For Helsinki, Smart is more than a buzz word
A lot is happening in Helsinki, a lot of innovation according to Digital Tourism Think Tank. Laura Aalto from Helsinki Marketing agrees and explains that when it comes to tourism development in Helsinki, the focus is on ‘the good life’ for the visitors and inhabitants of Helsinki. The capital city of Finland was proud to tell that it won the Smart City Price, as the first city. For Helsinki, Laura explained, Smart is more than a buzz word. The Next Tourism Generation Alliance (NTG) aims to concentrate upon those digital, social and sustainable innovations as well, in order to prepare tourism businesses for a futureproof industry. This blog about Helsinki shows how a city can become ‘smart’ in the tourism industry.
“Boasting 460 years of history, Helsinki is also a modern city with a burgeoning smart tourism industry. In 2017, visitors to Finland’s capital reached record numbers, with in excess of 4.5 million people taking advantage of a destination that mixes high-tech and sustainable design with stunning arts and culture all in one compact and vibrant city.”
An important motivator for going digital and to become a true Smart city is ‘sustainability’. The growth that the tourism industry has experienced the last decades forces the industry to include sustainability in its core business. The world changes quickly and tourism needs to be changed. As a result, for Helsinki Marketing ‘good’ is not enough. This organization wants to aim higher and for that reason, focuses on four themes: Accessibility, sustainability, digitalization, and cultural heritage.
When it comes to accessibility, it is common to talk about how visitors arrive. In addition to that, Helsinki Marketing started to have attention for the fact that whatever a city has to offer, it should be accessible for all. In this process, policy making and design thinking were combined: A permanent Accessibility Officer was appointed and a project called ‘Helsinki for All’ got launched. The purpose of design thinking in this project was to understand the behavior of the visitors and inhabitants. One of the topics that were discussed, for example, was how to use all the public transport by wheelchair? As a result, nowadays the accessibility of this kind of aspects are included on the map of Helsinki.
Another example is the closing of the traditional tourism information office in the city center and the opening of two new centers at two arrival spots, namely one at the airport and one at the central station of Helsinki. Besides these two offices, people are helping visitors with questions on the street during high season. This is a result of different experiments on customer behavior. Another example when it comes to accessibility is Whim. This app combines all transport in one app. It doesn’t sell a product, but service in order to be able to travel from A to B. Finally, Blind Square was launched a GPS for not only blind people but also Asian travellers who are not familiar with our alphabet. Also, this service is the result of the change of focus, from product to service.
“Visitors will see first-hand some of the 143 measures in place to help Helsinki become carbon neutral by 2035. The Helsinki Road Map prevents overcrowding and supports local business as it guides tourists around the city, while 75% of hotel rooms are certified environmentally friendly. Helsinki is also increasing the share of cycling, walking, and electric cars and trains.”
Related to the theme of sustainability, it needed to be embedded in the core business of Helsinki. Sustainability is something that can no longer be avoided and it is changing our as well as the behavior of the visitor. Tourists nowadays also want sustainable tourism. As a consequence, Helsinki developed a roadmap for sustainable tourism, together with the inhabitants. For Helsinki Marketing it was important that the inhabitants will eventually not turn against tourism. “Keep the locals on board,” was the message of Laura Aalto. Local commitment is very important. Moreover, companies worked together in improving the sustainability of the tourism industry in Helsinki by focusing on issues such as the ‘waste water’ charging in the port of Helsinki, getting the hotel rooms more environmentally friendly, increasing solar panels in the city and so on.
Digitalization, the third theme, is all about service and communication. It is not a project, Laura Aalto emphasizes. “Digitalization is an ongoing thing, it is something we need,” she says. Virtual Helsinki, for example, is a platform where (tourism) business and customers can meet each other. It enables the business to sell their products or services: Customers at home can put on their glasses and visit different companies and check different products, but can also invite their friends to meet each other in Virtual Helsinki in the near future. This is, in other words, more than only 360-degree videos, it is a sustainable platform.
Moreover, many cities collect data but do not share them with others. Helsinki has been sharing data sets since 2009, for example about transport. This openness gives software developers the chance to come up with new ideas, of which Helsinki Marketing was not thinking of. Laura Aalto repeats that it is important, in order to become a Smart City, to open the doors. MyHelsinki for example, which is an app that gives you personalized information, featuring recommendations from the people who know the city best – the locals. It is based on open data: Locations, activities, and events. It is free for users. Helsinki Marketing provides content to those who can add value, cities are according to Laura Aalto the future change makers. She explains that Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) need to understand that they can add value to companies outside tourism as well.
And finally, cultural heritage. Visitors love authenticity and local experiences. Amos Rex is one of the examples of authenticity and locality, praised by the New York Times. The quote of the mayor of Helsinki is considered is a brave quote in a world that focuses on growth. The quote of the mayor represents the vision of Helsinki, that is not about growth, but about quality:
“We realize that Helsinki is for an acquired taste. We will never be a mass market destination and are happy to leave that to some other destinations. Our focus is on quality – not quantity. This also supports our mission to develop tourism in a sustainable way. It’s a known fact that a congress visitor leaves substantially more money behind than a cruise ship passenger. As a small city, we must concentrate on the most beneficial outcome for the city.
Tourism brings many new services to the city but at the same time, we must make sure that it does not minimize the services valued by the locals. Helsinki takes its responsibility as a facilitator seriously. We know that travelers are getting more and more demanding, but we also know that the local population needs more. When we are the best version of ourselves to the local audiences we also offer the best of Helsinki to the travelers. This might not be an idea for the masses – but for a single city 1% is enough – as long as they are from the top end.”