Smarter tourism: solving the data problem to boost tourism and create better cities

By Steven McGinty

On 22 March, I attended ‘Smarter Tourism: Shaping Glasgow’s Data Plan’, an event held as part of DataFest 2017, a week-long festival of data innovation with events hosted across Scotland.

Daniel MacIntyre, from Glasgow City Marketing Bureau (the city’s official marketing organisation), opened the event by highlighting Glasgow’s ambitious target of increasing visitor numbers from two million to three million by 2023.

To achieve this goal, Mr MacIntyre explained that the city would be looking to develop a city data plan, which would outline how the city should use data to solve its challenges and to provide a better experience for tourists.

In many ways, Glasgow’s tourism goal set the context for the presentations that followed, providing the attendees – who included professionals from the technology and tourism sectors, as well as academia and local government – with an understanding of the city’s data needs and how it could be used.

Identifying the problem

From very early on, there was a consensus in the room that tourism bodies have to identify their problems before seeking out data.

A key challenge for Glasgow, Mr MacIntyre explained, was a lack of real time data. Much of the data available to the city’s marketing bureau was historic (sometimes three years old), and gathered through passenger or visitor experience surveys. It was clear that Mr MacIntrye felt that this approach was rather limiting in the 21st century, highlighting that businesses, including restaurants, attractions, and transport providers were all collecting data, and if marketing authorities could work in collaboration and share this data, it could bring a number of benefits.

In essence, Mr MacIntyre saw Glasgow using data in two ways. Firstly, to provide a range of insights, which could support decision making in destination monitoring, development, and marketing. For instance, having data on refuse collection could help ensure timely collections and cleaner streets. A greater understanding of restaurant, bar, and event attendances could help develop Glasgow’s £5.4 million a year night time economy by producing more informed licensing policies. And the effectiveness of the city’s marketing could be improved by capturing insights from social media data, creating more targeted campaigns.

Secondly, data could be used to monitor or evaluate events. For example, the impact of sporting events such as Champions League matches – which increase visitor numbers to Glasgow and provide an economic boost to the city – could be far better understood.

Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC)

One potential solution to Glasgow City Marketing Bureau’s need for data may be organisations such as the Urban Big Data Centre.

Keith Dingwall, Senior Business Manager for the UBDC, explained that the centre supports researchers, policymakers, businesses, third sector organisations, and citizens by providing access to a wide variety of urban data. Example datasets include: housing; health and social care data; transport data; geospatial data; and physical data.

The UBCD is also involved in a number of projects, including the integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) project. One interesting aspect of this work involved the extraction of Glasgow-related data streams from multiple online sources, particularly Twitter. The data covers a one year period (1 Dec 2015 – 30 Nov 2015) and could provide insights into the behaviour of citizens or their reaction to particular events; all of which, could be potentially useful for tourism bodies.

Predictive analytics

Predictive analytics, i.e. the combination of data and statistical techniques to make predictions about future events, was a major theme of the day.

Faical Allou, Business Development Manager at Skyscanner, and Dr John Wilson, Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, presented their Predictive Analytics for Tourism project, which attempted to predict future hotel occupancy rates for Glasgow using travel data from Glasgow and Edinburgh airport.

Glasgow City Marketing Bureau also collaborated on the project – which is not too surprising as there a number of useful applications for travel data, including helping businesses respond better to changing events, understanding the travel patterns of visitors to Glasgow, and recommending personalised products and services that enhance the traveller’s experience (increasing visitor spending in the city).

However, Dr Wilson advised caution, explaining that although patterns could be identified from the data (including spikes in occupancy rates), there were limitations due to the low number of datasets available. In addition, one delegate, highlighted a ‘data gap’, suggesting that the data didn’t cover travellers who flew into Glasgow or Edinburgh but then made onward journeys to other cities.


Technology-enabled transport company, Uber, has been very successful at using data to provide a more customer oriented service. Although much of Uber’s growth has come from its core app – which allows users to hire a taxi service – they are also introducing innovative new services and integrating their app into platforms such as Google Maps, making it easier for customers to request taxi services.

And in some locations, whilst Uber users are travelling, they will receive local maps, as well as information on nearby eateries through their UberEATS app.

Uber Movement, an initiative which provides access to the anonymised data of over two billion urban trips, has the potential to improve urban planning in cities. It includes data which helps tourism officials, city planners, policymakers and citizens understand the impact of rush hours, events, and road closures in their city.

Chris Yiu, General Manager at Uber, highlighted that people lose weeks of their lives waiting in traffic jams. He suggested that the future of urban travel will involve a combination of good public transport services and car sharing services, such as uberPOOL (an app which allows the user to find local people who are going in their direction), providing the first and last mile of journeys.

Final thoughts

The event was a great opportunity to find out about the data challenges for tourism bodies, as well as initiatives that could potentially provide solutions.

Although a number of interesting issues were raised throughout the day, two key points kept coming to the forefront. These were:

  1. The need to clarify problems and outcomes – Many felt it was important that cities identified the challenges they were looking to address. This could be looked at in many ways, from addressing the need for more real-time data, to a more outcome-based approach, such as the need to achieve a 20% reduction in traffic congestion.
  2. Industry collaboration – Much of a city’s valuable data is held by private sector organisations. It’s therefore important that cities (and their tourism bodies) encourage collaboration for the mutual benefit of all partners involved. Achieving a proposition that provides value to industry will be key to achieving smarter tourism for cities.

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Famous last words? Is this the beginning of the end for city slogans?

How do you sum up a city in a slogan? The simple answer is that you can’t. But that hasn’t stopped towns and cities around the world trying to encapsulate their essence in a few well-chosen (or sometimes ill-chosen) words.

For some, a slogan is a fun way to show that a town or city is a great place to live, work and visit. American municipalities that proclaim themselves to be “The Best Town on Earth” (Madisonville, Kentucky), or “The Toothpick Capital of the World (Strong, Maine) are doing so with their civic tongues firmly in cheek.

But for many towns and cities, slogan making is a serious business that requires considerable amounts of time, money and brainpower to come up with something that highlights communities as worth visiting and investing in.

And for some cities, a slogan can mean the difference between success and failure.

How a slogan saved a city

New York City today is a lively, attractive place that’s proud to trumpet its cultural, architectural, retail and culinary attractions to residents and tourists alike. Things were very different in the 1970s. Years of financial mismanagement and neglect had given New York a reputation for grime, crime, drugs and disrepair. By the mid-70s, the city’s image was in tatters.

The turning point came with a campaign promoting one of New York’s enduring strong points – its theatre district. A television advert featuring Broadway stars launched the campaign on Valentine’s Day 1978. Its message was short and sweet: I ❤ NY.

As Newsweek reported, the campaign was an overnight success:

“There were some 93,800 requests for the tourism brochure after the commercials aired. Hotel occupancy in New York City hit 90%, year-on-year earnings from travel activity shot up nearly 20 percent.”

Forty years later, I ❤ NY still has pulling power:

Walk around Manhattan today and you’ll find pretty much every store that caters to tourists is packed with T-shirts, mugs, keychains and more, all emblazoned with the iconic slogan. A 2011 report said the city still earns some $30 million a year through licensing the logo.”

Glasgow’s Miles Better

The New York campaign had a profound influence on another city whose image required a makeover. In 1984, Glasgow was making efforts to recover from industrial decline, and to regenerate its city centre as a retail and cultural hub. The city’s Lord Provost, Michael Kelly, wanted to promote Glasgow’s progress, and to show that the city was miles better than it used to be.

The Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign was one of the first of its kind in the UK, and – like its New York inspiration – the brand had important after-effects. The message was carried across the UK, appeared on London buses and was used to promote the city internationally. Arguably, the campaign boosted Glasgow’s success in becoming European City of Culture in 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999.  Michael Kelly later summed up the impact of the campaign:

“The legacy was a permanent change in attitude towards Glasgow, exposing the reality rather than the rather distorted image people had outside. People began to look at it in a proper light and were able to make economic decisions based on that, so we got investment, we got employment. We turned the economy round, and that legacy is still being felt today.”

The slogan was finally dropped in 1997, but subsequent campaigns – Glasgow’s Alive, Glasgow: Scotland with Style – never enjoyed the commercial success of the Miles Better brand, nor did they win the hearts of the people.  Today, the city has another slogan – People Make Glasgow – which puts Glaswegians firmly at the heart of the city’s identity. The change recognised that in a city which still has significant social, health and housing problems, a slogan focusing on the strengths of its citizens is more likely to have credibility.

Slogan-free cities

But while numerous towns and cities around the world have embraced the power of a slogan, there are signs that city slogans may be reaching the end of the road.

In 2015, the city council of Edmonton, capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, voted to drop the “City of Champions” slogan. The Mayor of Edmonton contended that a city’s brand can never be expressed in a meaningful way by a single tagline. Other North American cities, including Moncton in New Brunswick, Mississauga in Ontario, and Cleveland, Ohio, have also been phasing out their city slogans.

Slogans with a smile

“The challenge of finding a slogan is handling the plurality of images and identities that the residents possess. The multiple and distinct identities supported by populations within a city should be included and coincide within the urban brand as much as possible in order to accommodate the resi­dents’ diversity.”
Championing the City

Faced with such a daunting challenge, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some cities and towns have given up on the idea of a civic slogan. But most are sticking with the concept, and some are hoping that even if they don’t greatly raise the profile of their municipality, they might at least raise a smile:

  • The Odds Are With You (Peculiar, Missouri)
  • It’s All Right Here (Dunedin, New Zealand)
  • It’s a Location, Not a Vocation (Hooker, Oklahoma)
  • Aha! (Suncheon, South Korea)
  • It’s Not Our Fault (San Andreas, California)