OPINION: Taiwan's Tourism Strategy Overlooks the Age of Influence

OPINION: Taiwan's Tourism Strategy Overlooks the Age of Influence
Credit: Taiwan Tourism Board

What you need to know

Taiwan's Tourism Bureau should work with influencers over agencies.

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau's (TTB) most recent scandal began, as so many modern implosions do, with Twitter beef. Kathy Cheng, who runs Taipei-centric blog Tricky Taipei, wrote a post about her run-in with the enigmatic, spellcheck-deprived forces behind the horrendous @TripToTaiwan account.

The Twitter account is officially linked to the TTB; marking a new low in the bureau's history of amateur, incoherent and disjointed promotional initiatives. The posts championing Taiwanese “wishky” and “dirty chocolate bread” were quickly scrubbed from the @TripToTaiwan account, but not before the story was shared by a variety of outlets: Apple Daily, network television (TTV), and even the Facebook pages of media personalities.

Though I had not previously known about the existence of the @TripToTaiwan Twitter, the TTB’s complicity in its cringe-worthy content hardly surprised me. In February of this year, I had two meetings with the TTB, including a lengthy sit-down with the International Affairs Division Director Cheng Ying-huei (鄭瑛惠), and its Section Chief, Joseph Cheng (國際組).

Credit: Tricky Taipei
The infamous 'wishky' post.

Since 2012, I’ve been working as a writer and digital producer covering Taipei for a variety of hospitality brands and travel media outlets, as well as covering Taipei-centric content on my own blog The Thousandth Girl. A contact affiliated with the TTB had read some of my work and arranged a meeting, ostensibly to explore possible ways I could collaborate with them on a freelance basis.

I had the initial meet-and-greet with TTB executives at their offices inside Taoyuan Airport. We discussed the bureau's goals for the coming year. Ironically, there was a strong emphasis on strengthening the TTB’s English-language promotional efforts. They also spoke of a general atmosphere of anxiety due to declining tourism from China (down 24.5 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year) in the wake of deteriorating cross-Strait relations. However, there has been a significant uptick in tourists from one particular region – tourism to Taiwan from Southeast Asia increased by over 30 percent in 2017, fueled in part by growth of budget airlines and an upwardly mobile middle-class.

After the meeting at the airport, we scheduled a follow-up at TTB’s headquarters, for which I prepared a short presentation with a number of suggestions on how the TTB could better utilize social media in promoting tourism to Taiwan.

It’s no secret that leveraging channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are crucial in attracting Southeast Asian tourists: Indonesia is ranked fourth in number of Instagram users worldwide, with Singapore and Malaysia not far behind.

Yet the TTB representatives exhibited a baffled reaction throughout my presentation. “We have agencies that handle our social media,” they kept repeating in response to my suggestions. “We have contracts with them.”

The recent rash of media coverage mocking the Tourism Bureau's social media channels shows that the channel is clearly not being “handled” and that major changes to these contracts are well past due. Despite assurances that she would follow up after the second meeting, I never heard from the (TTB) director again. In the wake of the media attention the TTB is now receiving, I wanted to reiterate the suggestions that I presented to them:

1. Set content guidelines and key performance indicators (KPIs) for social media that apply to the work of agencies across all official tourism channels:

The ever-evolving landscape of social media can be daunting; there is a reason that media agencies are paid big bucks to help navigate it. But there is no excuse to hire lousy agencies that burn the budget on half-cooked initiatives and ineffective giveaway campaigns.

Case in point: New York-based agency Tiger Party, which since being hired by the TTB branch office in New York has rolled out a series of budget-burning initiatives, such as buy-in billboard space in Times Square for a poorly-publicized video chat between Taipei and New York City (600 views on YouTube and counting).

The founder of this agency contacted me a month later via email: “Hihi,” the message began. “I like ur blog, do u have time for a quick conference call for the Taiwan tourism promotion that we r working on.” Curious, I agreed to a call, but never received a reply. There have been similar disappointments from other agencies the TTB has hired: New Base Content in Singapore and Brighter Group promoting Taiwan Tourism in the UK.

But lackluster agencies are only half of the issue. Casting a critical eye on the agencies’ output is a start, but fails to address an alarming lack of awareness within the Tourism Bureau itself. Is there even anyone at TTB headquarters that understands social media, and sets effective KPIs for the agencies it hires?

It is time to switch out the agencies currently “executing” digital marketing and PR work for the TTB. But in order to keep this embarrassment from happening again, an “overseer” role needs to be created in order to ensure that promotional channels of both domestic and overseas offices have a cohesive tone. A few suggestions for this new hire: someone under 30, a heavy user of social media, and a demonstrated ability to use both Google and spellcheck.

Credit: Tricky Taipei
The work of the agencies engaged by the Taiwan Tourism Board leaves a lot to be desired

2. Work on organic social media growth through collaborations with local content creators:

The current state of the TTB's official social media channels may be atrocious, but the good news is that there are plenty of Taipei-based, English-language content creators that the Tourism Bureau can collaborate with to organically build a following on its own social media channels; a far more effective use of the marketing budget.

Here is a list of suggestions: The @TaipeiEats Instagram account has over 50,000 followers on the strength of delectable images of Taiwanese treats from night markets and street stalls across the city. It is run by the founder of a series of English-language Taipei food tours under the same name.

Then there is Joan of food blog Hungry in Taipei, who has consistently covered Taipei’s dining scene in English for over a decade. “In all my years of blogging, I’ve never been contacted by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau,” she told The News Lens. That's a shame given she cannily followed the shift in the food media landscape from blogs to Instagram and now boasts 47,000 active followers at @hungryintaipei.

Instead of recycling sterile stock images of Taiwan’s main attractions, how about adopting a similar approach to Instagram accounts such as @iseetaiwan (76.3K followers) and @exploretaiwan (53.5K), both of which curate a never-ending stream of tantalizing images of Taiwan shared by travelers using the #exploretaiwan and #iseetaiwan hashtags.

This is but a taste of the talent that is available – imagine how their combined following of hundreds of thousands of people around the world could potentially be used in a Taiwan Tourism initiative.

3. Explore the potential of collaboration with hospitality brands:

The fate of Taiwan’s hospitality sector is inextricably tied to fluctuating tourism trends. In the face of an anxiety-laden climate over declining tourism from China, hotels are still springing up at a robust rate: the InterContinental Hotels Group has a 14-story property opening this year, and the Park Hyatt and Andaz Hotels are slated to open in the Taipei Sky Tower in 2020.

There is scant history of hospitality brands in Taiwan collaborating with the Tourism Bureau, but amid pressure to put “heads in beds” in an increasingly competitive market, the sector is ripe for social-media-driven partnerships that combine the budgets of hotel marketing departments and the Tourism Bureau to create coherent and effective marketing buzz.

Hotels in Taiwan are no stranger to this kind of activation: In 2016, W Taipei collaborated with travel magazine SUITCASE to put on The Taipei Exchange, which brought five influencers with strong social media followings to experience and create content on the best of Taiwanese food, design and culture. When the Hyatt and InterContinental groups begin their own marketing push, wouldn’t it be great to see the Taiwan Tourism Board involved?

4. Social media strategy, hashtags, influencer trips:

In 2018, these ideas are not groundbreaking territory, and the tourism entities of Taiwan’s neighboring countries and feeder markets are putting them into effect.

Moreover, other countries have recognized and are utilizing the talent of Taiwan-based influencers to promote their own tourism initiatives. Leslie Liu, who runs the Instagram account @TaipeiFoodie, was invited by an agency working on behalf of Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism last summer on a PR initiative entitled “Trip of Wonders” – alongside nine other influencers. “Everyone on the trip has over 70,000 followers each, so I estimate that collectively we reached around 700-800,000 people,” she said.

Fun fact: Despite her extremely localized username, Leslie has never been approached by anyone at the Taiwan Tourism Bureau either. Taiwanese talent being lured out of the country with the offer of bigger opportunities: does this situation sound familiar?

What is the official hashtag of the TTB? Right now, I would say that it’s #wastedpotential, or perhaps simply just #shame. Taiwan Tourism Bureau, it’s time to make some major changes if you want to promote tourism in Southeast Asia and have your official social media channels start enticing clicks, not cringes.

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Editor: David Green