In 1992, Steinman launched Active America, the forerunner to North American Journeys, following an 18-year career as co-founder and publisher of City Sports, a chain of regional sports and recreation travel magazines. Accompanying his duties as president and C.E.O. of TourOperatorLand and North American Journeys, Steinman is the Editor-in-Chief of two industry newsletters—Inbound and The Travel Vertical—as well as chairman of Active America Travel Summit, E-Tourism Summit, and NAJ Tour Operators Summits West and East.
In our latest interview of the series, I sat down with Jake Steinman to speak about how he got into the tourism industry, what gaps he saw in the industry that inspired him to found his business, eTourism Summit, and some of the hurdles facing tourism today.
When did you first get into the travel and tourism industry?
I had a magazine company and an event company that I sold in 1993. Being too young to retire and wanting to get into something where I could write off travel, I started North American Journeys (NAJ) with one of my writers from the magazine. He was an expert on the travel and ski industry in Japan. I tagged along with him to Japan in 1993 as he was interviewing people for a story on a new “outdoor” oriented shopping mall five stories below the Osaka train station. I watched as he interviewed people whose singular dream was to travel to America for skiing or golf. One thing led to another, and we created Active America Japan, an event that promoted tourism to the US from Japan.
During the seventh year, we held an itinerary contest where destinations submitted itineraries. We had Japanese tour operators rate them. After the award ceremony, tour operators were approaching me to ask if they could xerox these itineraries for their 300 travel agent offices around Japan. I realized this was something they really wanted. So, the next year we created a coffee table book containing only itineraries. The following year, we dropped all the itineraries into a website, now called Touroperatorland.com, to showcase to the trade. This was around 2000. I had no idea what to do with a website, so we created a conference, eTourism Summit. It was almost as a ruse so I could learn how to market this website. It began to take on a life of its own after we moved it to San Francisco permanently in 2011.
eTourism Summit has been around for almost two decades. How have you evolved it as technology, digital marketing strategies, and travel have evolved?
We used to bring in speakers from platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to introduce attendees to marketing tools. Now, DMOs are less interested in hearing FROM platforms and more ABOUT them from peers who have used them. As a result, it’s evolved into a “show and tell” platform where their peers are sharing experiences about new campaigns and solutions. Attendees get inspired with new ideas and mitigate the risk of trying new technology. This year, I’ve found 25-30 DMOs whose management gives them the freedom to try new vendors and campaigns and won’t get fired if they fail.
What kind of digital marketing trends in tourism do you expect to see in 2018?
There are three main trends that we see. DMOs want alternatives to the duopoly of Google and Facebook, which get more expensive each year. They are open to taking 10-20% of their media budget and experimenting.
The second is social media and content marketing conflating with PR, especially influencer marketing. You can go to some online agencies and put in specifications like “travel influencer with 1 million followers.” We’re learning that PR people can build relationships with these influencers, similar to what they have with traditional media. Instead of paying a normal rate, they can offer the influencer a free trip and have someone not only create content but amplify it to their follower base. They are turned loose to do their own thing to create content for their followers while promoting a destination. The influencers have a media following and ability to create and distribute content.
The third trend is accountability and performance. DMOs are interested in how to prove incremental visitation that’s aligned with consumer campaigns. It’s one thing to show the impressions served, but it gets tricky trying to relate it to incrementality because it can be hard to prove. As a result, they are relegated to a “cocktail” approach. They use multiple vendors to address the ROI their stakeholders find credible. One tourism director said their board asked for a fourth-party vendor to verify data provided by their third-party vendor. The board thought it seemed too good to be true.
What are some of the biggest hurdles facing tourism in the next year?
For DMOs, one hurdle is getting more budget for digital marketing. Their senior executives have relationships with print magazines, TV, and other legacy media. They’ve built relationships through wining and dining the decision makers. Now, they’re trying to evaluate whether they can take money out of TV and print to put into digital.
Another hurdle is understanding how to staff a digital department. This includes where various responsibilities lie while deciding what should be outsourced and what can be done in-house.
What is the best trip/vacation you’ve ever taken?
I just got back from a month in Morocco, Spain, and France. In Morocco, I spent 10 days, two of which I camped out in the desert. I spent an hour with a nomadic family who lived in the desert and rode camels. It was tough, being in 110-degree weather in the desert.
To see that and talk about that is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. My experiences that have been the most difficult are really the most interesting. And, right now, everything is about experience and authenticity. This experience in Morocco changed the way I look at future trips. I’m considering visiting Ecuador, the rainforest, and a lot of other places I didn’t consider before.