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The importance of data-driven decisions continues to sit at the forefront of DMOs' marketing strategies throughout the industry, with a growing emphasis on how this insight is increasingly valuable when it comes to anticipating visitor behaviour and shaping communication strategies.

Earlier this year, The Government of the City of Buenos Aires presented the new Tourist Intelligence System (SIT). A platform on which information on tourism and big data is open and available for both public and private sectors.

We explore the use of valuable data from multiple touchpoints in the visitor journey to shape the destination experience and understand tourism flows to manage the destination's tourism supply, and develop a marketing strategy around key data insights.

We caught up with Federico Esper, General Direction of Market Intelligence and Observatory at Buenos Aires City Government, to find out more about what big data is, how destinations can implement it into their strategies, and what the challenges may be.

1. In one simple sentence - what is big data?

In the simplest terms, “big data” could be defined as large volumes of data, but although there’s no universally agreed upon its definition, I can tell you we consider a broader scope. In this sense, when we use the term “big data” we refer to the volume of our newest information sources as well as its nature or origin, based on unstructured data generated by people’s interactions on the web and social media, or by using electronic gadgets like cellular phones, or even digital activity as credit card consumptions, among others.

2. How can destinations benefit from this?

Big data sources can offer destinations insights into visitors’ behaviour that would be complex and maybe even impossible to get from traditional surveys. There’s practically no way, for example, to economically implement a survey to find visitors’ patterns of movement across a city like Buenos Aires, but it’s relatively simple to understand tourism flows if you measure their presence in different areas from their phones connecting to a telecommunication company’s antenna. It’s likewise complex to study which days (of the week, of the month) people search for airline tickets to Buenos Aires or other cities in the region through a well-sampled global survey, but it could be much easier if you have access to the information of GDS related to searches and bookings worldwide. You can then use that information to, for example, manage the destination’s tourism supply and to design your marketing plan addressing different strategies for specific markets.

It is important to remind the kind of bias your big data source could have, because not everyone pays for roaming and not everyone buys tickets through a GDS. This means that you should complement it with other types of sources, like well-planned surveys to measure the universe of your visitors and more qualitative oriented research to understand in depth the roots of the behaviour you are encountering online or on the ground.

3. How can destinations effectively roll this out across the destination as a whole?

Destinations have different industry stakeholders and data sources, but ideally, a DMO should open their data and reports to other stakeholders, so that their analysis of visitor behaviour can impact positively on the public and private tourism policy and strategies.  This means not only making the data accessible online but ideally offer simple ways to analyze it and raise awareness to businesses and managers of the opportunities they taking data-driven decisions. This, in turn, will benefit the visitors’ experience and allow the destination to grow as a whole.

About the Sistema de Inteligencia Turística: 

4. Were there any major barriers in the introduction of the Tourist Intelligence System?

There were certainly barriers, as any project of this size and complexity surely has. It was a long process that entailed a lot of patience from the DMO’s authorities, and a slow learning curve for the in-house team. There were hardware barriers (getting better computers, for example) and data-related difficulties: a lot of back and forth with data producers until we were getting what we needed in the format we needed it on. We’re in fact still learning with every new source.

We’re in fact still learning with every new source.

I think the key of the success of this project was twofold: the political support, which is necessary at all stages of the process, and the absolute compromise of all our team of professionals which constantly tried their best to overcome difficulties. And of course I should mention the support of the National Secretariat for Tourism of Argentina, who gave us financially support at the beginning, as well as SEGITTUR Spain who was our international partner and we´ve got truly satisfied about working in close cooperation with them.

5. The site publishes up to 820 million records - that is a substantial amount of data! Are there any challenges with this volume of data?

One of the main challenges was how to present in a simple and understandable way all the millions of records we have.

And of course it also requires a change in the process from being able to load and analyze a survey with statistical software like Stata or R. We answered this challenge by getting team members who write ETL (extract, transform and load) processes to extract the data and the derived measures from the data (basically just results derived from the raw data by simple mathematical operations). This process ends in the data loaded into a data warehouse in SQL, and then we create the dashboards with interactive graphics to facilitate the analysis.

6. How do organisations go about processing the data that is most relevant to their business and sector?

I would say it really depends on the organization. In our case, we work in close cooperation with industry leaders and tourism associations, as well as other areas of local government and teammates of the DMO. This contributes very much to listen to their specific needs and allow us to prioritize what information sources we attempt to obtain and what type of analysis and reports we would elaborate. We intend to provide concrete solutions for each demand for information.

7. The main benefit is, of course, a greater depth of knowledge and understanding to shape future strategies. What is the biggest success you have seen so far, as a direct result of the SIT?

I think one of our biggest success has been our analysis of online comments related to hotel establishments in Buenos Aires and other foreign cities, from which we identified the need of improvement of the hotel infrastructure in order to become more competitive at a regional level. Therefore, this research gave impetus to a tax incentive law for hotel investment which was approved some months ago. At this stage, there are already 15 hotels that pledged to invest around AR$368m and other 30 hotels have shown interest in doing so.

8. How is new data communicated to partners?

We upload new information to the Tourism Intelligence System so that anyone who accesses it can analyze it. Furthermore, we have periodic meetings with other areas of the DMO and the government, as well as private and academic stakeholders, where we present results and inform them about our plans. These events also represent very good opportunities to interchange ideas about how our data could contribute to taking better decisions for tourism development. We will also launch a newsletter with the Tourism Intelligence System news.

9. Based on your experience, what is your advice for other destinations looking to implement a similar system within their destination?

First, you should consider on what type of destination we’re talking about (whether a city or a country, urban or rural), what information sources it already has and what kind of financial and political support it can get for the technical team and data sources.

Then it is important for the destination to formulate the correct questions and to consider what they want to know, I mean they should think what are the basic tourism data they would like to have according to their tourism plan and strategies.

In this regard, I would start by creating the team with the right technical know-how and then negotiate access to data sources that the destination might get freely, like national databases of other governmental bodies or databases with information from private organizations that might offer them in exchange of receiving reports or signing collaboration agreements, as well as any database the Destination Management Organization already has in its possession and is not being analyzed (this often occurs). After that, the next steps should be focused on analyzing if the destination needs more information, and what kind, and from where it might get it.

For all this complex process, I strongly recommend making the information accessible to all, in order to let private, public and academic stakeholders use it and take efficient data-driven decisions for tourism development of the destination.

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