Free geodata for marketing the long tail of tourism

Today, I came across an article called Free Entrance, Free Coffee, Free WiFi…Free Rooms, which was posted on the Tracking Tourism Blog. Stephen, the author, picked up on Chris Anderson’s article Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business, which was posted on Wired about two weeks ago. Steven offers some thoughts on how the idea of Free may apply to the travel and hospitality market, for instance, in the case of accommodation providers, who may decide to offer you a bed for free. Something along the lines of „Stay for free, but please spend enough money on food, drinks and activities that in the end, it will pay off for me“ may best describe the guts of tourism service providers‘ prayers then.

As I continued reading, I thought that the whole travel and hospitality industry is already making great use of the idea of „free“. How about Google Earth, Google Maps, Microsoft Virtual Earth, Yahoo Maps… I could go on and on. I work in the geospatial industry and I can assure you that the costs of geodata offered on these virtual globes and mapping sites are very high. I guess most people using these earth viewer applications may not even think about this, when they zoom and pan around to view the beach resorts around the world in sub-meter resolution, with all the roads and nearby points of interest, which are also just a click away. It’s all for free – doesn’t cost a penny – just enjoy! Sponsored by some companies with big wallets and business models that somehow make it possible to fund the construction of the digital tourism earth. For the geospatial industry, which lived a cosy niche life for a long time, it was an earthquake welcome to the world of disruption. Disruption for free!

The companies, which pay the bills for geodata, the technology to make it available to a world-wide audience in a user-friendly way, and the staff to actually make it happen…. – these companies provide people with the tools to put stuff on the map and to tell map stories. The tourism industry was among the first to embrace this offering and began to put hotels, tourism activities, photographs of tourism places and many other tourism related content on the map – for free. No payment required for geodata. No payment required for technology. Anyone who could do it by himself or herself even got the mash-up for free. Great, isn’t it? Especially for the Long Tail of tourism – places, which were off the map until just a few years ago – the white spots on the tourism maps you may call them – are now filled with a wealth of geo-content. Want to know what the most remote places on earth look like? Go and see on Flickr, Locr or Panoramio. No big deal – for free! Want a route description to prepare and print out, to help you find your way around? Easy and free! Travel tips, recommendations, travel podcasts, travel videos… all free. How many tourism websites did you come across recently, which had a map embedded in one way or another.

So how can these companies afford to pay for all this free stuff? Have you noticed the almost hidden advertising links that you get when you search for a place to stay or even just a website, which will help you find a place to stay. What a fantastic money loop!

I am sure that the travel and hospitality industry will find many more ways to pick up on free. Free-based business models are somewhere out there – waiting to be found, to be talked about, to be realised – and I’m sure not all of them will depend on advertising. Leaves me curious to hear where they are, how they work, if they are digital and if they are real yet!

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