Cristina Polo, GM of Insights Middle East team, channels her wealth of experience in the hotel sector to helping other hospitality and tourism brands in the Middle East solve their unique challenges.
We continue by discussing the evolving role of digital in the Middle East and Africa, the seemingly unstoppable growth in Dubai, and how travel brands can cater to the Middle Eastern traveler.
How do you think MEA stacks up with the rest of the world in terms of their programmatic understanding, and why?
Programmatic is still underused, and probably due to a lack of understanding. Companies like Sojern will certainly contribute to a better education with seminars like you organized in October. The enthusiasm was obvious among participants.
How have travel and tourism brands in the Middle East embraced digital?
There is a difference here between OTAs, airlines, branded hotels or car rentals, and the independent, non-branded hotels. Even in 2014-2015, only some of these had embraced digital. Those who had, did it with a lot of enthusiasm, but sometimes not with clear strategies or objectives in mind. Technology and digital opportunities are evolving so quickly, that it can be difficult to have a clear understanding of what is a good activity to invest in.
How can digital travel marketers reach Middle Eastern travelers in a more effective, meaningful way?
At the most basic level, it’s all about having a good website! Programmatic certainly offers great opportunities, as does Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing. And don’t forget Social Media — here, more than anywhere else, people really embrace peer-to-peer recommendations.
Dubai has a target to be the world’s most visited city by 2020. What are they doing to achieve this and do you think they will achieve their goal?
This has been going on for some time already. The Government and the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) have developed the offerings in the city, and I don’t think much can stop them!
In the last 10 years alone, the airport opened another terminal, a second airport opened, Emirates launched new routes at a tremendous pace, iconic hotels were established, such as Atlantis and Armani in the Burj Khalifa, the metro opened with two lines and more to come, the city expanded, malls opened and more are under construction. In 2016 we saw the opening of Dubai Parks, the Dubai Canal, and on and on. It is just fascinating to witness and be part of. Novelty is seen to accompany the growth of the Emirates, such as partnerships with Airbnb, with Uber more recently.
What are Middle Eastern travelers looking for in a holiday?
First, we need to define who the Middle Eastern traveler is. In this part of the world, there are many expats coming from Europe or Asia. Then, you have the locals. Generally speaking, I would say that short breaks in Europe or Asia are popular for adventure, cultural or shopping experiences. Comfort, not necessarily luxury, and flexibility in the offerings are key, such as vegan and halal menus, family rooms, and so on.
What is your favourite place that you’ve traveled to and why?
This is a very difficult question! My suitcase is always ready and all destinations visited have a special memory no matter which continent. It could be Machu Picchu, Quebec, Kenya, Singapore, Cape Town or Jordan with the family, but even business trips can be interesting. How many of us get a chance to go to Ethiopia or Sudan?
Now, I would love to go to Australia. Traveling gives you a chance to discover new cultures, new people: it is fun, provides amazing experiences and is humbling at the same time.
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Ashley is Sojern's Marketing Manager, EMEA & APAC and works in the London office. Originally from Canada, she's been living in London for over four years, and is actively trying to fill all the pages in her passport. She has never met a cheese she didn't like.
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