Whale watching tour operators will want to ensure that they offer the best possible experience to their passengers – one that will set them apart and generate positive feedback on the increasing number of social media platforms that people use to evaluate their tourism experiences and share them with others. What elements are involved in ensuring this high quality experience? Research and anecdotal experience shows that the following strategies have contributed to the success of many whale watching businesses around the world:
- Safety first: Tourists will be looking for operators that place customers’ comfort and safety above all else. They will be looking for vessels that are properly licensed to take out recreational passengers and equipped with the standard safety equipment like life-jackets and communication systems. They will place their trust in the skipper/captain to make sensible decisions about weather conditions and when it is time to cut a tour short for reasons of safety and comfort. Of course some ‘gung ho’ customers may put pressure on skippers to carry on until a whale is found, regardless of conditions. But skippers should bear in mind that a negative safety incident will have much greater, lasting and damaging consequences for the business’s reputation than the possible disappointment of a single customer.
- Customer satisfaction through management of expectations: Whale watching can become very competitive, and operators are challenged to attract customers through their harbour-side/shop-front information, leaflets and brochures that are left in hotel lobbies and visitor centers, and ever more importantly, through their online marketing materials. It may be tempting to promise whale sightings and use spectacular photos or videos of animals engaged in the most striking behaviours that customers are unlikely to observe first-hand. These may reel in a few first-time customers, but businesses that stand the test of time, and receive positive recommendations on social media, are those that create realistic expectations for their customers and live up to those expectations. Operators cannot control weather conditions or the distribution of whales from one day to the next, but they can control how they will interact with and care for customers, how much information will be provided to customers to make their tour interesting and educational (see below), and how they contribute to the local community and conservation of whales and dolphins and their environment. These are elements that can be emphasized in marketing materials, as well as the whales and dolphins themselves.