With senior members of the travel and tourism sector from across the globe in attendance, the 8th International Congress on Rural Tourism in Navarre was suitably buzzing. The conference aimed to bring thought leaders and experts in their field together to explore some key themes including sustainability, digitisation, innovation in service offering and partnerships. Over two days in beautiful (and surprisingly sunny) Pamplona, we heard from a range of speakers from over six countries, including our very own gaffer David Johnstone. Here are just some of the many highlights.

Opening the Congress, Manu Ayerdi, Luis Cortés and María Ángeles Ezquer, spoke of the importance of always looking ahead and working together to build stronger business links and a tourism network that looks beyond the one industry. For eight years now, this international gathering has supported this development, ensuring the sector firmly focuses on what lies ahead.

“Long-term sustainability is all about sharing resources both natural and other [people, financial, etc] and sharing the wealth. This goes beyond eco-tourism to also incorporate education and communication."

María Ángeles Ezquer, President of the Navarre Federation for Rural Tourism

If you speak any Spanish you can view the opening remark below:

Innovation has purpose and should create value.

Álvaro Carrillo de Albornoz talked of innovation and intelligent competition in tourism. In his view, innovation is all about turning ideas into money. But, in order to do so, we need to recognise the tools at our disposal and their potential, as well as their challenges. It’s critical, for example, to ensure we understand the technological divide between East and West, otherwise we can never truly 'operate worldwide'. Just look at the figures for social channels; Facebook and Google active users vs the likes of Baidu. If we solely address the platforms we’re comfortable with in the West, there is a significant audience we will isolate.

Moreover, we must remember that technology is just a tool for us to better serve our customers. The customer should still be the first and last consideration.

Successful DMOs of the future will nurture networks of networks.

Claudia Kohl of Kohl & Partner talked us through the strategic focus of destination marketing organisations (DMOs) of the future. Creating strong relations between tourism organisations, the DMO of the future will create networks of networks, facilitating connections and strengthening the regional offering by uniting public and private bodies. They will also continue to grow, but establishing a strong identity will remain at the heart of success for any DMO. The DMO will become the support centre for their members, with clear commercial focus and an aligning restructure of staff with marketing, product development and service integration at its core.

One of the largest challenges faced is the mentality. Changing perspectives and approaches in order to better facilitate effective, long-term tourism, takes more than 'a strategy' or plan. This always goes back to the simplest of solutions - communication. We need to take the people on the journey with us; without their buy-in, we cannot succeed.

Conference-centre---Pamplona

Our people and places are our true assets.

Smart rural destinations understand that landscape is their number one asset and, therefore, the conservation of this and the engagement of local communities are the pillars of tourism brand success. People are, after all, our true territorial brand and, therefore we must develop them alongside other assets.

“Our local communities communicate our culture, heritage and tastes. They encourage responsible tourism, bringing in people who wish to enjoy the fruits of our region. They are our most valuable assets.”

Berta Nunes, President of AECT ZASNET

The big agenda today is smart cities. But let's not forget smart destinations outside of cities.

Many of the speakers presented fascinating examples of work they’d undertaken to make their destinations ‘smarter’ and leverage digital to serve their customers. The key learnings they’d taken away from this, is that tourism companies need to involve all sectors and integrate across other fields. Learning from across disciplines and areas, means we can deliver a more connected, informed and effective vision and plan.

Pilot projects are in place to explore how we better expose areas whilst always preserving the biodiversity and environment, so that many more generations can enjoy our landscapes for centuries to come. There are strategies in place looking at how to dynamise and diversify trading, such as retrofitting traditional properties in the old towns so that they can be used for tourism.

But, why do we need virtual reality when we have the reality? Iván González Gómez posited that when the experience is right there in front us, we can (and should) explore it without technology. But, in the case of the Hierro virtual reality was used to overlay historic content and recreate heritage scenes to provide an enhanced experience of the physical location. This provides value two-ways, as it also tracks data around the number of views, where and when to help the company make informed decisions. They’ve also implemented smart beacons, transmitting Bluetooth enabled stories and 360 degree videos, all in the aim of adding value to the visitor experience.

The journey starts long before you leave the house.

In tourism, the journey to the destination starts well before any money is exchanged or any transport taken. An average user will research and plan for months ahead of any big trip, interacting with different forms of content across devices. In fact, Google predicts the average user will have over 400 interactions prior to actually moving out of this planning phase and making any bookings. This means that search marketing and UX design are more important than ever, as you need to not only attract visitors to your website, but then convince them to convert and become physical visitors.

“You may not consider yourselves SEO experts. But you are the experts on your content and destination. It takes a whole lot of technical SEO knowledge to make poor content rank well. Whereas, great content with just a sprinkling of SEO know-how can be hugely powerful. In essence, all these changes in search algorithms are playing right into your hands.”

David Johnstone, Managing Director, After Digital

David will be expanding more on his talk next week in the blog, with some top tips and practical tools. But, if your Spanish is up to scratch, you can enjoy his talk here:

People first, technology second.

It’s clear that tourism can do a lot to develop rural areas, maintaining and enhancing economic activity, creating new jobs, etc. But all of this can only occur if we talk about smart, sustainable tourism that engages the local population. Tech allows us to appeal to new and responsible tourists; people who care about heritage and culture, people who want to experience places. These smart tools enable these tourists to be better informed and maintain their independence.

We need to adapt to the circumstances. The first step is to consider what output we need and then source or create the technology that best suits our needs rather than shaping ourselves around technology. Once we know the output we want, we can design a product/offering upon which we can test the feasibility and, only then, do we actually build the solution and implement the technology.