Samoa Tourism Exchange 2010

I have spent the last couple of days at the Samoa Tourism Authority’s annual talkfest. I’ve been asked to keep it positive. Sorry, I can’t do that because the world wants to know the truth about Samoa. So I’ll keep it honest but it will be balanced. My take is that Samoa Tourism has some pretty big issues to deal with; they’re getting there, but not as fast as other destinations are! Here are the gory details . . .

UPDATED: June 2013 with a 24,000 word eBook. Read the executive Summary and FREE download Connecting the DOTS – analysing the Samoan Tourism ‘Crisis’

Palagi Feet at Aggie Grey's HotelBefore I get into the details I’ll deal with the bad bits. I wasn’t invited and there’s nothing on the Internet about the exchange. I counted 90 people in attendance at its busiest and I guessed that 50 of them were associated with the event in some way – speakers, organisers etc.

[Pic: Life’s hard at times. Work, work, work. Palagi feet at Aggie Grey’s Hotel, Apia]

This is all a very BIG bad bit. I only heard about it by accident the day before. The STA website doesn’t mention it and a Google or Yahoo search for “samoa tourism exchange 2010” both return a very sad: “No results found for “samoa tourism exchange 2010”. Shame. Perhaps this is why I am meant to be in Samoa?

Maybe this was an oversight or two or three; possibly. Samoans generally get very offended if they are not invited to things. I’m not because I’m used to this, but I could easily have been offended by it. STA should have good systems to catch and use email addresses of all those even remotely interested in Samoa Tourism. I would have possibly had four to five people come to the event if I had known about it and in advance. I even had/have one investor IN THE COUNTRY at the time but they had previous things to do/organise and couldn’t come. This is just bad. We missed out on probably, well who knows how much lost opportunity, maybe $20,000.00 in direct foreign exchange earnings/expenditure as a result? Who knows how many projects/investments could have come to Samoa next year if they had come?

But unfortunately it gets worse . . . Air New Zealand wasn’t invited either! I’m told that the new CEO of Air New Zealand in Samoa heard about the event through a chance meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and was invited along by them. She sat in the audience alongside me as attendees from other all other airlines and even the CEO of the Travel Ministry were acknowledged and speakers flew in from Fiji (Air Pacific) and Christchurch (PolyBlue). Ouch!

Now there is NO WAY this was an oversight. This was clearly a deliberate decision on somebody’s part to snub the airline. AirNZ was in the news, and people wanted to hear from them, know their position and speak to them.

The context in which this all happened was that Air New Zealand recently pulled their weekly LAX-APW (Los Ageles – Apia) flight. Apparently Tonga ran out of money, Samoa didn’t want to subsidise it any longer and both Tonga and Samoa told Air New Zealand – too bad, the subsidy is off. Air New Zealand says that they then rescheduled the spare plane and the change of mind and new offer from Tonga and Samoa two days later, came too late. Hmmm, maybe. Others can squabble about the details. There is clearly some posturing going on and some in the industry have made a noise about it.

To make matters worse AirNZ also got one of it’s planes whacked by a rogue stepladder driver who apparently pulled the UP lever instead of the DOWN lever and set off probably a half a million dollar damage/loss to AirNZ to boot. I’ve experienced that sort of thing here too a bit too often for my liking. Oops! Sorry, mate! Too bad. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall after that guy went back to the office. My money is 80/20 on an “accident”. I think it probably was an accident, but there’s a big suspicious side of me now. I’d like them to fly Taito Phillip Fields or Winston Peters up to undertake the inquiry. I won’t trust anyone else, especially if the local boy comes out sqeeky clean!

But forget the plane or the money or the fighting. Business is all about people and when relationships break down you’re in a no-win situation for both STA and AirNZ. Bad karma not to kiss and make-up Samoa! I think that somebody ought to right the wrong and rebuild that relationship fast so things don’t spiral downwards from here.

So there. That’s all the negative stuff out of the way.

Oh, sorry, there’s one more – the rubbish. Bev from Aggie Grey’s raised the issue of the rubbish in the streets of Apia [Yes AGAIN!]. She and I sould start a Samoan anti-rubbish blog one day!

So on with the real stuff . . .

There’s no question that the Tsunami kicked Samoa Tourism in the guts. We took a hammering, but in some ways there is hope. The wholesalers all say that we should focus on New Zealand and Australian markets from where 80% of the business comes. The Samoa brand is relatively strong in New Zealand. It’s a little light in Australia, and certainly not competitive. $10.00AUD per night in Bali and record numbers of Aussies heading up there puts the Samoan experience on the far back-burner. Fiji is also a big drawcard with a very strong brand that has been done well over 20 years or so and major discounting draws good numbers as well. Their professionalism in dishing up tourism experiences unquestionably leaves Samoa for dead. I know this too having been a not in-frequent recipient of the Fiji Smile myself.

As with the AirNZ thing, I think the absence of certain topics and speakers was noticeable at this event. I wondered why the keynote speakers who seemed to be working so well with the leaders last year were absent. Their presence again this year would have been the first sign of a good long-term working relationship with outside professionals who are committed to the brand and the best interests of the country. The accountability from seeing resolutions from last year addressed would have been refreshing.

As an Internet Marketing strategist, I was disappointed that the use of the Internet in Marketing was barely mentioned. Well it wasn’t actually. One of the wholesalers stated that 95% of travellers research via the web before they approach a booking agent. Really? That low? Surely not, I thought it treached 95% in 2007 and had been more like 97% for the last three years! [sacarsim!] Any modern commercial operation that does not engage with their market on the Internet is doomed. A 20% spend on Internet related marketing activities is barely survivable, and 50% of a marketing spend is now common. Many companies have abandoned traditional media and gone online 100%. STA has some ways to go methinks! It’s not so much about the amount of the money spent on marketing, it’s more understanding HOW to use it.

My work with the PM and I’m sure in time with STA and others, will help rectify this but a lot of this is about UNDERSTANDING things and maturing as a country in how we market ourselves. These guys barely use the computer over here and certainly actual Internet usage is very limited, let alone advanced Internet Marketing techinques involving Social Media and Viral Marketing! Teaching about paradigm shifts doesn’t come easy when your audience is firmly entrenched in old-school thought and practice. Samoa has a long way to go. They may kick me out of the country for saying it but it doesn’t change the facts. I’ve also got a lot of patience, I shoot straight and I don’t give up easily!

The other thing notable by its absence was the Tsunami. The general sentiment seems to be, as PM Tuila’epa told John Campbell by phone is that “It’s old hat”, done and dusted, let’s get on with business as usual. I’ve got my own opinion on this, and it differs from the official take. I think that leaving the Tsunami out of the equation is a strategic mistake. Just as big smiles, German/NZ rule, rugby, church life, taro and Fa’a Samoa are an important part of the Samoa brand, I think that the Tsunami is now also engraved into it’s brand, whether it likes it or not. Even in ten years, if you would say Samoa in Uzbekistahn, they would return with the word Tsunami. Remember that there was around about a billion dollars worth of negative publicity last year.

This doesn’t mean that Samoa should actually market itself as the “Tsunami Country” forever, but it must recognise where the Palagi is coming from, and it clearly doesn’t understand the deep fears (and curiosity/goodwill) that exist in regards to Samoa as a destination. I’ll give you an example. If my daughter came up to Samoa and there was anything adverse – another earthquake, another Tsunami, another cyclone; or even if there was just the threat or scare of another “something” like this, and she got hurt in any way (even just a gash on her leg while running somewhere) I would get an earful or possibly much more from her mother within seconds. I’d be listening to things such as “Why the ***** did you have to take her to that place in the first place? Don’t you know that’s where they had the Tsunami?”

But, if we went to say the Gold Coast or Bali and she was actually killed in a Tsunami, or cyclone, her mother would have a totally different take on it. She’d be more along the lines of “Well that was just an act of God! You can’t really be held responsible.”

Now of course the reality is that the chances are the same either destination but the perception is different. People have feelings. Marketing of Samoa without recognising the unspoken fears and thoughts of the public shows a degree of blindness that will cost Samoa in the long-run with innefficiency and wasted marketing efforts. I’m not saying spend nothing and focus on the past, but it has to be addressed and acknowledged somehow.

Bruce Moffat from PolyBlue showed a truckload of energy and fast talk. His take on entering the LAX-APW route was very telling – don’t even think about it. He won’t touch it with a barge-pole. Wong planes (and most likely not profitable either!). They’ve got an interesting offer in the wings – an AIR PASS for $179NZD that will allow flexible flights around the Pacific – mainly suited for Northern Hemisphere travellers.

Air Pacific has taken a massive knock in the last financial year and is interested in touching the Samoan market. Ummm. That one doesn’t make sense to me. Fiji and Samoa are VERY different markets – it will never happen. The guy’s dreaming if he thinks people will fly into Nadi for a day or two – across to Samoa and then back again for another day or two and off to somewhere else.

A few interesting facts I noted:

  • There are 13,000 landlines in Samoa, down from 22,000.
  • Cell phones hit 105,000 with some customers having two for the two different networks.
  • There is a 58% penetration of the potential market and 95% coverage
  • Our Internet penetration? Have a guess . . . it’s ten percent, which I thought was a little high because I don’t see one in ten people with Internet access around me. I’d like to see that claim validated somehow.

The last point here is why Samoa just doesn’t “get” the use and power of the Internet, and why even with the new fibre cables running straight through the country, there is little point in fast-tracking anything technical in Samoa for immediate gains. Everything meaningful for the moment (and I mean years) will HAVE to be done from outside with outside expertise and labour. Our SWAP programme is right on the nail – setting up an infrastructure and systems to get people in to blog and photograph and network, and use outside expertise and labour to help put Samoa on the Map Internet.

It’s the ONLY way anyone will get it to work.

EPC the local Power Company spoke – Lord only knows why they got the nod ahead of Internet Marketing, but hey, I’ve been told to be positive. For the record Samoa’s power is an issue. I’ve got a simple solution – stick a nuke in the top of one of Savaii’s dormant volcanoes and they can export power to Fiji, Tonga and more for a massive profit, and solve all their power issues but my mates at MNRE would kill me saying that, so I won’t. You could also cover the island in windmills and solar panels. It would look ghastly but the greenies will be really pleased, so that’s the way things will probably go, my best guess.

A few points:

  • Samoa’s power is 38% hydro, the rest diesel with one small solar setup on Apolima
  • Diesel is 5% biodiesel but this is the same cost as imported diesel and diesel overall is 60% of their operating costs – quite exposed to money manipulators poking the price of diesel up again.
  • They cover 96% of the islands and run loss-making services to some of the rural areas

They’ve been playing with the idea of mains assisted Solar air-con. Good one! This really makes sense as Air-con is a major electricity use, especially in resorts and larger hotels where it is a major cost, well over 50% of their power usage is air-con.

Australian rep Michael had a motivation that was refreshing as well as an interest in trying to explain the Samoa brand’s personality without giving away the detail. I think he’s right. There is something alluring, at times intriguing about the magic of Samoa. It’s not a destination that should be marketed with the typical tourism glossies because that sets people up for unrealistic expectations.

That is THE biggest reason why so many people come here never to return. Expectations of another Bahamas or first class everything are time-bombs when in fact many people in the industry simply don’t care, or do things on the cheap. It’s an extraordinary experience is Samoa. It certainly will not change overnight – some of the old hands pull their hair out as year after year the same old stories and challenges are raised, so the marketing really needs to match the reality to have integrity and satisfied customers.

I enjoyed Richard’s first presentation for the literary delights within his talking. Listen to some of these words:

  • Showing off every version of blue – on the reef water
  • Fine distinguished people
  • Outrageous colour combinations – on the two-tone house colours
  • Generosity and Grandeur of nature
  • Sure of its values – as opposed to the vert fibre of society being changed by tourism, such as Bali
  • They will despoil, pollute & lay concrete
  • The mad rush to make everywhere look like everywhere else
  • Destinations that have survived the 20th century – Samoa could be one of them
  • Trembling ground rules – on the speed of change
  • The future arrives at the speed of light
  • Competitive edge – professional empowerment
  • Mind skills – collaboration, innovation, creativity – Hmm that may could out Samoa for a while!
  • Paradigm shifts – My topic and mantra
  • Group think – Again my interest
  • Signals for the future (change) – Richard is stealing my thunder again!
  • Voluntary simplicity – I’ve expereinced involuntary simplicity myself over the last year or so!
  • Fine-tunes its vision – on Samoa’s vision for the future

Delightful words, thank you Richard!

Overall, I missed a clear brand statement and therefore a focus for clear destination marketing. A lot of discussion at the previous Toursim Exchange revolved around what was our “message”. In 2009, just following the Tsunami, the topic was of course “where to from here?” but the theme actually turned out to be more of our AUTHENTICITY. Samoa is seen as a very real place and visitors like the authenticity of the experience. In 2011 the theme of the exchange was QUALITY. I don’t see quality resorts, or quality service, or high class in the sense of the Hilton here in Samoa (sure there are a few nice resorts here) but I did see the UNIQUE aspects of Samoa as a destination a focus of this year’s talk-fest.

There was no actual decision on the way they will be developing and marketing the Samoa brand but, I will be using the words something like; SAMOA, REAL . . . UNIQUE.

As with most modern Conferences we lacked meaningful interchange. It tended to be a lots of people out to work through their various powerPoint presentations come hell or high water with little regard for the time taken, but there were interesting points to pick up from the experience. I’d give it 5/10. Would have been 6/10 except for the AirNZ snub! I would have given last year’s event a good 9/10 by comparison.

The overall feeling I had coming away from this year was actually pretty neutral. I liked some of the new blood I saw, heard and met. I thought it was an OK event, maybe not a stellar moment in the history of Samoan Tourism, but certainly a step forward. As always it is the behind the scenes actions and decisions that really matter though. We’ll see in time where things go from here.

By STE 2011, it would be my goal to have something pretty meaningful have developed around the Social Media, Viral Marketing and the Voluntourism aspects of marketing Samoa. Anyone can stick up a FaceBook page, or a sexy website, or a blog, or Twitter Feeds, but if we do it smart using creative thinking and is it is resourced and supported from above, Samoa *could* make a pretty decent impact on the Internet. Let’s hope so!

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  1. Well, it’s now past six months into the 2011 year “ahead” you spoke of last December, and I don’t see Samoa taking advantage of many of your ideas in this article. It seems a pity that the opportunity to put some of these ideas into practice for the main 2011 tourist season has passed. What wasted opportunity! I am sure that many tourism operators could have done with extra business this season. Maybe if we start now we could boost some of the long off-season that awaits us ahead. If you could have benefited from this, start knocking on some doors and ask “Why” are we waiting?

    • For the record, this post is from someone who has “inside information” on our long wait to be able to work with the Samoan government, specifically in the Tourism sector. My wife (of course)


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