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Customer journey mapping in tourism

July 6, 2021

Customer journey mapping has huge potential to change the travel & tourism industry in a positive way. As individual suppliers harness the potential journey mapping offers, they can craft more compelling experiences for their guests. Whether approaches are applied to services in a small hotel, or within a large destination management organization (DMO), journey maps can be created to suit different contexts and use cases within the travel industry.

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In this article we'll discuss

The relevance of customer journey mapping in tourism and travel

From time to time everybody craves a little change of scenery or a weekend getaway to add variety and excitement to their lives. There are so many different tourism businesses that we cannot focus on every aspect of it - so in this article we will focus on destination management rather than all the other businesses who provide tourism services and who can benefit from customer journey mapping.

Organizations within the tourism industry that can benefit from journey mapping include hotels, restaurants, airlines, airport, adventure activity providers and many more. Over a holiday or vacation a tourism customer journey will often include one or more of these different service providers. When considering the bigger context and how these services might interconnect and overlap, providers are given the opportunity to collaborate and develop travel experiences for customers that have as much satisfaction, and as little disruption as possible.

We often put the focus on destinations, however service providers such as hotels and restaurants can see themselves as distinct tourist destinations. This is because they have similar interests and responsibilities as the destination management organization itself: finding and motivating guests to visit, providing information, helping out with tips and making the stay as delightful as possible. As a hotel you can research the target group of the destination you are situated in. If the target group of the destination roughly fits you as a hotel, you can try to adapt it as your own target group or base your target group on the one of the destination.

Firstly it is important to understand the complexity of tourism as a product or service and why journey mapping helps to make the comprehensibility of a guest’s experience understandable.

Tourism is defined as the “activities of persons going to places outside their usual environment and staying there for not more than one year for leisure, business and other purposes…”.
- World tourism organization

As the above definition says, there are various reasons and motivations for tourism, whether these are people taking a holiday, a business trip, or visiting friends and family, etc.

Travel is an experience which can involve high levels of emotional involvement.

Tourists - no matter whether they are travelling for leisure or business purposes - are often very time sensitive, have high expectations of what they will experience and the slightest inconvenience has the power to ruin an entire trip.

Tourism has some special features that must be considered when trying to understand a customer's service journey that differentiate tourism from other service providers industries. The most important within the context of journey mapping is that it is a whole bundle of independent, yet interconnected services that can be perceived as one. Tourists often aren't able to differentiate between the various providers and which of them delivered a bad service. For example, imagine getting a shuttle from the airport to your hotel. The shuttle is late, and you’re left standing in the heat or cold waiting for longer than you anticipated. You’re now late checking into your room, and the day already hasn’t gone as planned. Who do you blame? You might complain to the hotel, but it’s likely a 3rd party operator managing the shuttle, its schedule, and its employees. When interconnected services go wrong, they have the ability to taint the whole trip.

Questions to answer

Our focus in this article is on the journey of how tourists discover, choose and travel within a specific city from the point of view of a destination management organization.

There are several questions that destination management organizations should ask in the process of mapping their travel customer journeys. They include:

  • Who are our guests?
  • How do people discover us as a destination?
  • What information do they need?
  • How can you increase guest satisfaction and loyalty?

Who are your guests?

There is no customer journey without the customer, therefore in order to build a journey you need to know who your customers are. Understanding the different types of people who use our services will allow us to design, personalize and innovate our offerings to meet the needs of a wider audience.

The first step is to create personas for the different types of people who engage with our services. Let’s say you are part of the tourism board within a large city and you want to introduce journey mapping as a way to comprehend how you can best serve the tourists that come to visit.

The following questions can help you to create a persona:

  • What do our customers expect from their trip?
  • What kind of excitement are they currently craving in their lives?
  • Where do they come from? What languages do they speak, or understand? What are their habits when going on vacation and what cultural aspects should be considered?
  • What are their goals? What are they here for? (for example, visiting friends and family, holiday, business, conference, relaxation, adventure etc.)
  • What do they consider as crucial things that can make or break their experience?
  • What are their constraints concerning time and budget?

If you can answer these questions without having to do any research may indicate that you already have a good knowledge of who your guests are.. But don’t fall into the trap of creating persona's based on what we think, rather than what we know! If you base your persona on assumptions, the whole tourism customer journey can risk losing its validity - by using an inaccurate vision of our customer's experience we can create services that aren't relevant, don't meet people's needs and ultimately end up wasting time and money. Good journey maps are based on relevant, up to date customer research. Either you start conducting research at this point or you base it on research that has already been conducted beforehand.

A persona should always be the basis of each journey map – with good personas your team can have a collective understanding of the personalities, needs and wishes of the people you are trying to help. This collective understanding allows team members to have insights into the experience of customers without actually having to interview them in person. With this understanding, you can be comfortable making service decisions that are grounded in the reality of peoples lived experiences and needs. Creating a fictional persona that represents a group of tourists will validate the steps in your journey map, as then it is comprehensible why this person acts the way they do when having to make a decision.

visualization of example persona Johan
Persona Johan
(click to expand)

How do people discover you as a tourist destination?

Once we have researched our customers it's time to build a persona. Let’s say it is Johan (from the example above). He is a retired teacher and wants to spend a nice holiday with his wife Laura. They love to engage in cultural activities, such as visiting museums, art galleries and theater performances. They also enjoy going for long walks in well maintained parks – Berlin sounds like it would be a perfect fit for them.

But how do Johan and Laura make the decision to travel to Berlin? Are they even aware that it's a potentially great destination for their vacation? What channels are they using to discover Berlin? Perhaps it’s even top of their mind and they just need something to validate their gut feeling.

There are many questions and journey mapping can help you to answer them. When you map out the pre-service phase you will get a better understanding of how to reach Johan and Laura in their home environment. To find out how this could happen, you might want to look at how your previous customers found you. By researching their lives and experiences you might find that Johan and Laura spend a lot of time in local communities where people with similar backgrounds share their holiday experiences. They may also be looking for potential destinations online, for example on an airfare comparison platform such as Skyscanner to see what destinations are easily reachable from their small local airport.

This is an example journey map of the pre-service experience and how they could find Berlin as a potential destination.
Pre-service experience and finding Berlin as a potential destination.

What information do they need?

How can you provide your (potential) guests with the information they need? Journey mapping can help you to understand what questions they have, and at what point on their journey.

  • What’s the average price level in the destination?
  • What language is the most common in the destination? How common is speaking multiple languages?
  • How do your guest’s get from A to B? Is public transport an option? If yes, how good is the network? Or is it recommended to take cabs (at night/in some areas)?
  • What are the most interesting activities happening at specific times of the year?
  • What are cultural rules that must be followed?
  • Is there anything else that tourists would need to know to consider Berlin as a destination? What’s the special feature of the destination?
  • How can we present our destination in a way that it is prestigious for tourists to come to us specifically? What makes our city unique and desirable for tourists to visit? Travelling has always been about prestige up to some extent, but through the rise of social media and the internet in general the need to show beautiful photos, tell stories of how much fun it was etc. has grown significantly. This might be a matter of validity.
  • In what format is the information most attractive for them?

For a vast variety of tourists these are the types of questions they need to answer in order to take a destination into consideration. To ease the process for potential customers it would for example make sense to not only have it on the official website of the destination itself (for example visitberlin.de), but also brief the partners in order to deliver some or all of this information on their website as well, or at least provide a link to the official destination website.

How can you increase guest satisfaction and loyalty?

Tourism destinations experience unique challenges when it comes to guest satisfaction and guest loyalty. To a big extent this is due to the fact that service delivery is performed by others than the destination marketing organization itself. Customer satisfaction results as the product of a multitude of service suppliers, for example airlines, hotels, tour operators (in case there is one), public transport, restaurants and more.

An important part of journey mapping is understanding the stakeholders’ point of view and including their involvement in the service delivery. Collaborating well with stakeholders ensures a seamless and smooth guest experience, opposite of sending guests through different service provider silos.

Loyalty from customers who engage in tourism differs from the loyalty of customers who purchase regular consumables. This is due to the fact that travel is something that people are highly emotionally involved in, even more in a vacation context. Holidays are often something rather rare and special for people. Therefore expectations are high, especially when people spend a lot of money on it.

Adding to that, when considering visiting the same place twice there’s always competition with other destinations because they have the “charm of the unknown”. Something one hasn’t seen before. Depending on the individual target group of a destination, there is the amplifying factor of not being loyal to a destination in order to try/see/learn something new. To get loyal guests, it is crucial to not only satisfy them but to delight them, to fill them with enthusiasm in a way that they want to come back for new experiences.

How to create a customer journey map for the tourism industry

A good tourism journey map consists of more than just a step description and a satisfaction score. The following types of information contribute to different lanes within a journey map and can help you relate to your guests' experiences. For an extensive journey map it usually makes sense to use a digital tool. To make the choice easier for you, we built this list of the most popular platforms for journey mapping.

Dramatic arc

The dramatic arc shows the engagement of a persona as they make their way through a journey. We all know the importance of how our favorite films and movies use dramatic sequencing to keep us engaged and immersed in an experience, but how does this apply to a family holiday, or a vacation to a destination.

How do you want to influence our customers at both the level of the heart and the head? Is the arrival at your destination dramatic, spectacular, or is it slow and suspenseful? Perhaps arriving in a new location will have a high level of engagement and anticipation - if this is paired with a complicated and stressful customs process, how will this impact people's first perceptions of a location? Probably not in the way you want them to.

Dramatic arcs can help us to identify these critical moments where negative emotions and high engagement occur so you can focus and minimise stress for your customers. By taking a macro view of the dramatic arc, we get a vision of the engagement storyline that tourists have when they visit your location, allowing you to design experiences that will excite, relax, engage and enthrall travellers.

Storyboard images

Humans are brilliant at understanding and empathizing with images. Look at the situation from the perspective of your customer, take photos of the room, the food, the bus ticket and the map of the city. Whatever your guest interacts with, look at it and take a photo. Collect their impressions and visualize them. This makes it easier for you and your team to comprehend the journey of your guests, from their eyes. Find and insert images that show the situation of the customer at every step of the journey.

Communication channels

Customers have a multitude of channels that they use to interact with and get informed. Visualizing these channels in the customer journey helps you to keep an overview of all the channels and maybe even to think of new marketing channels.

  • What information do guests need?
  • What information comes from where?
  • Is there anyone who has provided your guest with the information about time difference, the map of the city etc.?

Tourism is a product where there is a great complexity of different service providers involved. Keeping an overview and visualizing the different communication channels is important so that you are able to understand what information guests have received, and from whom.  

Backstage processes

In many ways we can see a tourism experience like a performance. Where the actors are your guests, businesses and services are the supporting roles and your town or city is the backdrop to their experience. However, using this analogy, guests are largely unaware they are part of a well coordinated performance.

So how is this performance coordinated? All of the backstage processes that go into service delivery. Whether it's the work that goes into producing captivating promotional materials or the development of communication and processes that weave the journey between different service providers together.

The seamless customer experience is built on the foundation of a well managed sequence of backstage processes. On the level of a single service provider, say for example an airport there is a vast range of different processes that exist to keep the customer experience smooth and uninterrupted. It is crucial to be able to map these processes out so that connections can be made to customer experiences as well as efficiency refinements within your organization. Many different processes are going on at the same time and need to run smoothly in the background to ensure a seamless customer experience.

Circling back to the example of a tourist board, where it might not be relevant when only looking at the organization exclusively. Mapping out backstage processes can be extremely valuable when creating a repository of journey maps organized as a hierarchy, where journeys of different scales can be connected and stored together.

This makes sense when multiple service providers and organizations are willing to work together to create a great customer experience. In general a journey map hierarchy consists of one high level journey map that visualizes the step by step journey of a customer’s vacation or business trip experience. Most probably every step of the journey consists of a separate, more detailed journey that can then be created by the individual service providers. Learn in more detail about journey map repositories by watching our Ask Marc sessions about journey map operations and journey map repositories or by reading our article on the what and why of a repository.

Example journey map from a travel experience

journey map with multiple steps and multiple levels of detail, like storyboard, description and phases
Expand journey map

Challenges when introducing customer journey mapping in the tourism and travel industry

The challenges of introducing journey maps within your organization will depend on what kind of tourism organization you work with. There are a great number of  factors that can influence an organization's willingness to adopt a customer-centric journey based approach to customer experience. These can include the maturity level and size of an organization, an openness and willingness to embrace change, financial constraints as well as a curiosity to engage with customers and understand life from their eyes. Because of this range of variables it can be difficult to make general statements about the typical challenges, however we will outline a few that are the most common ones encountered.

Understanding the importance

One aspect that often poses a hurdle in small tourist businesses is the understanding of the importance of journey mapping. People may wonder why it is relevant or necessary to the development of their business. Often, the collective perception is that the target group and their experiences, pain points and expectations are known. “We’ve always done it like this and it has always worked, our customers are happy. So why should we change anything?” – this is a common understanding of customer experience in small and medium-sized hotels or DMOs. This fixed mindset approach can be a hurdle as there is little willingness to improve the status quo.

Silo thinking

On the one hand, siloed thinking and working within an organization can be a challenge that tourism operators experience. Silos often play a crucial role in challenging an organization to put the customer at the center of their services. Working together, across organizational silos is necessary in order to spread service design in the whole organization.

On the other hand, siloed thinking also exists between operators which may make the experience cluttered. The tourism experience for a traveller is a bundle of services delivered by many different service providers. The challenge is to get all the different service providers and build a seamless experience together. Showing them the importance and together working on a solution. Building a strong network is the challenge, where journey mapping might help to establish a common language and therefore foster customer experience management.

Established processes in an organization

Established cultural practices of ingrained processes can be a roadblock for change. This can depend on the maturity level of an organization, especially in organizations that have been established over many years, change is not always easy. However there are several approaches that can ease the growing pains of change. For example finding champions within your organization who support and encourage new ways of working can help with awareness and support. It can also be helpful to have clear and active communication channels with employees that emphasize why and how new methods of working are beneficial and necessary. Show them interesting parts of customer research, visual outputs that assist understanding and engage them in how their role has an indirect or direct impact on customer experience. At the very least awareness is a great first step towards change.  

Personas are dynamic

It must be considered that in today’s tourism environment that customer needs and expectations are fluid. You cannot conduct research to develop a persona and expect it to be valid for the next ten years. People change and personas change. Their (un-)conscious desires and pain points change over time, not least due to steady innovation and technical progress. For example, digitization has changed people’s way of living, working and travelling abruptly and completely.

Booking online, wayfinding, online payment of tickets, audio guides, translation services and a lot more. Also new markets have arisen from the industrial and technical progress made by previously less wealthy countries, such as China or India. With the continual progress being made by other countries, markets will continue to shift, change, and new markets will arise. Therefore, it is crucial to constantly stay on top of new developments and keep personas up to date.

In the end it’s all about the people who work in an organization and how the management tries to embed it in an organization. When people see the benefit of putting customer centricity at the core of the organization the basis has been set.

Create your free tourism journey map with Smaply!


Tourists have high expectations of their trips and expect everything to go smoothly. As people are very well informed and compare offers and reviews before going on a journey, the tourist market has become a lot more competitive over the last decade. But the fact that competition is getting stronger is not only due to this, but also because of globalization on all levels.

To ensure a seamlessly great experience it is important to look at the touristic product holistically and take all steps of the journey into consideration when collaborating with partners, stakeholders and employees. Journey mapping helps to get a company-wide shared understanding of guest’s pain points, needs and expectations. It has the potential and the power to embed a human-centric approach in your organization if you are willing to pursue it.

And now, what's next?

Now it's about implementing what you've just learned: Create tourism journey maps to understand the guests experience and innovate your services.

The journey mapping tool Smaply lets you easily create tourism and leisure journey maps, guest personas, and ecosystem maps.

Sign up now, it's free!

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