Scalability vs Uniqueness in Tourism

When people go about spending their money on holiday, there is often a difference between the uniqueness demanded by the tourists and the mass production actually supplied by the market.

I experienced this first hand last week in Venice. Keen to find the ‘best gelato in town’ I went to the effort of researching the best place, finding a map and taking time out of my day to go there on a hot Saturday afternoon. But when I finally found it, I was dismayed to find it was exactly the same as the random gelato I’d previously bought all over Venice. It all felt a bit hollow.

It seems the problem is that tourists want (expect?) the experiences and products we buy to be special, or even unique. And we are disappointed when we see what they have could have been bought from anywhere and are often centrally manufactured en masse.

From the retailers point of view the current situation does make sense. The goods/services are centrally produced, which is very efficient, and then retailers buy them up to sell on in their shops across the destination. Repeat custom for them is basically zero, so what matters is cost-effective production of a satisfactory product. There is no incentive to go beyond. They would rather enjoy the gain from lower costs over any improvement in quality that is over this threshold of what it takes to make the sale.  In the gelato example, there would be one or two suppliers to the area, and anyone wanting to open a gelato shop or a franchise would get the stuff from them at a great price. Unfortunately, this means my fairytale vision of hand-churned gelato crafted from secret recipes of yesteryear has been priced out of the market. Or if it did exist, the proprietor didn’t have the excess money to market it visibly enough. And it also means that all the shops are more or less carbon copies of one another – selling the same flavours from the same machines into the same pots.

However – forgetting retailers for a moment – if you are a tour operator, being able to offer ‘special’ will bring you repeat customers as well as referrals and a USP.  Since you offer tours across several countries, it doesn’t matter that your customer is in Venice today and Paris next month – you can still sell to them over many years of a good relationship. Whereas the retailer in Venice only has eyes for the next customer as soon as you’re heading back for your return flight. The challenge is finding a scalable way to offer special goods/services.

One way to do this would be to find all the fairytale gelato shops – the guys who are running a great, differentiated product/service, but as a result probably lack the marketing power to punch through the viscous quagmire of mass produced and heavily marketed competitors.  Then use the fact that tourists will be indifferent between a range of activities. Unless the person has come for a very specific reason, in general people like to fill up their holidays with:

– eating nice things

– doing cool activities

– seeing interesting sights

– shopping

There is a broad array of possibilities that can satisfy these very loose requirements. So rather than worrying how to scale one experience to 1,000 customers a week, on-board 9 others and keep them serving 100 each. So long as there’s a robust system of organising bookings and availability, such that fully-booked activities are never shown, then what a customer never knew existed can’t generate feelings of disappointment. They can happily choose from the remaining options of great options run in a way that make them feel special, and maybe even unique.

It seems an impossible goal, though, because uniqueness and scalability are pretty much on opposite ends of the scale, by definition almost. But there is a balance somewhere in between which won’t usurp the mass production model, but can certainly rise above it and occupy its own space in the market.



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