In Tourism and Life, Perception Precedes Reality

By Colin Stoetzel

“Perception precedes reality.” – Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol once said, “perception precedes reality.” In today’s world, where information and opinion is shared rapidly and openly, this idea rings more true than ever and the travel and tourism industry is no exception. Perceptions of destinations can change in an instant and fast-moving social networks, imagery and conversations can perpetuate or exacerbate these ideas whether we like it or not. These perceptions have a broad reach and the potential to create lasting impacts on a destination’s brand, visitor demand, and in turn, its local economies, far beyond when we assume their impacts have faded.  

I was recently reminded of just how true this idea is during a trip to The Big Island of Hawaii. As I was getting ready to leave, a colleague asked me “aren’t you worried about the smoke and eruptions? Is this the best time to go?” Having lived on the Big Island for a summer, I knew these concerns were not a reality of the experience on the ground. The eruption was far south and ceased months earlier. The beautiful Kohala coast was still intact and every bit as amazing. Yet I found myself second guessing my choice. Maybe they knew something I didn’t? 

How many visitors are influenced by similar, unproven and unrealistic perceptions? How many dollars have been lost in local economies that depend on tourism because of these false, lasting, misconceptions? If someone, who is familiar with a destination can be slightly swayed, how much might someone be influenced who is still in the discovery process? Well, the numbers might suggest a lot. Through the first quarter of 2019 visitation on the Big Island is down 9%, on average.[1] This totals roughly 46,000 visitors that chose not to travel to Hawaii’s biggest island. If you consider the average length of stay and average daily spend[2], this can begin to point towards a loss of $57 million dollars for the island in the first quarter, a trend that could result in a 8% loss of total spend by the end of 2019. 

While we can’t necessarily blame this drop on the Kilauea eruption just yet, tourism industry stakeholders need to consider the idea that past events may have lasting impacts on their destinations and that false perceptions may still be negatively influencing visitation. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important to understand the conversations visitors are having about a destination, especially on the tail of large events. Usually, these conversations tend to go unnoticed using conventional visitor listening that rolls up visitor perception into high-level, often outdated insights. Being able to identify relevant and timely perceptions of your destination and proactively respond to those insights through focused action can help influence positive conversation and correct false perceptions. It just might be the best thing you do to help minimize the long-term impacts of misguided perceptions and ensure the health of your destination, its economy, and its stakeholders. Without proactive action, my colleague may be asking me the same question next year and Kilauea may continue to erupt in the minds of many. 

Contact us to learn more about how perception studies can help you understand what visitors really think about your destination and whether or not your strategies are focused in the right area.