CHIANG RAI, 23 August 2018: Tourism Malaysia has been cutting branch offices to save costs for more than a year now.
It started by axing its office in New York and three others in Australia, Europe and South Africa in January 2017.
Then it quickly axed its chain of 14 domestic offices claiming it was duplicating the role of state tourism offices.
But is there a pattern emerging here that will see more national tourist organisations in Asia rethink their expensive overseas networks?
Last March, India announced it was reducing it overseas offices from 14 to eight office, while concentrating promotions through hub cities, citing Singapore and Dubai, London and Frankfurt as examples.
This is an era of disruption when what we cherish is challenged and often replaced by more intelligent and cost effective solutions.
Looking at Malaysia’s vast network of 30 overseas offices, you can see why someone in government would challenge the status quo. Annually, each office costs an estimated USD16.5 million to keep open and a quick count of the staff listed on the Tourism Malaysia website shows it has 157 people on its overseas payroll including clerks and drivers at 30 international locations.
That’s amazing in today’s digital era where so many of the typical tourism office roles have become redundant.
Take a closer look at some of the typical functions of overseas tourist offices. Obviously, technology, online news, has taken over B2B trade communications from print. Reaching out socially to travel agents to create new tour packages is essential, but who visits offices these days when you are just an email or a Facebook post apart?
If you ask a tourist office director what’s the main role of the office he is likely to reply; “building bridges to consumers to create awareness and demand”.
To achieve that social media tools can be managed from remote locations and an expensive downtown office suite becomes irrelevant. All you need is a Facebook account and a mobile phone that takes videos. That cuts out the high street address, the company car, driver clerk and secretary for sure.
I can count the times I have met a Thailand-based Tourism Malaysia director on one hand; it’s twice in 10 years. One of the visitations was here in Chiang Rai by accident in 2012. The director was playing in a golf tournament and had a couple of hours to kill.
It is understandable. Promotions of note are outsourced to an expensive public relations agency, while the need to communicate directly with media is carefully curated to just a few occasions, a briefing slotted into the calendar or perhaps packaged with the annual thank-you raffle party for travel agents.
For the rest of it, a remote office with a hotline telephone numbers that connect you to various country market “experts” would do just fine. Better still if the country experts signed up for Skype account they could communicate face-to-face with trade partners and media without it costing them a single cent. As for their real-time office location that becomes irrelevant.
Frankly, tourism office directors are often the worst communicators. They see themselves as ambassadorial, quasi diplomats rather than down-to-earth promoters and influencers who have targets to reach and people to meet.
Ironically, if the mission is building awareness, communicating and reaching out to the travel trade, then it starts by answering emails, posting the latest information on a website and using social media tools and apps to their fullest.
Tourism offices are not accomplishing that by a long chalk. They are in danger of being outperformed by ‘chatbots’ while online data, apps and the advances of artificial intelligence are hastening the day of redundancy. No surprises overseas tourism offices are on the chopping block.