Thomas Winkler und Markus Dittli von Schweiz Tourismus im Gespräch.
Magazine

MySwitzerland.com: A Keen Eye for Innovation Serving Switzerland

  • Nicole Buri

As an early adopter, Switzerland Tourism actively uses new technologies to provide its guests with continuous and needs-based support when they are planning their trips. Thomas Winkler, Head of Digital Management and member of the management board, and Markus Dittli, Head of Digital Platform & Project Management, are driving digital transformation forward in the national tourism marketing organization and spoke to us about their key ideas, innovation and the relaunch of MySwitzerland.com.

Key Ideas & Goals

What is the strategic significance of the online channel for Switzerland Tourism?

Thomas Winkler: These days, most tourists turn to the internet for information when planning their trips. Switzerland Tourism is systematically investing in digital transformation and, as an early adopter, is continually testing new technologies to provide its guests with ongoing and needs-based support throughout their online customer journey. MySwitzerland.com is the backbone of customer communication and the most comprehensive information platform in Switzerland, a popular destination for holidays and conferences. The content management system (CMS) is a key element of the internet presence.

MySwitzerland.com works as a hub. What role does the platform play in the ecosystem between destinations, tourism organizations and travelers?

Thomas Winkler: During the customer buying cycle, Switzerland Tourism and MySwitzerland.com mainly focus on the “dream” and “plan” phases. Our mission is to encourage guests to visit Switzerland. This is why MySwitzerland.com primarily focuses on inspiring users and tries to support them in the planning phase by providing specific experiences and offers. As soon as users decide to book offers or services, we send them to the webpages for the relevant destinations and service providers.

Service providers and destinations can enter their own experiences, offers and news onto the platform with the aim of reflecting the diversity of offers and experiences in as comprehensive and complete a manner as possible. This information is displayed on MySwitzerland.com. We also import data from partners offering high-quality content which is of value to tourists. For example, we import numerous hiking, cycling and biking routes from SchweizMobil.

In summary, we aggregate information relevant to tourists from a variety of sources, structure them and add to them, and display them on our website in up to 16 languages. We do all of this with the aim of giving our guests as comprehensive an overview as possible of Switzerland’s diversity.

You can’t visit MySwitzerland.com without falling in love with Switzerland. What were the main ideas behind the relaunch?

Thomas Winkler: We identified several key ideas, which were also laid out in the project order. The key idea of “Dream, Plan, Go, Share” which focused on the “Dream” and “Plan” phases was the driving force behind the relaunch. At the same time, we realized that we wanted to improve the inspirational element of the site. One of the ways we did this was by developing the inspiration calendar, which was both visually stunning and a technical highlight. Another key idea was that guests should leave the site with an image of Switzerland in their minds, regardless of where they came from and why they accessed the website. Traveling is almost always about one or several specific destinations. This is why we focus on the destinations and use them as the starting point for a 360-degree perspective. Another approach we took in pursuit of this key idea was creating the map. The new map function makes it easier than ever before to get an overview of everything you can do as a tourist!

Markus Dittli: Another key idea was that MySwitzerland.com should focus on our guests. This might sound fairly obvious, but putting it into practice is not as straightforward as it seems. Going beyond statistical analysis, you have to minimize internal influences and points of view and involve guests in developing the website. More specifically, we conducted guest surveys prior to relaunch. During the project, we regularly asked users to test website prototypes in ergonomie und technologie’s usability laboratory. This enabled us to identify problematic areas early on in the project and take action as a result. We also used these usability reviews to test the navigation or navigation structure and wording. Towards the end of the project, we collected feedback on a beta version and improved and corrected the site both before and after the go-live date.

Thomas Winkler: On this note, it was important to us to ensure that the website was accessible at its relaunch. This was a major challenge that we took on together with the “Access for all” foundation and integrated early on in the project during the frontend implementation. Older people benefit from this in particular. This was also in line with our main aim of focusing on our guests.

Editors are also key stakeholders in the new website. This is why we wanted to increase efficiency for them, in addition to focusing on our guests. Due to the immense amount of data and number of languages we process, it is vital that as many operations as possible are automated or at least partially automated. Integrating surrounding systems also helps to increase efficiency. A good example of this is the integration of our translation agency’s translation management system. Using a Sitecore module, editors can place translation orders directly from the CMS. As soon as the content has been translated, the system imports the translations automatically. The editors only have to carry out an internal review and then approve the translations for release. The tedium of copy and paste is now a thing of the past. Another good example is the use of artificial intelligence or machine learning. We use a cloud solution to deliver images in various formats and sizes. The cloud solution delivers the right image on demand and crops the image using machine learning. It works exceptionally well in many cases and reduces the time and effort spent on creation.

Markus Dittli: As we weren’t just building a new website but also introducing a new CMS, we were playing with the idea of structuring the data more clearly from the very start. This is why we invested so much time in the situation and environment analysis to find out more about the content we are marketing, how we can differentiate between different content and how we can characterize it. All this information is mapped in a classification (or ontology) and forms the website’s basis in data terms. This is structured in such a way that its use is not limited to the website alone. We use the data from the CMS for our apps and microsites, populate metadata such as schema.org with this structured content and are much more flexible than we were, thanks to the detailed structure of the output. Although we are not yet operating headless, we are ready to do so and can use the CMS as a content hub for future projects. A good example of this is the Open Data API, which we will be launching in 2020. We are currently implementing this public API interface in line with the open data principle. This will enable us to obtain, use and process structured tourism content in up to 14 languages.

Thomas Winkler: Last but not least, we wanted to use the platform to set a benchmark in the tourism industry featuring numerous technological innovations.

Thomas Winkler, Head of Digital Management, und Mitglied der Geschäftsleitung.
Thomas Winkler, Head of Digital Management, und Mitglied der Geschäftsleitung.

Innovations

You see yourselves as early adopters of new technologies. How do your innovative approaches and functionalities come about?

Thomas Winkler: Everyone involved in the project needs to be curious and willing to take risks. But, most importantly, they need to be interested in new technological possibilities. They also need to have a keen eye for which innovations might be most widely accepted by users. We are partly guided by web projects within the tourism industry but even more so by the best web and e-commerce solutions worldwide. We are inspired by large and successful platforms. For example, we have adapted some of Zalando’s ideas and taken Airbnb’s map view as a benchmark and tried to implement the map module even more effectively. We are always coming up with great ideas during group discussions, or sometimes even in our free time over a cigar.

Markus Dittli: Innovations are not the product of quiet rooms but come about through internal interdisciplinary exchange and close collaboration with our agencies. Normally, in agile projects, it takes a great many iterations and prototypes before a function is mature. Of course, technology trends and technological developments also play a role. These need to be skillfully integrated at the right time.

The video inspiration calendar is a clear example of this. The original idea was to have a 365-day image calendar on MySwitzerland.com’s homepage. During one of our regular discussions with Hinderling Volkart, we wondered whether a mere image calendar would really still be innovative at the go-live date. We quickly came to the conclusion that more was needed and that we wanted to inspire our guests using videos. We wanted to take the idea of linkable images and apply it to the videos by adding meta-links. Since this kind of solution wasn’t yet on the market, we had to come up with the final solution ourselves. Over the course of many iterations on this meta level, we tested the performance on smartphones, tablets and desktop computers, as well as working on motion control using the gyro sensor and on film production. The result, the inspiration calendar of Switzerland, is unique, showing Switzerland in all its diversity and four seasons through 48 films, each 15 seconds long. An additional visual navigation level takes you straight from the film to the content. The inspiration calendar is available on all devices: desktop computers, smartphones, tablets and even virtual reality headsets.

Which factors are key to ensuring that customers embrace innovation?

Thomas Winkler: It is important to be innovative in the first place! For organizations to be innovative, you need to have the right organizational structure in place and there must be room to air crazy ideas that may seem far-fetched at first. We have now reached a point where we always have more ideas than our resources and budget can handle. The members of Digital Management Crew have completely different skills and personalities, which always leads to new ideas. We also have our own trend radar, which shows the digital tools and technologies that are currently trending in tourism marketing. This kind of analysis is worth its weight in gold, but we must have the time and space to deal with each idea actively and not just on a superficial level.

From a customer’s perspective, we aim to ensure that innovations either offer users hassle-free added value or provide a positive stimulus for users. Our inspiration calendar has achieved both of these things. Moreover, innovations are only embraced if the basic services or basic information are good enough. If the focus of MySwitzerland.com’s website was purely on innovation and nothing else, it would not be as successful as it is.

Another way of ensuring that innovations are embraced is through reduction. If the benefit to the user is clear and not hidden away beneath a myriad of other functions, it is much more likely that the innovation will be embraced. We originally got a little carried away with our map module and overloaded it with functions. In time, by carrying out intensive tests and gradually reducing the functions to just the key aspects, we managed to get what we had been aiming at all along: an innovative feature that is both accepted and used by our guests.

Project

What were the greatest challenges during the project and how did you overcome them?

Markus Dittli: We have faced numerous challenges, as is usual in these sorts of projects. The first challenge was the budget and milestone planning, which had been outlined as a rough idea before the project started and had consequently taken place four years before the project actually began. The next challenge arose with the pressure of making sure we were choosing the right CMS to work with for the next 10 to 15 years. We then faced a third challenge when it came to the necessary public procurement. We overcame these challenges by reflecting on the project at a very early stage, carrying out reference visits, holding discussions with experts, as well as meticulously basing all our requirements on the situation and target analysis.

The technical challenges included migrating the data from the former CMS, ensuring the website continued to perform (as well as offering greater availability worldwide) and preventing massive drops in the search engine ranking. Here, similar measures proved effective. The sooner you set goals and realize the impact it will have if you don’t work towards them, the sooner you can tackle these potential problems. We also got specialists on board to help us in these areas early on. To deal with the data migration issue, we transferred the data to a neutral intermediate format, which Sitecore then used as the data import source. To ensure performance, we regularly conducted analysis of loading times in the frontend and backend and set up two CDN solutions, which also guaranteed that the website could be operated smoothly in China. To maintain the search engine ranking, we established that we could largely map the old URLs (including parameters) onto the new pages and the new URL structure, ensuring that we lost less traffic and that search engines did not have to learn about our website from scratch.

I consider one of the main organizational challenges to be working on paper for such a long time. We are surrounded by ideas but have no proof that the idea will ever work and our vision will be realized. Of course, we see signs of progress every day that seem perfectly evident to us experts. However, this progress is not always as evident to guests and internal stakeholders, particularly editors. We have to show and convince them that their needs are being taken seriously and that we are gradually working toward the goal. Prototypes can help with this. In some cases, however, prototypes can also be counterproductive, because they raise questions and don’t offer many answers. I don’t have any one way to overcome this challenge but I think patience, trust and continually reflecting on what you have already achieved are steps in the right direction. At the same time, you should not underestimate the complexity and effort involved in content development. Not because this work cannot be managed and coordinated, but because the dependency on the technical implementation and stability of the platform is very high. If you are developing content at full throttle while also pushing ahead with development, this will inevitably lead to conflict.

A project term of three years – with a big bang at the start of May – this means a strong need for collaboration within the project team. How did you keep the motivation and pace high the entire time?

Markus Dittli: I think that a lot of the motivation of those involved in the project was intrinsic. This was partly due to the fact that we were marketing the fantastic and highly representative product of “Switzerland”, which has a strong, positive public image. At the same time, however, the project itself played a role. Completely redesigning a website and working on and influencing a project of this kind, size and complexity is definitely a source of great motivation.

To keep the pace high, we ensured that we strictly adhered to the milestones right from the start. Long-term projects tend to give team members the impression that they have lots of time to solve particular problems. We tried to use regular releases as a means of keeping both the pace and motivation high. Manageable work packages with meaningful benefits are very useful here.

To support collaboration between team members, the entire project team meets at regular intervals for a week at a time. This has proven successful. It can play a particularly significant role in removing technical and social barriers between members of an interdisciplinary team that is spread all over Switzerland, Poland and Belarus. Working together on site considerably speeds up processes thanks to the decreased communication overhead. The social aspect also comes into play, with team spirit and the sense of belonging being strengthened. I would instigate this kind of teamwork again any day, as the benefits are quite clear and are entirely positive!

Markus Dittli, Head of Digital Platform & Project Management, Schweiz Tourismus
Markus Dittli, Head of Digital Platform & Project Management, Schweiz Tourismus

Personal Conclusion

Was there one moment that stood out for you during the project? If so, what was it?

Thomas Winkler: The moment that stood out for me was seeing the automatically migrated data in the new CMS for the first time. Migrating the data from 18,000 webpages in 16 languages that had grown historically over the last 20 years was the cause of many sleepless nights for me at the start of the project. That is why we started the data migration project before designing the platform and putting it out to tender. The migration from the old CMS via a neutral format into the new CMS was a total success and was 90% automated.

Markus Dittli: One moment that stood out for me was, as in the automotive industry, the “marriage” of the backend and frontend. In early 2018, we integrated the backend and frontend for the very first editor training course and were able to edit pages for the first time. At this point in time, part of the data imports was already included and the migrated data was available. This meant that we were able to use real data in an environment close to the production line to verify whether the designs and ideas that we had been developing for two and a half years would actually work in the real world. This training course showed me that we still had a long way to go but that the fundamental structure worked and we hadn’t made any major design or architectural errors.

What are you particularly proud of?

Thomas Winkler: I am particularly proud of three points: Firstly, we were able to complete this very complex project on time, down to the day, and within budget. Secondly, my extremely skillful team did a great job and there was zero turnover throughout the entire project phase. Thirdly, the go-live of the new platform was completely painless and went smoothly.

Markus Dittli: I am proud of so many things! I am proud of the entire project team who worked at such a high level for a very long time and kept the pace up. I am proud of the fact that we didn’t just have a vision but were also able to realize it to a very high degree. I am proud that we were able to keep to our ambitious milestones and dates, despite having a project with an implementation phase of three-and-a-half years. Finally, I am proud of the successful go-live and the final result: MySwitzerland.com.

Some Background Information

Thomas Winkler heads the Digital Management department of Switzerland Tourism and is a member of the management board. The department consists of 19 employees divided between three teams: Digital Productions, Digital Marketing and Digital Platform. He is fascinated by combining the marketing side of Switzerland Tourism with technology and digital innovations. His dream is to continually set new benchmarks in the tourism industry.

Markus Dittli heads the Digital Platform & Project Management team under Thomas Winkler’s supervision. The team is in charge of the operation and further development of the digital guest platforms, such as CMS and CRM, the international brochure shop (including logistics and dispatch) as well as the apps. The team is also responsible for project management. Markus sees himself as a mediator between his guests’ needs and internal needs, as well as the technical options and complexities. He is motivated by the challenge of getting the best out of what is desired, what is required and what is technically feasible. Doing this for a product as wonderful as Switzerland itself is just the icing on the cake!

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