Are tourism universities flushing money away with their research?

Think about the amazing people with excellent ideas and powerful intellect spending hundreds and hundreds of man hours carefully analysing and studying the world of tourism and travel. What is it worth to the industry? Would the annual figure be in millions of pounds?

OK, not all of it is usable or always strictly relevant to the industry end user, but shouldn’t it be? Isn’t that the real purpose of research?

I’d be very surprised if more than 10% of research work at tourism universities and colleges around the world find real-time use in the industry. Now, I am stretching my neck out with that number based on what I have seen and experienced – there just does not seem to be enough data on this.

And in most cases, it is not a reflection of the quality of the work. There seems to be a missing link between the academic work and the industry. Some universities like Cornell, Oxford Brookes, Bologna University and University of Applied Sciences, Salzburg are doing some excellent work together with the industry. And I am sure there are many more!

Can tourism universities and colleges collaborate more with the industry? Should more tourism universities derive commercial benefits as well from this research? And if the answer is yes, how can tourism universities do it?


Let us start by looking at why
  • The industry needs it. The customer is evolving fast and so are their needs. Tourism companies are drowning in data not knowing how to put it to good use. Technology is on a furious march. Change in business needs to happen faster. This can happen only with sound research-based decisions
  • Economic challenges and funding cuts faced by the education sector (particularly in the UK) make it prudent for universities to find new ways to target industry challenges more specifically and be paid for it
  • Purely academic research remain unused. It can miss out on fulfilling the needs of the industry. Focused industry specific and industry driven research allows universities to build a strong bridge between business and academic learning
  • Universities that develop a sustainable commercial proposition through its research is likely to attract a wider range of businesses to hire from it
  • It helps generate new revenue streams. Focused industry driven research provides universities with an opportunity to optimise existing strengths to generate additional revenue sources.

The benefits are obvious
  • Universities can generate more revenue from their research
  • Revenue from research can be a sustainable and profitable income stream
  • In-demand research products provide more credibility for the institution
  • It allows for closer working with the industry and building better ties
  • High-quality research measured against exacting industry requirements develop students to have a better fit with the industry
  • In turn, this leads to a higher profile for university students within the industry
  • Everyone gets to benefit – the students, the university and the industry

Here are some specific models of monetising research opportunities that work well
  • Universities could easily develop a paid membership site for access to research
  • Research presented in mixed use data set models eg: http://tourismdataforafrica.org (The African Development Bank (AfDB) in collaboration with New York University (NYU) Africa House and the Africa Travel Association (ATA) has developed the Tourism Data for Africa Portal to provide access to Tourism related data on African countries.)
  • A paid research on request menu for companies that seek to investigate specific aspects relevant to them
  • Develop Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) in conjunction with research projects
  • Universities can provide action-oriented E-learning /training platforms for hotel & tourism companies
  • Registering patents for specific discoveries
  • Investigate government led models like the UK’s Private Knowledge Transfer Programme
  • Deliver events based on research in fast evolving areas of travel including Data science, unified customer profile across systems, Internet Of Things, Blockchain technology, virtual reality and more

So if a University is new to this idea, here is how to get started
  • Review and understand the big challenges – ask the market. Hotels, travel companies, travel buyers.
  • Review products of well-known industry research companies like BDRC, Phocuswright, Eyefortravel, Skift and similar to check market appetite
  • Estimate market size and segments relevant to your institution
  • Create a clear vision – pick an area to specialise in eg: applying data to generate bookings and be world class in that area.
  • Tailor available research mechanism to develop a minimum viable product for sale
  • Develop a preliminary blueprint to bring convergence between research, entrepreneurship and market-ready products
  • Develop a business plan
  • Finalise market ready products (example: a research subscriber, undertake a custom research project or purchase individual reports)
  • Create or adapt existing mechanisms to develop and deliver
  • Build a strong online marketing platform to promote and build lists/prospects to announce new products

As someone deeply passionate about the tourism industry and the education sector, it will be wonderful to persuade more universities to consider this more urgently.

What do you think? Is there a danger of universities becoming too commercial with this approach? Whatever the concern, I believe that there should be far more real world alignment between the needs of the industry and research at universities.

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