tourists have come to Samoa expecting to find an inviting, idyllic, South Pacific Paradise, only to find the good beaches only at some resorts; the rest of the country lined with dirty, dusty, rubbish-strewn streets; and many of the population who at best are indifferent, and at times down-right rude.
Countless tourists with expectations of high class service, and cleanliness have vowed never to return here. Sure, they may love the Samoan smile and enjoy a culture from the outside and say what a charming place Samoa is, but speak to them on the plane on the way back, or catch them in an honest moment, and they will raise the issues I’ve mentioned above.
The difficulty that Samoa faces is that their very culture; their style of government and their approach to business is not condusive to change, let alone a major sudden change in direction.
Post-Tsunami Samoa MUST engage with the world in a different way now or it will forever destroy any integrity that still exists. Marketing an island that has had somewhere like a billion dollars in global negative press over a Tsunami as a safe, pristine, white-sanded beach covered South Pacific paradise is simply insanity.