K-State to partner with English university on international tourism research

Dr. Tom Williams, professor for the University of Chester Business School's Finance and Travel and Tourism program, speaks in Sara Quinn's magazine and feature writing class in Kedzie Hall on Feb. 8, 2016. (Miranda Snyder | The Collegian)

A partnership is in the works between K-State and the University of Chester that would bring students and professors together to conduct research on international tourism.

Barbara DeSanto, associate professor of journalism and mass communications at K-State, and Tom Williams, deputy head of the department of business and finance and executive MBA director at the University of Chester, are working together to form a partnership between the two universities.

DeSanto said she wants to know what factors influence British people in deciding whether or not to travel to the U.S. Specifically, DeSanto is focusing on gun violence in the U.S. and if it hurts international tourism.

“I am very, very interested in gun violence in this country and what the rest of the world thinks of us,” DeSanto said. “A lot of the rest of the world thinks everybody has a gun, everybody just shoots first, asks questions later, this is the wild, Wild west because that’s what the media covers.”

DeSanto referenced various instances of gun violence in the U.S. and said she is also researching the coverage of gun violence in the U.S. by British media.

“People think that we are a violent society,” DeSanto said. “If you look at what we export in film and television shows, all of them have automatic weapons and people going and killing everybody, and everybody lives happily ever after.”

Research-wise, DeSanto said no one else has really looked into whether or not the perceptions of gun violence in the U.S. have influenced international tourism.

“I’m interested, from a travel and tourism perspective, because I used to work in the industry: Are people afraid to come to the U.S.?” DeSanto said. “Because a number of things that I have read said (gun violence) is one of the factors. I don’t know that, however, and nobody has really asked.”

While gun violence is the focus of DeSanto’s research, she said other factors may play a role, such as the strength of the U.S. dollar or the difficulty of navigating through U.S. customs.

“The U.S. dollar right now is very strong,” DeSanto said. “A strong U.S. dollar means that foreign currency won’t buy as much in the United States as it used to, as it usually does.”

Williams said his experience of entering the U.S. for the first time was similar to stereotypes he had heard.

“A common narrative across people from the U.K. — the first thing when you get to the states — it is kind of more of a joke that they will pull you aside and treat you as if you’re someone that, ‘Why’re you here?'” Williams said. “So I turned up, and they said, ‘Why’re you here?’ and I said ‘I’m doing a research project with Kansas State University,’ and the chap then starts to quiz me.”

DeSanto said 10 students from her class will help conduct research in the U.K. over spring break. She said one report will be written for the travel and tourism industry and another report will be written by the undergraduate students for the K-State undergraduate research journal, which will help meet the K-State 2025 plan.

They will conduct “mall-intercept surveys” in Chester and Liverpool, Manchester, where they talk to people in public places. She said it is a “ground-to-research approach.” After this baseline study, DeSanto said more studies can be conducted in other European countries in the future.

“Perceptions of what goes on over here, whatever they might be and whoever might describe them, that’s what I’m looking for is people to tell me what they’re concerned about (in international tourism),” DeSanto said.

DeSanto said she wants to build a relationship among the University of Chester, K-State public relations in the school of journalism and the College of Human Ecology’s hospitality management program.

The research will be funded by a grant. Williams wrote a research grant, and DeSanto wrote a letter of support.

Williams has a research background as a bank market analyst and as a travel and tourism consultant. He said he is relatively new to academia.

“I actually got out of financial services because it didn’t really sit with my values very well,” Williams said. “It was all about getting people into debt.”

Williams said it is important to apply theory to practice.

“Sometimes business looks at academic and theory as an abstract concept, and sometimes academics are very guilty of that — making the simple complex needlessly to make themselves feel clever,” Williams said.

Williams said conducting research that can then benefit others is his passion.

“That’s what I care about the most, doing research that isn’t abstract and you can see an impact from it, whether that’s making money, whether it’s engagement with the community or it’s helping the charity,” Williams said. “It’s about doing research that matters.”

The tourism experts’ take on Kansas

“I think it’s interesting, if you ask everyone here, ‘What’s the first thing you think of?’ in terms of the Midwest or in terms of the U.K.,” Sara Quinn, instructor of journalism and mass communications, said. “We have certain things that we know, and those come to mind. I’m always curious, what were expectations (of people from other countries) of the Midwest, of the United States.”

Williams, who is a travel and tourism professional, came to the U.S. and Kansas last week for the first time to set up the research program.

Williams said he usually researches a place before traveling there, but in the case of coming to Manhattan, he chose not to do any background research so as to not have any preconceptions.

Williams said the preconceptions he had, though, were based off films and other forms of popular culture, such as Westerns.

“Films create this idea of what a place is like,” Williams said. “Like I think I’m going to be going gun-toting and I got my cowboy boots on, go down the high street, and it was very stereotypical.”

Williams said he was surprised by the number of locally owned businesses in Manhattan.

“That was one of my expectations, to be frank, was to be bowled over with loads of the Americanization of brands and have huge brands everywhere,” Williams said. “I was blown away by how many independents I saw … that wouldn’t happen in the U.K. … they would price them out of the market, and the community, quite frankly, wouldn’t really care.”

DeSanto said that according to the Manhattan Convention and Visitors Bureau, $129 million worth of tourism was generated in the Manhattan area, excluding the university. She said this includes money spent on gasoline, shopping, restaurants, entertainment and hotels.

“Our legislature and our public servants have no idea that Kansas could be a wonderful tourist destination for international tourists” and “other people who want the authentic American experience,” DeSanto said.

Tourism used to have its own department in the state government, she said, but now it is part of another department, and “it operates with enough money to only print the state guide.”

DeSanto said offices for the state Bureau of Tourism are housed in a renovated Bible college in Topeka nowhere near the capitol, and the person contracted to do international marketing for Kansas is located in Arizona.

“It’s very telling,” DeSanto said. “I believe it was not last year but the year before, Kansas had 35,000 international visitors. I said, ‘So what do we know about these people? Where did they come from? Why did they come to Kansas? What did they do? What did they spend?’ Nobody kept track of it. They had no idea why these people were here.”

Williams said that, to him, marketing is pretty simple: It is about knowing who your audience is and connecting with them.

“Have a clear strategy, visitors strategy, gauge of attractions, hotels to market that to international markets and domestic markets with a very simple purpose: It’s about inviting people to come to a place, stay longer, spend more, and that’s what tourism is at its heart,” Williams said. “It’s not an overly complex purpose, but quite hard to do.”

Williams said a similar strategy can also be applied to promoting business investment in a region.

“There should be lightning bolts that a place is known for, and that lightning bolt is what you build a narrative around,” Williams said.

For marketing, Williams said a “sacred brand” must be defined.

“I’ve already gleaned that there’s a soul of Kansas,” Williams said. “It’s spot driven. Good, clean values. Very friendly. And that kind of community, family underpinning.”

Williams said Kansas can brand itself around several important characteristics.

“Community focus — you’re always proud, but gained external recognition — sport is a platform for that, in some ways,” Williams said. “Grittiness, I still think that’s a generational thing, though.”

DeSanto said Kansas should utilize its history as a transportation crossroads for the country, including pioneer trails, railroads, interstates and aviation. Williams also said Kansas should take advantage of the Western stereotype.

“I don’t think you push the Western thing enough,” Williams said. “As Kansas, the fact that you have Dodge City in your state … everyone I know everywhere knows Dodge City.”

Williams said he noticed the pride of Kansans.

“You’re all proud to be from Kansas,” Williams said. “There’s a real kind of place self-identity … I’m from Chester. No one really from Chester says they’re from Chester … but everyone in Kansas seems proud to be from here.”

Jason Tidd graduated from Kansas State University's Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2017. He was the spring 2017 editor-in-chief, fall 2016 news editor and spring 2016 assistant news editor. While at K-State, Jason played baritone in the Pride of Wildcat Land marching band.