Introduction: The purpose of this study is to investigate how to optimize tourists’ experience. Four constructs are identified, by means of which tourist experiences may be ascertained and optimized: mindfulness, a state of mind wherein tourists are engaged with their surroundings; experience-based approaches to evaluating consumer experience; an understanding of experiences as performative, and the use of justice theory to address service failures and engage in successful service recovery. By these means, the hypothetical Spectacular Tours, Inc. can optimize the services that it offers tourists, namely trips to Belize.
Review of the Literature: Tourism is, fundamentally, about experience. The experience of new lands and new cultures, the chance to do and see things that are outside of one’s ordinary, day-to-day life—this is why people become tourists (Moscardo 99-101). Of course, the quality of tourist experiences, and the determinants of such, are of considerable interest to tour companies, since consumer satisfaction is just as important in the tourism and hospitality industry as it is in any industry—arguably more, in some ways. Accordingly, it is of foundational importance for tour companies to ascertain those factors that promote an enjoyable experience for their tourists, in order to optimize the experiences provided (Moscardo 100-101).
Moscardo delineates a number of features of tourist experiences. Tourist experiences consist of some variety of events and/or activities, which are meaningful to the tourists in some way: tourists must construct meaning if the experience is to be successful, is to have some symbolic value (100). Place matters, since experiences happen in particular physical contexts, so it stands to reason that managing those contexts is very important for optimizing experiences (100). And of course, experiences are of value to tourists, and differ in some particulars from the kinds of experiences they are used to: thus, there is a novelty or rarity component to successful tourist experiences (100).
Moscardo proposes a construct of mindfulness to explain tourist engagement with experiences (101). The state itself is characterized by a thoughtful awareness of other perspectives on a given situation, an alertness to new information, being sensitive to differences that may obtain between situations, and focusing on the here and now rather than the past (101-102). This contrasts with mindlessness, a state wherein one thinks and acts rigidly and automatically, adhering to only one perspective (102). In a state of mindlessness, “’one is trapped in a rigid mindset and is oblivious to context or perspective’” (102). The question, then, concerns what experiences might predispose someone to adopt either a mindful or mindless approach to a given situation (102).
Mindfulness appears to be associated with situations and experiences that are novel in some way: they may be “unfamiliar, unexpected, or surprising,” but whatever the case they are new and fresh (Moscardo 102). Situations and experiences that are of great personal relevance are also associated with mindfulness, attesting to the importance of engaging an audience (102). Variety and dynamism can also beget mindfulness, particularly with multisensory stimulation (102). Personal responsibility and control over a given situation can evoke mindfulness, since the individual must answer for the outcome (103). In essence, if a situation is engaging in some way, confronting an individual with some stimulus, some experience that gives them a reason to devote their attention to it, then that situation is likely to produce mindfulness (103). Of course, one weakness of this construct is that it is somewhat nebulous and subjective, and thus may be difficult to measure. All in all, though, providing tourists with these kinds of attention-getting, riveting experiences can be expected to enhance their satisfaction (103-105).
As Morgan and Watson explain, consumer experience is an important topic for research where tourists are concerned—an important topic, as well as a challenging one (116-117). Consumer experience is important for tour companies to monitor in order to ensure that they are successfully meeting their customers’ expectations; on the other hand, the nature of the subject matter poses certain challenges with regards to methodology (117-118). How, exactly, is one supposed to measure something so seemingly nebulous as consumer experience? Satisfaction is one way: one can simply ask people to indicate how satisfied they were with various aspects of their experience (118). There are shortcomings of such an approach, however, in that the cardinal assumption is a cognitive evaluation of satisfaction, rather than a more affective response to the situation overall (118). A similar problem dogs the benefits-based approach: in asking participants to respond to what they perceived as the benefits of their experience by ticking boxes, one receives plenty of ticked boxes but not explanations of what those ticked boxes mean (118).
Experience-based approaches, such as diaries, interviews, and observation, are more dynamic; however, they still fail to capture the crucial question of what an experience really means to the participant (Morgan and Watson 118-119). However, if some of these approaches are used as the starting points for deeper investigation, then perhaps the researcher can hope to gain a deeper understanding of what experiences mean to participants (119). Here the central idea is that through in-depth participant observation and other methods, the researcher can begin to appreciate how participants construct meaning out of their experiences. And a particularly promising arena for understanding the meaning of such experiences is the world of online communities (120-124). While not without their limitations as arenas of ethnographic research, online communities devoted to tourism do provide a great deal of unsolicited feedback, positive and/or negative, from participants who have shared experiences and interests (122-124). By analyzing the discussions that follow on these message boards, researchers may hope to truly begin to ascertain what these experiences mean for participants (123-125).
According to Foster, evaluating what a tourism experience means for participants requires one to understand that in essence, tourism experiences are performative: they are social experiences which, like dramas, take place in particular settings, and are defined by ‘scripts’ of behavioral roles, complete with their own cues to appropriate behavior (133-135). These ‘scripts’ are guiding principles, not rigid prescriptions for behavior and conduct: they shape how participants in a tourism experience are likely to ‘perform’, guiding them with shared perceptions of what is and is not appropriate or accepted (134-135).
Consequently, tourists are not really purchasing a “product”, as they would at their local supermarket or department store: rather, they are purchasing a “setting” upon which to enact their own social experience (Foster 135-136). This, Foster argues, is absolutely vital to understand if one is to evaluate whether someone is satisfied or not: until one understands what tourists are really purchasing, one cannot begin to accurately ascertain their satisfaction or lack thereof (137-138). From this it follows that the quality of interactions that tourists have with each other and with others (locals, guides, other staff) will play crucial roles in determining the quality of their experience (137-138). Thus, it is not enough for a tour company to simply think about what sort of activities and attractions they should offer: they must also think about how tourists are likely to engage with these settings in a performative sense, and they must solicit consumer feedback from precisely this perspective (137-139). Of course, one shortcoming of this construct is the sheer number of variables, most quite subjective, that make or unmake a successful experience. Thus, as with other constructs, one is essentially trying to obtain the best estimate possible of these highly diverse and subjective experiences.
No analysis of consumer behavior and experience would be complete without due discussion of service failures. Failures of service are a challenge in any industry, but in tourism and other hospitality industries they are a particular bane, because these industries provide services that are “intangible, inseparable, perishable, and heterogeneous” (Duman and Kozak 146). Tour packages contain many variables—weather, quality of food, comfort of accommodations, friendliness of locals, staff behavior and hygiene—which may influence consumer satisfaction (146). Of course, as the list just given shows, not all variables are under the control of a tour company—which only increases the imperative for the company to be on guard against service failures, particularly those over which it does have control, and to engage in service recovery of the highest quality (146-148).
Accordingly, it is imperative for companies to take into account three forms of justice when attempting service recovery. First, the company should engage in distributive justice, fairly compensating its consumers for their losses (Duman and Kozak 149). Procedural justice is also important: consumers must feel that the procedures and policies used to arrive at the outcome were fair ones (149). Finally, the way in which the company and its employees behave during the whole process is crucial to a sense of interactional justice: “sincere, polite, and trustworthy employee behaviors in complaint handling are important indicators of interactional justice perceptions” (149). Of course, one shortcoming of this construct is that many factors remain well outside the control of any tour company, and yet these factors can still contribute to perceived service failure: poor weather or bad experiences with locals, for example, might make tourists more irritable and more prone to find fault with any perceived shortcoming of the company’s service.
Application—Case Study: Spectacular Tours, Inc. Spectacular Tours, Inc. is a hypothetical tour company selling trips to Belize, with ports of call throughout the Caribbean. Applying the four theoretical constructs delineated above to Spectacular Tours, Inc. will demonstrate their proper application to the challenges of marketing and communications that the organization is likely to face. By so doing, this analysis will demonstrate how the use of these constructs can enable tour companies to optimize the rich and dynamic experiences they offer to their guests.
First of all, there is Moscardo’s mindfulness construct. If Spectacular Tours, Inc. can enhance its tour guests’ mindfulness, then the company will have reason to expect that their experiences will be better. In some settings, guided tours can help to enhance mindfulness: at heritage sites and in nature sites, for example, a tour guide can explain to tourists what it is that they are seeing and experiencing (104-105). For many tourists, this knowledge can serve as an aid to mindfulness, because they will understand what it is that they are seeing. Obviously Belize and the island nations of the Caribbean are rich in history and culture, but for an outsider much of this history and culture is likely to appear strange and foreign. Accordingly, having a tour guide give guided tours that explain things to the tourists is a rather obvious step for Spectacular Tours, Inc. to take.
If tourists understand the meaning of a particular site, then being there may itself become meaningful to them in a way that it would not have been had they not known the historic/cultural value of the site (Moscardo 104-106). Novel settings, in particular, can help to precipitate mindfulness, but one advantage of having a guide is that it allays any fears of safety, security, and generally getting around (105-106). Accordingly, it seems rather clear that Spectacular Tours, Inc. should make it its business to find good locations for tourists to explore: historic and cultural sites, areas with great scenic natural beauty, etc., and hire guides. The company should also try to go out of its way to find some sites that will appeal to people who want, so to speak, the ‘next level’ in tourism experience: not just the same ‘standard model’ tourism sites of a given city or area, but opportunities to see and do things that are a little more off of the beaten trail (105-107). By so doing, Spectacular Tours, Inc. can increase the value of what it offers to its tourists.
Keeping attention is, in many ways, just as important as getting it (Moscardo 107). Accordingly, it would make sense for Spectacular Tours, Inc. to incorporate many opportunities for participant interaction, both with other participants and with whatever is on display. Participants should be allowed to do more than merely traipse around and take pictures, and perhaps ask a few questions: priority should be given to sites where participants can be allowed to explore safely, yet still have their questions answered. Rich, stimulating experiences can help to keep tourists’ attention: the richer and more stimulating the experience, the more likely people will find it interesting and meaningful to them personally, which will promote mindfulness (107).
Spectacular Tours, Inc. should also hire researchers to scour online bulletin boards, forums, and other communities devoted to tourism, both in general and with regard to the Caribbean and Belize in particular. By so doing, Spectacular Tours, Inc. will be able to ascertain what works and what doesn’t work, for other tour companies and itself (Morgan and Watson 122-123). By paying attention to this sort of online ‘buzz’, Spectacular Tours, Inc. will be able to keep its proverbial finger on the pulse of tourist opinion, thereby enabling it to ascertain what appeals to tourists and what doesn’t (121-124). Here it is particularly important to take all aspects of the experience into account: Spectacular Tours, Inc. will need to pay attention to everything from tour destinations to behaviors of staff, the weather, tourists’ interactions with locals, etc.
Of course, Spectacular Tours, Inc. should also solicit participant feedback. This can be done through questionnaires, but a much better method would be to offer a limited number of participants a prize of some kind (or even offering everyone a chance to win a prize) in exchange for completing a brief interview with a company representative. The idea here is to get more than ticked boxes: a human being can ask questions and tease out meaning in a way that a form on a computer screen simply cannot. By so doing, Spectacular Tours, Inc. can add to its understanding of how people are interpreting what the company is doing: what aspects of the tour do they like, and what aspects do they dislike? The more the company can figure these kinds of things out, the better it can optimize what it offers.
If the company can figure out what works and what doesn’t, it can do more of what works and less of what doesn’t work. This is speaking in terms of the simplest level of analysis, of course: going deeper, the company can try to anticipate the likely reactions of its visitors to any number of situations. For example, the company can include helpful weather advisory for its trips to Belize, including tips about what types of clothing to bring, bug repellant, sunscreen, etc. Information on local customs and sensibilities is also important: are there particular areas visitors should avoid for safety reasons? What common gaffes should they avoid when interacting with local people? What about purchasing food from street vendors? What about pickpockets? By analyzing commonly-reported experiences of tourists, Spectacular Tours, Inc. will be able to successfully anticipate many common needs and complaints. It will then be able to optimize its guests’ experience.
Following Foster, if tourism consists of performances, if Spectacular Tours, Inc. wants to optimize these, then it should start by looking at the setting or stage it is offering to tourists (134-135). Of course, to do this it needs to understand the scripts that tourists are bringing to bear. People taking trips to Belize by way of the Caribbean are looking to have a fun holiday: they may want to experience sites of local cultural and historic value, and they may appreciate areas with scenic natural beauty, but the primary purpose is to relax and have fun (138-139). By understanding these expectations, Spectacular Tours, Inc. can shape its tour packages accordingly. Suggestions for this include plenty of opportunities for those participants who are so inclined to experience the local nightlife: the company should provide directions to the best bars and nightclubs, along with the standard safety tips, etc. Beaches are a major attraction in the Caribbean and Belize, so the company should emphasize these as well, finding pristine beaches and things to do near them, like body-boarding, etc.
Inevitably, Spectacular Tours, Inc. will make some customers unhappy. It will, in the parlance of the industry, have service failures. Every company that is in business long enough can expect to have service failures, but it is the test of a company’s true mettle how it responds to those service failures. All staff will have to be trained as to how to handle customer complaints, namely by being sincere, polite, respectful, and taking the appropriate action. For service staff this will mean contacting a superior, who will have to be consummately trained to handle customer complaints with alacrity, using the three types of justice required: distributive, procedural, and interactive.
Refunds are sometimes necessary means of distributive justice, if the company has erred in some way that has resulted in customers losing property, or losing value off of their trip (Duman and Kozak 149). In other cases, repairs are sometimes necessary. Of course, apologies are an important part of distributive justice: it is very important for the company to apologize when it is in the wrong (149). Apologies serve as a kind of moral, intangible ‘good’ that can be classed under distributive justice because they serve as an admission of fault. Of course, procedural justice is essential to ensure that all policies, procedures etc. are fair: customers must understand how the company is making things right, and feel that the means by which the company is doing so are fair. And of course, interactional justice: customers must feel that they are being treated with the utmost politeness and professionalism. By following these steps, Spectacular Tours, Inc. will be able to initiate service recovery.
Conclusion: The findings are clear: if Spectacular Tours, Inc. is to optimize its guests’ experiences, it must start with the appropriate understanding of what, exactly, it is selling them. What tour companies are selling is a setting for a performative experience, an experience that can really only be evaluated in experiential terms. By paying attention to the meaning that tourists construct from successful trips, particularly by means of participant observation online and semi-structured interviews, the company can enhance the opportunities it offers its guests to construct experiences. And by applying justice theory, the company can initiate service recovery in instances of service failure. Of course, the sheer subjectivity of experience poses limitations here, meaning that assumptions and generalizations must be used: tourists going to Belize will want to spend time on beaches, or will want to see historic and cultural sites, etc. Also, the company cannot control everything: thus, despite our best efforts, some people will be dissatisfied. Still, the way forward is clear, and the company can optimize what it offers tourists accordingly: settings that are novel, interesting, and offer chances for tourists to make their own meaning, thereby provoking mindfulness; good, friendly, professional customer service, thereby enhancing satisfaction and decreasing chances of service failure, and prompt action for service recovery.
Duman, Teoman, and Metin Kozak. “Service Failure, Tourist Complaints, and Service Recovery.” Kozak and Decrop 145-158.
Foster, Clare I. “Processes and Performances of Tourist (Dis)Satisfaction.” Kozak and Decrop 133-144.
Kozak, Metin, and Alain Decrop, eds. Handbook of Tourist Behavior: Theory & Practice. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Morgan, Michael, and Pamela Watson. “Unlocking the Shared Experience Challenges of Consumer Experience Research.” Kozak and Decrop 116-132.
Moscardo, Gianna. “Understanding Tourist Experience through Mindfulness Theory.” Kozak and Decrop 99-115.