Are we distracted by our mobiles

SINGAPORE, 6 December 2019: My morning browse of the news as I sip double shot espresso suffered a distraction when a report in Singapore’s Channel News Asia daily identified the scourge of “distracted walking.”  

This is a new phenomenon, but I suspect it has been around for decades without anyone bothering to give it a name.

‘Distracted walking’ occurs when pedestrians amble along pavements, heads down eyes glued to their mobile phones and oblivious of their surroundings. The worst-case scenario, crossing a busy road junction eyes down, is potentially a fatal habit that has found its way into a new traffic police advisory in an update of Singapore’s Highway Code, 1 December.

Explaining the obvious, pedestrians should avoid using mobile communication devices while crossing the road, says the Highway Code advisory.

Reminds me that the mobile distraction filters through to tourism marketing. It gives a new lease of life to jaded marketing gurus who are now masters of theatrics and trivia. They are the industry’s con artists who wine and dine on the dribs and dabs of a few Facebook likes. But the emphasis on all that is mobile goes much further to the point tourism, and hospitality companies believe mobile apps and social media are lifesavers. It’s a distraction that breeds travel and hospitality sales executives who have lost the art of networking or reaching out to real people. Social skills and spending time interacting with people becomes a lost art.

For example, when you send an email to one of Southeast Asia’s leading national tourist offices, the responses are anonymous. A department with a number communicates. It could be PR div1 up to 3 depending on the subject, but invariably it could have been a chatbot?  On some rare occasions, you might be able to coax a real person’s name out of the digital conversation. An entire department assigned to the task of reaching out appears to be achieving anonymity.

As with all distractions, the cure lies in restoring balance and humanising what has become machine fed. The sheer volume of social media posts flogging cheap airline fares and hotel deals is overwhelming, and when you ask a hotel did the social media campaign work, they are often distracted by the ‘likes’ while omitting to check real-time bookings.

In our enthusiasm to be fashionable with all the bells and whistles of the latest social media campaigns, are we ignoring other channels such as tour operators or travel agents?

Sure tour operators need to reimagine their business models. That is crystal clear from the failure of Thomas Cook. But travel firms are still important players. We can easily be distracted by the noise, but the reality for many hotels in Southeast Asia remains; tour operators represent the 30% booking factor. They generate a steady flow of bookings that keeps a healthy occupancy ticking over. A sales director who has cultivated strong links with tour operators and knows how to work trade shows, network and make friends in the trade tops up the business without even a hint of Facebook likes.  They know the power of friendship and achieving a balance in their market mix.

Distracted walkers are told to “lookup” by stickers painted on pavements and posts. Might be a suitable message for tourism and hospitality executives, too. They peer all day long at their mobiles when they should be out meeting tour operators and communicating face-to-face, rather relying on texts and apps.