Never has Florence or Tuscany had to deal with the competition that it is facing today as new tourism markets open up on an almost daily basis: China; the ex-eastern bloc countries; some African countries; new locations in established markets such as in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Egypt.
And even within the traditional stomping ground of world tourism, Western Europe, low-cost airlines are creating new destinations by landing their planes in tourism ?deserts,' making small local towns such as L?beck, Germany; Trapani, Sicily; and Aberdeen, Scotland, points of interest for long weekends. Of course, Florence and its environs have natural and cultural resources unrivaled anywhere else in the world, but it remains true that other destinations are unique, culturally interesting, historically rich, artistically well-endowed. Florence simply cannot hope to retain its top spot based on what it once was and what remains of its past.
In November, the third annual Buy Tourism Online, which was held in Florence, highlighted the fact that some excellent tourist enterprises in Tuscany are making every attempt to move with the times and compete with their new and largely invisible competitors spread literally across the globe. The region as yet has no effective regional branding scheme in place, there are few functional networks of industry operators, no vacation packages that unite complementary industry operators and no set of common goals that identify the local tourism industry as a whole.
Individually, however, there are some stand-outs. The new Hotel Mulino di Firenze, built right on the banks of the Arno just outside the city centre (www.hotelmulinodifirenze.com) has created an identity: luxury, history and wellness. It offers an interesting array of high-value amenities, such as wifi, a biodynamic lake (!) and covered parking. Its marketing strategy is through Web 2.0, with links to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and, of course, TripAdvisor, where it is already rated among the top 30 hotels in Florence. The site is not yet in English (I've been assured that it will be, soon), and some link glitches on the site need ironing out, but overall it stands out as a clearly positioned and communicated as unique value.The highly positive feedback on Trip Advisor also makes the website highly credible.
Another success story is that of Palazzo Strozzi in central Florence (www.palazzostrozzi.org). Unusual for a museum in Florence, Palazzo Stozzi's leadership has a very clear and broad sense of mission and it seems determined that the Strozzi will not simply be ?just another' museum. The programs include educational events, carefully curated exhibitions, workshops for children, films and a variety of attractions to entice visitors into the historical building. And once inside, the visitor is introduced to thematic tours around Florence that extend beyond the confines of the museum to the surrounding area (on the first Tuesday of each month join a ?stroller tour' for mums with toddlers, a great way to meet new people and have fun, too). Again, the website has some language confusion (on some English pages some of the text is in Italian), and there is no integration with their social media efforts. Palazzo Strozzi is on Facebook (twice, both in the 'illegal' format of a personal profile and, more appropriately, as a fan page). They are also vaguely present on Twitter, with just 30 followers and recycled content from the Facebook page, and little interaction with followers. But the uniqueness of the palazzo's offer, the constant updating of events and the variety thereof means that no one can ever say 'I've done palazzo Strozzi;' it's one of those places you can go back to again and again.
Another standout is Ristorante Accademia (www.ristoranteaccademia.it/blog/home), in central Florence. The management apparently makes very little effort to promote and communicate the restaurant's activities: the web site is unexciting and not up to date (as I write in early December, the Thanksgiving dinner is still being advertised, although it must be said that the English is outstanding), and there is no use of any social media. However, the single link on the home page to TripAdvisor, where the restaurant is rated number three in Florence, speaks volumes. Once again, where the value lies in the offer is clear: excellent food, friendly service, cozy ambiance. This is a stellar example of the power of peer opinions and information whose origins cannot be traced back to the business itself.
Florence is changing slowly. But these are tough times, and state and trade association funds and assistance are thin on the ground. Currently marketing is very much up to individual businesses: take the initiative and learn to clearly state what the business does and why it is different-and then make sure this message gets to the right places and to the right people.