Should a destination’s marketing efforts focus on creating a single, one-stop Web site or on cultivating lots of little ones?
One apparent answer from many who have marketed travel seems clear: collect enough information about an attraction and the visitors will follow, both virtually and in real life.
Big catalogs, big adverting campaigns, and big media events are industry institutions. Because the formula works so well in traditional media, why not assume it will do the same online?
But bigger isn’t better in cyberspace. On an open platform like the Web, trying to reach a critical mass accomplishes the exact opposite. It turns more users away than it attracts, it ignores the organic, almost anarchistic ways of the Internet, and it doesn’t take advantage of the one-to-one marketing the Internet makes so easy.
Consider Wales. The destination competes with the rest of Britain and Europe for the attention of Internet visitors. An official British Tourist Authority Web site exists, but the country is promoted by many dozens of niche Web projects.
These unsanctioned sites aren’t always welcomed by the powers that be. As one official complained, “some sites tend to be too political, too much on the fringes.” But they work.
One noteworthy presence is Castles of Wales, administered by Baltimore Web designer Jeff Thomas. “Larger sites certainly have their place on the Internet providing information, but well done smaller sites always seem more interesting,” he says. “As long as they don’t fall into certain traps that tend to make many ‘personal pages’ seem a bit frivolous, they work.”
The site administered by Thomas is decidedly poignant and apolitical. It features photos and brief histories of some of Wales’ most splendid castles. It’s smartly designed and immensely entertaining. And best of all, tourist authorities didn’t pay a pence for it.
The British Tourist Authority also didn’t fund David Dibble’s World Wide Wales project, even though the site is useful, comprehensive, and promotional. The U.K.-based Web artist says he posted the pages more out of personal interest than profit motive.
“I feel that most of the really interesting sites come from people with a passion and a belief in what they publish,” he says. “I can convey my passion for my country and my culture. I’m not bound by commercial considerations nor by a need to appear politically correct. I can say what I feel, publish and be damned.”
Dibble is on to something. Any page with a commercial veneer is instantly subjected to heavy user scrutiny. Slick graphics make Net surfers wonder if there’s a subliminal message somewhere on the site urging them to buy a product, use a service, or visit a destination.
Unofficial Web sites, on the other hand, usually get a warm reception online. Their underground tone speaks to the visitor in a language that every citizen of cyberspace can understand-a folksy, self-deprecating, informal talk that no corporate copywriter could mimic.
The Webmaster for Wales’ official site didn’t return my calls before this column went to press, and attempts to access its server were unsuccessful. But Wales’ remains intact, thanks to people like Dibble and Thomas. It would probably serve Britain and other destinations well to extend these info-preneurs every courtesy as they undertake the research necessary to build their pages.