How do we create sustainable place-based digital experiences?2021-02-18
That was the topic for a recent conference that concluded the project called “Place-based digital experiences (PDU)”. Three places – the Glaskogen nature reserve, the Kristinehamn archipelago, and the town of Sunne, with a focus on culture and narrative – were studied in depth by Karlstad University researchers.
The tourism industry can be challenging. Most tourist destination companies are small with limited resources. Meeting the target group’s ever-increasing demands for digital solutions and experiences is not easy. But digital development doesn’t have to be synonymous with creating an app to the tune of a million or two. Destinations can be made digital with much simpler means.
- There is widespread concern in the tourism industry that digitisation is this grand, high-end, exclusive thing, says Lotta Braunerhielm, senior lecturer in Human Geography and Tourism Studies at Karlstad University. They’re all picturing things like Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), but small, simple solutions could actually be a better first step to take. In our project, we’ve tried to promote a more fearless attitude towards digitisation.
The final conference included a summary of the project, and the entrepreneur partners shared their experiences and lessons. The project had three clear objectives:
* Disseminate knowledge – The digital shift in the tourism industry, what it entails, and which consequences a destination company has to grasp, and the need for the industry to take charge of their digital development instead of letting technological advancements take the lead.
* Inspire product development –The project has developed an end product in the form of concept designs for place-based digital experiences.
* Develop a method for a place-based approach – A methodology manual has been created to serve as inspiration for tourism businesses.
People have shared their location on social media for years already. Why hasn’t the tourism industry kept up with the times?
- Digitisation isn’t just about social media platforms. There are other ways to come up with location-specific solutions. That’s something the industry hasn’t quite caught on to or fully understood. A company having a social media presence and a website doesn’t mean they realise just how influential the visitors are or how important it is to know how the platforms work. Knowing the inner workings of it all is crucial.
Can you give us some examples of small-scale digital efforts that make a difference in the industry?
- As researchers, we’ve done an in-depth study of each place to try to find layers, examined what is and isn’t included in the narrative, and analysed the place’s digital representation. Not only what the entrepreneurs include in their story, but the digital image conveyed by visitors, meaning how they perceive, experience, and interact with the place. We also looked at the top hashtags used in each location. When we presented the findings to the entrepreneurs, many of them had this aha moment where they realised they weren’t connecting with certain perspectives – they didn’t link the past to the present and vice versa, for instance, or they weren’t inclusive to certain groups. A concrete example is to make sure the stories of women and children are recognised too, not just the stories of men.
Many people who run a destination business consider themselves experts on that place, but there is usually much more to find in the stories from a place. Locals tend to know things that visitors don’t get to experience. What the project calls “hidden stories” can contain loads of information and material well suited to be developed digitally.
- It can be things like history, customs, or traditions, says Lotta Braunerhielm. You need to know about all that before you start crafting a simple digital solution.
An example of simple digitisation is to produce videos connected to the destination. Videos let visitors prepare beforehand, and they don’t have to be complicated to make. So, we’ve worked with perspective in terms of time and space, but also in terms of what happens before, during, and after a visit.
- Our former project partner, Vildmark i Värmland, realised they were only conveying the present, not the past. So they put up a house where the visitors can watch a video about the importance of log driving to Värmland before they head out on the river. That way the visitors can apply a historical perspective to the place and connect the present to the past.
What kind of shape is Värmland’s tourism industry in when it comes to digital development?
- We’ve realised that there isn’t a lot of knowledge about this. The industry hasn’t caught on to the fact that it’s crucial to learn about how visitors behave on social media and to know how much influence and control the major platforms actually have.
Lotta Braunerhielm is working with Fredrik Hoppstadius, associate senior lecturer in Human Geography, on a literature review of research on tourism and digitisation. A lot of the material is related to computer science and machine learning – meaning the technological advancements. Tourism research and the tourism industry both have a lot to learn. More knowledge and comprehension will be required before the industry can take charge of their own development and create technological solutions based on their destinations and purposes.
- One crucial aspect was that we applied the Geomedia perspective, meaning to understand the connection and interaction between technology and location. So, tourism research and the industry aren’t quite there yet.
The manual – will it help make a difference?
- It’s out there, serving as inspiration. Any entrepreneur is free to use whatever sections of it are appropriate for their destination. The manual can also be applied to other research and development.
And finally, can a destination survive without digitisation?
- Visitors definitely demand more these days. Especially the younger generation, but adults too. We do research before we visit places. So the destinations have to keep up, which again has to do with grasping the current climate. But it’s important to note that we’ve worked with supplementing narratives about places. It’s not about replacing physical visits. Physical interactions and visits are important. But using digital tools can add to the experience. The rest of Europe have started doing this more and more, but Värmland has been lagging behind.
Researchers from Karlstad University who were part of the PDU project
Lotta Braunerhielm, project manager and senior lecturer in Human Geography and Tourism Studies
Linda Ryan Bengtsson, senior lecturer in Media and Communication Studies
Eva Kingsepp, senior lecturer in Media and Communication Studies
Laila Gibson, adjunct teacher in Tourism Studies
Fredrik Hoppstadius, associate senior lecturer in Human Geography
The final PDU conference was broadcast digitally from Aula Magna at Karlstad University. It was the second biggest digital production after the University’s digital graduation ceremony. Representatives from Sunne, Kristinehamn, and Glaskogen share their digital experiences from the tourism industry.