Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ripping Up The Tourism Rulebook

In 1970 Richard Branson did something unusual. He started selling records by mail order. The adverts for this suddenly appeared in the "NME". It was new, it was innovative; it broke rules. That the following year Branson opened the legendary store above the shoe shop on Oxford Street didn't make the rule-breaking any less. It was an assault on the cosiness of HMV, Woolies and the department store record department.

I was, if you like, a Branson babe. I bought by mail order. I used to go to that old store above the shoe shop. Over the next few years I got to know a number of people who worked for Virgin's retail business and for the record label. Not everyone was complimentary of Branson. Not everyone liked him. But one thing he was good at was allowing ideas to flourish, to allow others to take charge of them and to develop them. He enabled change and constant innovation and evolution. The record label reflected this. After four years of existence, Virgin ripped up its own hippyish rulebook. The anti-Christs of music, The Sex Pistols, spat into life.

Constant innovation and evolution, and these were co-ordinated according to a unified brand. Branson may have gone on to irritate the pants off you (and me) because of his often ineloquent self-publicity, but give the guy his due. It wasn't single-handed, even if it might have seemed so, but he made a difference. A very big difference. He created a brand of possibility, of alternative aspirations, one for which the business option of "doing nothing" was struck from the corporate lexicon, if indeed it had ever appeared in it.

In 1970, at the same time as Branson was ripping up the record retailing rulebook, Mallorca was, despite a relatively short number of years of its tourism industrial revolution, already "mature". It still had enormous scope for growth, which did occur and massively so, but the basic Mallorcan proposition, the brand, was already betraying signs of crisis. Mallorca was the Woolworth of holidaymaking. It was essentially naff, familiar through its own saturation, and conformist. You couldn't go into Woolies and buy an armful of American West Coast albums. At Virgin you could. In Mallorca you could come and find a beach, sun and sangria, and the offer was essentially the same wherever the tour operator decided you were going.

Despite the undoubted streak of entrepreneurialism which characterised its early tourism, both knowingly and unknowingly Mallorca became a victim of its own success. It was, in business terms, a first mover. If there were an appreciation of what this meant, then it was one which emphasised the advantages. Mallorca was the first to mass tourism market. Thus it would always reap the benefits, right? Wrong. Business is full of examples of first movers which, because they became bloated and lethargic, allowed their advantage to wither. More known would have been the constraints of Spanish statism. The regime may have allowed tourism to flourish but it did so according to a rigid notion of what this tourism meant. It is absolutely no coincidence that Mallorca (and Spain) arrived kicking and screaming into the twentieth century because of two mass industries - tourism and car production. It was Fordism for the swinging sixties, and for tourism this meant any colour so long as it was sandy, bluey and the blood red of sangria.

The shock of the oil crisis was what was meant to have changed things. But it didn't to any significant extent. The next shock - the death of Franco - led eventually to autonomous government. This ushered in the closest that Mallorca has ever had to a tourism entrepreneurial politician, Jaume Cladera, but far from a reinvention or an alteration of thinking to permit constant innovation and evolution, Cladera ended up having to invent a rulebook which hadn't previously existed. Legislation followed legislation followed legislation. Though some of this was good and is still good (Delgado's 2012 tourism bill wasn't all bad by any means), regional government spawned atrophy through hyper-lexis, the antithesis of conditions for constant innovation and evolution.

You want someone who will break the rules for Mallorca. Instead, you have what is essentially a tourism technocracy. Rather than constant innovation, there is constant attention to the minutiae of plans which conflict with each other and of the inevitable piles of legislation. Nothing much happens because nothing much can happen. But perhaps we overestimate the ability of any one person or one body to effect change. Mallorca may have long been a mature tourism destination, but its maturity is still only relatively youthful. The future hasn't been written, therefore. And this is the essence of the problem. No one knows what that future is or should be. Perhaps when they work it out though, they could advertise it in the "NME".

No comments: