Tourism Austria ventured into the Web 2.0 world by partnering with a Media company in the creation of CoolAustria.com, a full fledged Social Travel Website. Karin Schmollgruber asked me for my thoughts.
Well, it’s a very ambitious effort. I have to guess what the objectives of the website are. I assume it’s to create a network of residents and past travelers who generate ideas and assist other travelers, primarily in a younger demographic.
It’s impressive from a technology perspective. It has integrated some traditional community tools such as a message board with Web 2.0. hallmarks such as a tag cloud folksonomy and a Google Map Mashup. Oddly enough, RSS/Atom feeds are missing from the party, but that’s in the works apparently.
Success for this venture will depend on the success of Metcalfe’s law (the value of a network is proportional to the square number of users of the system). There has to be a user population that’s large enough to attract and be of value to passive users and turn them into active users.
To create a large enough user population, the website needs to be useful and usable. Successful social websites on a large scale such as MySpace have reached their population in part by creating a necessity to sign up. It’s useful because can passively read your friends information, but in order to communicate with your friends (additional usefulness), you have to sign up. MySpace doesn’t look pretty, but it’s easy enough to use (usability).
I hope that CoolAustria.com is useful and usable enough to be successful. I hope that there is enough appetite for users to become part of a “traveling in Austria” community. I hope the entry barrier is low enough (e.g. allow for anonymous questions) and the usability of the site is high enough so users who want to, can easily participate. I hope there will be an active marketing campaign to kick-start the community.
CoolAustria.com is a ‘big bang’ approach to create a social network. Our strategy at Tourism BC is to take it one step at a time, and fully integrate the User Generated Content into our official website. I’m going to keep a close eye on CoolAustria.com and I wish them great success.
Based on own Easter European trip planning experience while I was there, mobile devices are changing everything, guidebooks are still king, visitor centres your best friend, and hotel concierges a valuable resource (even if you don’t stay at their hotel).
As I previously posted, planning our itinerary for our month long European vacation was complicated, but I managed to nail down the dates, flights and accommodation. Most of the details, we worked out during our trip.
Communication with friends and family is always an important part of travel. I remember as a kid that once during our family vacation, my Mom got to call her sister once every trip. We had to look for a place where you could make an international phone call and while my Mom was getting updates about the dog, my Dad would be pacing around, looking at his watch and wondering how much this was going to cost him. Things have changed.
Internet Cafes are everywhere and they’re packed. People use the internet to email, IM, blog, post on their MySpace or Facebook, social travel networks and other ways more to communicate with their loved ones (and anonymous blog visitors). I’m part of this crowd. But this trip was the first time that my Blackberry took over. I was emailing, using my Gmail client, IM-ing and posting on my blog, including pictures. I only went to an internet café a few times. On previous trips, finding the internet café was the first thing This time, there was less need.
My blackberry was also my itinerary keeper. All my confirmations for accommodation and flights were stored and I used it to communicate with accommodation when I realized night trains arrive brutally early. I managed to get an early check-in every time via email. And I used the Google Maps client to find the exact location of accommodation, attractions and restaurants.
For planning our day-to-day activities, I brought my Rick Steve’s guide to Eastern Europe guidebook, I also bought an Eyewitness guidebook for Prague, and my sister gave me a Lonely Planet guide for Budapest. I also downloaded a few podcasts on my iPod.
Rick’s guidebook, proven to be very useful at home while planning my itinerary, became useless during my trip. Because it covers so many places, information about things to do and see became to generic. The long tail of guidebooks.
My Lonely Planet for Budapest was perfect, it was well written, provided more then enough information about the highlights, guided tours and special interest. But it was thin, probably so it’s easy to carry. So again, only the “head” of information was provided. But this is where the Blackberry came in. I was looking up all kinds of stuff on the internet for more information, in particular on Wikipedia. The guidebook provided an easy way to plan our day and the internet provided details on the spot.
In Prague, we had an Eyewitness guidebook. I was very excited about it because it looks so pretty. Colorful pages, with a lot of pictures, 3D overviews of buildings, pictorial maps of squares and more. But I quickly realized that the look and feel got in the way of content. There was hardly any room for information. If I’m standing and looking at the real thing, I don’t need a pictorial of the thing I’m looking at with a one sentence overview, I need more words. So I bought another Lonely Planet for the proven Lonely Planet/Blackberry combo.
In Salzburg, Ljubljana and Krakow, I had to rely on Steve and even though the book provided decent information, I felt like I missed out. In Salzburg, the front desk of the hotel had a tear-off map of Salzburg, with the main sights and attractions numbered. So we started at #1 and work our way down. On the map was an ad for a phone audio tours. Phone a number, press the number on the map and receive a guided tour. Brilliant.
When I got stuck a couple of times (Google maps didn’t work in Ljubljana and we couldn’t figure out the bus in Krakow), we went to the local Visitor Centres. I think it’s universal that people who work in Visitor Centres are the nicest people in town. In most cases, they treat you like family.
I also use hotels all the time when I travel, even when I don’t stay there. Most of their staff members are trained customer service professionals with a passion of assisting travelers. So if your request isn’t too insane, they’ll often help you. So we’ve checked our bags at hotels, used them to call taxis, asked for direction (one woman from the Marriot walked us around for 10 minutes when we were lost), and got some band aids when Sheri had a blister.
I also downloaded some podcasts. I had a Budapest podcast from Frommers, and iPod Traveler. I didn’t like them at all. The Frommers podcast was an interview with the editor of their Hungary book and didn’t do more than stating the obvious and iPod Traveler was painful to listen to. I stopped midway through. The first 10 minutes were wasted by talking about their website and trying to be funny. Then they started arguing about facts. Those are 15 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.
Based on own Easter European trip planning experience, destination websites suck, social websites are good, paper guidebooks are very helpful, mapping services, transportation and accommodation metasearch websites rule.
When we decided on our vacation this year, the plan was to go to Eastern Europe, but we didn’t exactly know where. Our itinerary depended on time, transportation and what suits us the most. I have a lot of places I want to see in Eastern Europe and we had to visit my family in Amsterdam and meet up with Sheri’s in Austria. So we had no idea what the best itinerary would be.
Using tourism information websites to get a sense of priority for places to visit was almost impossible. According to EVERY destination website, it is THE place for culture, entertainment, and the culinary center of the universe. So I stopped visiting them in this phase of my planning. I did read a bunch of experiences on peer review websites such as IgoUgo and Gusto. That gave me a better idea of what was going on in the destinations, but it did lack a bit of authority.
Out of frustration with tourism websites, I went to my local bookstore and bought a guidebook. So I bought Rick Steve’s guide to Eastern Europe/”. This is exactly what I needed, and his website is helpful as well. Here’s somebody who has some authority (he’s been traveling to Europe forever) and is also not afraid to recommend the top things, warning about where not to go, and capture the real essence of each place. He also had some great tips and tools for transportation.
Our shortlist was long so transportation would be an important factor in finalizing our itinerary. We decided to use the train or the budget airlines in Europe. Destination websites were useless again. Just a list of airports and airlines is not helpful; it takes me 2 seconds in Google to find that information. I did find some other resources on Ricks website and message boards and found two very handy websites:< br />
So with the help of primarily Rick, a few message boards and a few transportation websites, I locked down our itinerary. I booked our flights, both to Europe with BA, and in Europe with Easyjet. The BA website is absolutely fantastic by the way. Booking train travel online can’t be done. There are travel agencies in North America but the message boards told me they overcharge. Rick told me to just buy tickets in Europe. And he was right, thanks Rick.
Next was accommodation. I must have looked at 40 or 50 websites. The main criteria were location, location, location. I wanted to be in the city center. Rick recommended some places but the long tail of the internet, combined with traveler reviews prevailed.
To select an accommodation, I had one tab in my browser to find an accommodation option. Another tab was reserved for (a href=” http://maps.live.com”>live.com maps (I found it easier to located addresses then Google Maps) to see the location in the city. Another tab was for Tripadvisor, although some booking services also offered traveler reviews (hostelworld does a great job).
I didn’t even bother with Expedia, Travelocity or Hotels.com anymore. It was all Kayak. Kayak became my benchmark for further exploration. I used Kayak to book a hotel in London and Salzburg. In Ljubljana and Krakow, I ended up finding good hostels on hostelworld.com, also found through Kayak. In Budapest I found a website that facilitates apartment rental and I found a similar service in Prague. This saved some money because you don’t have to pay for all the hotel amenities we didn’t really care for anyways. Another nice thing about this is that we lived in a residential building. Made us feel less like a tourist.
Now that the itinerary was locked down, planning details in each city was hard. Destination websites, again, told me everything was wonderful and tried to sell me packages and other stuff I’m not interested in. And how hard is it to put a map on a website? I gave up. I’m not much of a detailed planner so I decided to wing it and figure it out when we got there.