The perfect digital destination.

Finding the best-of-breed in UK “Visit” and tourism destination websites.

By Craig Cartwright9th March 2017

Having built VisitWales.com and the official VisitBritain we’re well aware that the “visit” domains are a popular choice for official (and sometimes non-official) UK tourism sites. Whether they be cities, counties or regions, many tourism organisations have adopted visit-name.something as their domain name.

Knowing the quality and quantity of information available on the official Visit-four: Visit Wales, Visit Scotland, Visit England and VisitBritain, we were keen to explore some of the smaller visit sites for UK cities and counties for a brief review. To find out if there is a perfect digital destination. We reviewed 40 different Visit sites ranging from areas such as Swansea Bay, onto towns and cities such as Knighton and Glasgow and finally county and regions such as Mid-Wales, Herefordshire and Wiltshire.

Latest technologies.

In particular, we were reviewing whether some of the more modern technologies such as mobile support, HTML5 and geolocation have been adopted and whether the sites were updated regularly.

It was interesting to find that out of all 40 websites, no one was really making use of latest technologies such as WebGL or geolocation, for example. Some were making use of HTML5 and Aria tags but weren’t pushing the boundaries with HTML5 techniques such as Canvas.

Mobile.

It’s good to see that most had now adopted a mobile strategy with 34 out of the 40 offering a mobile solution – whether responsive (30) or an m./mobile site (4). However, though the majority did support mobile, it did feel somewhat like an afterthought. That isn’t necessarily wrong as a mobile-first isn’t the answer to everything. How audiences use the site is far more important than adopting a technology.

That said, there were 8 sites in the results that we felt had spent time on reviewing the mobile journey and had done some optimisation. VisitYork, Visit Stoke and VisitCambridge all looked good in mobile form.

A special shout out to Visit Greenwich as we liked their mobile site – well optimised on the mobile user’s journey including loading speed, design and touchpoint sizes. It’s nice to see Visit Greenwich making use of responsive images to help optimise the speed and load of the site – a true “mobile while mobile” result and their approach to the navigation at the bottom of the mobile site permanently has an app-like feel.

Load times.

The load times of sites on a mobile 3G connection ranged from less than a second to load for Visit Stoke (our speed winner) to around 9 seconds for Visit Cardiff. Though all were under the 10-second mark, it was clear that the longer loading sites had issues with large images, carousels and article thumbnails. Visit Milton Keynes, though responsive, still had a lot of images and banners with fixed sizes which broke the responsive design.

SEO.

All sites came up on the first page of results for their specific location search, though not always within the top 5. They also all came up within the first 5 pages of a general search for “visit sites” which shows the sites are well optimised. A useful technique for SEO as well as good practice (especially if there are forms on site that ask for address details) is the use of https – SSL certificate for the site. However, only two sites were making use of https – VisitSnowdonia and VisitMiltonKeynes. We did expect to see more going down this route and wonder if it’s on roadmaps for next year.

Alternative comms.

Many promoted their social media counterparts either as quick links or as widgets (such as Twitter) on the homepage.

A popular choice for updates, latest news and offerings is the use of a newsletter. It was good to see nearly half of all sites (19) offering newsletter signups on their homepage. It was better to see none asking for a hundred and one details; just an email address and sometimes a name. Often asking for too much information (though valuable) is off-putting for the user and can act as a deterrent, reducing conversions for that form. Visit Leeds, VisitBelfast and VisitSwanseaBay are just three of the sites that seem on point.

Mapping.

Maps are a great way of displaying lists of things to do, hotels and accommodations, etc. Even better are interactive maps that the user can zoom, filter and re-position, allowing them to help plot itineraries, distances or position from their location. Part of the review is to see whether sites are offering map options, what type and what filtering/customisation the users could do to make their lives easier.

Out of the 40 sites, just over 50% (23) of the sites were making use of maps in some form with 6 relying on image-based maps and 2 still only offering downloads. Eleven were making use of Google Maps in some form, either on the attraction page to show location or at a top level where multiple locations could be seen (and hopefully, filtered - 8 offered filterable maps). Finally, two other sites where making use of OpenLayers for mapping, one using Bing (which looked quite nice) and one using OpenStreetMap. VisitManchester were using Google Maps well – a nice full-screen map with great filtering on a top level and delving deeper to even allow you to filter down to find various cuisines, etc.. VisitWinchester is another site with a good use of a filterable map for searching local amenities – this time using OpenLayers as the mapping agent.

Clever functionality.

Besides the usual features expected on a Visit site, we were keen to see if there was any clever functionality that set sites apart. One of the first sites we came across had a nice feature offering a “save to favourites” facility where users could add amenities to a short list to go back to. We were quite surprised to see several implementations of this or variants like “My Itinerary” on sites. Fourteen sites had the facility to save pages to a favourites section to review – however, only half of these included the facility to save them to a login – the others relied on cookies (slight concern) or lost them on exiting the site.

Accommodation booking was also quite popular with 7 sites offering online booking – VisitBristol and VisitIsleOfWight both having a nice simple-to-use and understand booking system. VisitYork, VisitLondon, Visit Greenwich and VisitBirmingham all offered event and ticket booking for some of their local attractions. While Visit Bath took a different approach and provided an online merchandise shop to buy memories of your time in Bath.

Most of the sites certainly provided great content for persuading you to come to the location – great information on attractions, places to eat, things to do, events to attend. However, most of the sites lacked a real chance of interacting with the users while “on location” – providing transport links, for example. That said, both VisitLondon and VisitYork also had mobile apps for users to help get around. We’re sure a few others would also have apps but these were the only two parties to advertise their app clearly on the homepage or top level pages.

Besides on location, most also missed the opportunity to retain users – very little took the opportunity to create memories, receive user-generated content like stories, opinions, ideas and suggestions. Many may well be concerned about abuse, but with modern day features such as Askimet, Mollum and pre/post moderation (though of course this does need resource and policing) there are ways of reducing such issues.

The digital destination.

It’s clear that several organisations had used the same two website/agency providers as many of the sites looked very similar – not just in terms of the content (after all, they are all going to have similar content) but the actual design, layout and content placeholders. This is a shame as it meant that organisations lacked showing their personality, their brand and what really makes that place special.

All sites made good use of imagery to promote the location and some had even started to play with video content. Design-wise, Visit Plymouth, Visit Greenwich, Visit Leeds, Visit Swansea Bay, Visit Isle of Wight and Visit York all stood out from the rest – clean, crisp and modern.

Not one site was perfect and ticked all boxes, we doubt such a site actually exists as it all comes down to money, resource and time – luxuries many tourist boards currently don’t have. But it’s clear that all organisations need to continue to, and ideally invest further in their web presences, to turn those site into digital destinations themselves, as more and more people turn to the web and to digital for holidays and breaks within the UK.

For more on digital tourism and travel, request your personal copy of our free Guide to Digital Tourism.