What drives tourists’ choice of destinations? Why do tourists prefer some destinations over others? The answer to these questions is simpler than one might think: Tourists want an authentic experience. When they visit a site in Mexico, or Brazil, or India they are looking for the image of the country to match the one that they have formed over time. But, the concept of authenticity itself isn’t that simple. What could be authentic to one person could be completely fake to another. So, the question really is: what is an authentic experience and can destinations intentionally offer such experiences to their visitors?
Let’s start with the second half of this question, because the answer is promising and optimistic. Yes, destinations can construct, execute, communicate, and offer authentic experiences to their visitors. And, public relations can and should perform a leading role in helping destinations in this process.
Before you scroll down to find a step-by-step guide or the Holy Grail of authentic tourism experiences, it is worth it to describe what authenticity really means. Don’t be disappointed when I say there really is no single definition of authenticity; at least not a readily usable one for our purposes. Authenticity is really a feeling that is experienced by each individual differently. However, it is the open-endedness of the construct that makes it so useful for public relations practitioners in the tourism industry. In a tourism setting, authenticity refers to tourists’ personal evaluation of the extent to which their expectations and impressions from a destination hold true during a visit. Therefore, there are many opportunities to communicate authenticity through different means and messages to different visitors.
From recommendations offered by their trusted inner circle to reviews on social media, tourists actively seek information to decide where they spend their money and vacation time. This research guides tourists’ expectations of what they want to and will experience at a destination. And this is where the role of public relations becomes prominent. We help destinations build images that truly reflect their personality and character, so visitors experience what they expected to experience, and are not disappointed. In sum, tourists are satisfied and happy with their visit, and even better, are likely to recommend the place to their friends and family.
In my recent study, I examine how perceptions of an authentic experience can foster tourists’ trust, satisfaction, and commitment with a destination and how these perceptions are shaped by the destination’s public relations efforts to construct and convey its image. The study found that a destination’s authenticity is defined by visitors’ overall experience with its offerings and setting, as well as their active engagement with its core ideas and theme. These two dimensions of authenticity represent the interplay between a destination’s communication and actions. In other words, a destination can use creative imagery or language in its communication, but if it cannot deliver on these promises, visitors will think of the destination as fake and inauthentic. The study found that a destination’s perceived authenticity also drives overall satisfaction with a visit as well as tourists’ behavioral intentions, such as seeking more information about the destination, visiting again, and promoting it through positive word-of-mouth.
In addition to the findings I have detailed above, here are some other compelling insights offered by this study:
- A measurement scale to evaluate the authenticity of a destination.
- Quantitative links between a destination’s image, its perceived authenticity, and relationship with visitors.
- Best practices to project and render authenticity of a destination.
- Practical insights gathered from conversation with practitioners on how they promote a theme park to its domestic and international visitors.
- A quick and easy guide for practitioners to understand the process by which a destination can enhance its authenticity
And since I did promise on a step-by-step guide earlier in the post, I am delivering it so that I don’t come off as fake and inauthentic:
How to communicate a destination’s authenticity
- Articulate an image by identifying the unique offerings of a destination that visitors can actually experience. Talk to managers, owners, and other employees to incorporate their perspectives on what the destination offers.
- Communicate the “true” image by using not only the traditional channels but also the emerging ones while relying heavily on word-of-mouth.
- Identify and fill gaps between what the destination “says” and how it is “perceived” using transparent and open communication with key publics. This account-keeping should help the destination reflect on its projected and perceived image to not only identify ways to clarify public opinion about the destination but also to adjust its image based on the feedback its obtains. Think of it as a periodic process rather a one-time exercise.
- Steer away from puffery by avoiding claims and promises that the destination cannot deliver.
- Generate opportunities for media and publics to directly experience what a destination has to offer so they can validate its authenticity. Familiarization tours, special events, on-site visits, and exhibits at public events are a few such opportunities of public engagement and interaction.
- Actively engage your publics using creative and innovative ways such as performances, shows, display of arts and culture, preservation of sites, food, music, and other unique and contextual aspects of the destination.
- And finally, integrate public relations into core business while having full and open access to management decisions and actions.
As I hope is evident in this how-to list, public relations plays an integral role in fostering perceptions of an authentic tourism experience. Therefore, practitioners should take a lead in ensuring that their destination meets visitors’ expectations, so that they may visit again and bring their friends. Rendering authenticity is a long-term process that starts from within and involves discovering the true essence of a destination. But, it is totally worth the effort and time because an authentic destination is a preferred destination.
Rajul Jain, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at DePaul University. Winner of the 2011 Ketchum Excellence in Public Relations Award, she wrote “Cultivating relationship with tourists: Role of public relations in constructing and promoting authentic experiences.“