10.4185/RLCS-2013-993en | ISSN 1138 - 5820 | RLCS # 68 | 2013 | |
Destination brands and website evaluation: a research methodology
J Fernández-Cavia [CV] [ORCID] [GS] Universitat Pompeu Fabra (España) email@example.com
Keywords: destination brand, tourism, website, advertising, place branding
Contents: 1. Place branding and destination branding. 2. Websites as channels for communicating destination brands. 3. The recommendations of the World Tourism Organization and certain recent contributions on the subject. 4. The research project. 5. Analysis template for the assessment of destination brand websites. 5.1. General approach: teamwork and group of experts. 5.2. Subject areas and indicators. 5.3. Sample. 5.4. Dissemination of results. 6. Conclusions 7. References.
Translation by Nicholas G. Charles
1. Place branding and destination branding
As a result of increasing globalisation and the huge influence of the tourism industry, cities, regions and countries are ever more aware of the need to compete with other territories in order to raise resources, whether that entails establishing vital industries or securing talented professionals (Florida, 2009: 18-19). According to Anholt (2007: 1):
“Today, the world is one market. The rapid advance of globalization means that every country, every city and every region must compete with every other for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, investors, students, entrepreneurs, international sporting and cultural events, and for the attention and respect of the international media, of other governments, and the people of other countries.”
This competition in itself is nothing new; however, the acceptance of this phenomenon by public managers and the consequent launch of organisations and mechanisms endeavouring to foster the competitiveness of territories is (Blain, Levy y Brent Ritchie, 2005).
The best way to foster this competitiveness of a territory is to create a powerful brand reflecting the identity of the territory in a way that is appealing to potential consumers – tourists, investors or residents – and which channels the countless, albeit disperse, promotion efforts made by public and private bodies in one direction.
Nowadays it is clear that marketing and brandinghave become activities which, aside from being common, are vital for cities, regions and countries the world over (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2005: 507).
Nonetheless, there are those who disagree. Some experts, as Dinnie recalls (2008: 173), show certain reservations, criticism or scepticism towards the idea of referring to a nation or territory as a commercial brand. According to the aforementioned author, these reservations may be based on aversion to the word ‘brand’, meaning that if other terms were used, such as ‘reputation’ (and there is speak of the ‘reputation’ of a country or a city instead of country or city ‘brand’), this doubt goes away. Even so, in recent years the trend of integrating the ethical considerations within the management of the brand is increasing, supporting, in the case of territories, a form of branding which does not involve the marketing of local culture, but rather the protection and promotion of diversity.
Several attempts have been made to provide a summarised definition of what should be understood by the process of place branding. For instance, Rainisto (2003: 12) defines place branding as “lending added appeal to the territory through the central activity of building a brand identity”.
In any event, the essence of place branding entails understanding that the choice of a territory in any kind of decision (whether made by the tourist when choosing his next holiday destination, by the industrialist choosing a location for a new factory, by a young professional wishing to access a promising employment market or a student deciding where to study a Master’s) always depends on the perception people have of the place to a greater or lesser extent, whether it is more or less simple, complex, accurate or misguided. Branding processes are an effective way of having a bearing on how we humans perceive the realities for which we have scarce information.
Under no circumstances can a territory reinvent itself from scratch in the same way a product or a service could with suitable resources. A territory is founded on an indisputable reality and a history that cannot be overlooked or denied. However, interventions can be carried out, such as the regeneration of a poor neighbourhood in a city, the promotion of cultural and sporting figures of a nation, the reconstruction and dissemination of narratives linked to a small location, the organisation of events that showcase a town in the mass media, albeit short-lived, and link it to positive values, and even a strategic commitment by a region to a specific type of industry or infrastructure.
We can simplify the complex relationships existing between decision-making processes, perceptions, territory identity and the creation and maintenance of brands as follows:
Fig. 1. Branding process of a territory
According to this diagram, branding is not conceived as the way to manage a territory; rather, it is seen as a tool for conveying a coherent, positive image aimed at improving the perceptions held by the various public groups. Branding cannot change a city, region or country, but it can help to improve its overall competitiveness.
However, if we focus specifically on the tourism industry and on how to apply branding processes to the promotion of territories, the World Tourism Organisation defines the destination brand as follows:
The core essence and enduring characteristics of a destination. A destination can change its moods and the way in which it presents itself to different market segments. But its core brand characteristics, like someone’s personality, are essentially always the same. [...] A destination brand represents a dynamic interaction between the destination’s core assets and the way in which potential visitors perceive them. It really only exists in the eyes of others. It is the sum of their perceptions, feelings and attitudes towards the destination (World Tourism Organization and the European Travel Comission, 2009: XVII).
This approach to management is not problem-free because the analogy between the marketing strategy of a product and that of a territory are neither an exact match nor can they be applied to one another one hundred percent. Palmer (2005: 128) states that “tourism destinations are likely one of the most difficult products to manage from a marketing standpoint because they involve a huge number of public groups and a brand image over which destination managers have very little control”.
Regardless, success stories in the application of marketing and branding processes to certain countries, cities and regions (such as New Zealand, Spain, Wales, Chicago, Amsterdam and Singapore) have boosted the application of this perspective in an unstoppable manner in the promotion of territories the world over.
Moreover, in the same way as it has for commercial brands, on account of its scope as an instant worldwide communication channel, the Internet has become one of the key tools – if not the key tool – used in destination branding.
2. Websites as channels for communicating destination brands
In the current age of globalisation and mass access to information, websites have transformed into a key instrument for communicating destination brands and marketing a whole range of products and services related to them (Fernández-Cavia & Huertas, 2009; Díaz-Luque, Pablo, 2009). Moreover, the popularisation of information and communication technologies has led to major changes in the behaviour of today’s consumers and travellers which, according to some authors, has given rise to the emergence of a new tourist: less interested in traditional tourism packages, less accustomed to waits or delays, more demanding and sophisticated, and used to dealing directly with suppliers (Buhalis & Law, 2008: 611).
According to Palmer (2005: 139): “the Internet provides tremendous opportunities for developing powerful destination brands affording tourists genuine benefits. (…) However, having a website is not in itself a guarantee of the success of the destination. In an age when all destinations can produce a website there should be a coherent strategy for developing, positioning and promoting e-presence”.
The need to develop virtual presence via successful websites is one of the primary challenges of so-called Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) because, as Rincón recalls (2010: 57), “integrating and supplementing the physical and virtual dimensions calls for efforts that go beyond space-time dimensions in order to attain a genuine inter-related paradigm”. Such a task is by no means easy.
In Spain, destinations currently benefit from an excellent communication tool though they are not always able to achieve maximum profitability from it: the key lies in knowing how to integrate a website into a destination’s marketing and communication plans to attain the greatest benefits. To do so, once the destination has identified values characteristic of a brand to place itself on the market and stand out from competitors, it is necessary to consider turning the destination website into a successful communication channel.
3. The recommendations of the World Tourism Organizationand certain recent contributions
In a publication released in 2008 by the World Tourism Organizationin conjunction with the European Travel Commission entitled Handbook on e-Marketing for Tourism Destinations, a series of recommendations were put forward serving as the keys to success in obtaining a “winning website”, in other words, an effective, quality website (WTO, 2008: 47):
As indeed the recommendations of the WTO conclude, testing as evaluation of websites is a stage that should be incorporated into the working process and methodology of any tourism institution or business to achieve a winning website and, in particular, for destination businesses. It is at this juncture that we shall address the issue.
With current web platform renewals for some websites, DMOs in Spain continually highlight the need perceived in the sector to improve the communicative skills offered by the Internet. At present, for DMOs the design, creation and maintenance of websites that inform about, promote and market their destination brands effectively is essential. However, most scientific and professional advances relating to the Internet tend to encounter delays in being transferred and applied to Spanish tourism destination brand websites.
Likewise, although research aimed at assessing the communicative effectiveness of tourism websites began more than ten years ago, as explained by Law, Qi & Buhalis (2010), in the field of tourism there is still no broadly accepted definition of what website assessment is and what is should consist of.
There are currently some techniques used by researchers to assess tourism websites. Law, Qi & Buhalis (2010) have reviewed the studies published between 1996 and 2009 and have identified five types:
According to these experts, all these methods bear significant merits to be taken into consideration; nevertheless, they also show gaps and limitations making it difficult to choose an ideal method. Consequently, based on the affirmations of other researchers, they venture for a combined assessment methodology which in their view will be the best capable to provide useful, satisfactory results for all interested public groups.
Said authors conclude the following:
The tourism industry at present does not have, but urgently needs, commonly agreed-upon website evaluation techniques that are repeatable and measurable and have a good potential for long-term use (Law, Qi y Buhalis, 2010: 14).
As a response to the problem we have detailed, we will consider our own methodology to analyse destination websites, an interdisciplinary, integrated model specific to the tourism sector combining automated analyses with qualitative and quantitative analyses.
The analysis methodology we are going to set out is part of the efforts conducted on the context of the research project “New strategies for advertising and promoting Spanish tourism brands online”, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (CSO2008-02627), and supervised at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. The project ran from 1 January 2009 to 31 December 2011.
The work team comprised thirteen researchers from seven Spanish universities specialising in a range of knowledge areas: advertising, public relations, tourism, economics, information architecture and usability, market research, linguistics and geography.
The main aim of the work was to diagnose and assess the quality and suitability of Spanish destination websites and provide DMO managers with the knowledge needed to incorporate the latest scientific and professional developments into their design.
The study seeks to serve as an essential instrument for improvement for local and autonomous community governments in Spain and for public companies linked to tourism. Said organisations will have the opportunity to take advantage of solid theoretical foundations from a range of communication perspectives in order to strengthen and promote their brands and, thus, increase the number of tourists in their territory.
On account of the nature of the object of study, it was necessary to use a combination of several research techniques providing the most comprehensive portrayal possible of the effectiveness of territory tourism brand websites. In order to assess the effectiveness of a website in a useful manner, we focus on three fundamental aspects involved in the communicative process: the issuer, the message and the recipient.
Study of the issuer
The aim of this area is to become acquainted with the structure and operation of Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) and their brand strategies and communication objectives.
For this section, two questionnaires have been put together intended for the managers in charge of communication from Spanish autonomous communities, cities and regions. The first, of a general nature, seeks to identify the various forms of organisation existing in the bodies responsible for territory brands as well as the various approaches adopted in terms of communication plan strategies and content, and the second, more particular in nature, focuses on the destination brand strategy and handling.
Only on the basis of this information will it then be possible to suitably assess the effectiveness of an official website.
The study of this area involves assessing the quality of the message produced in the guise of a website. To do so, two key instruments have been used: a website analysis template and an automated system for analysing positioning in search engines.
The analysis template has been developed by the research team based on several previous contributions. The template is organised into subject areas and every subject area is comprised by a variable number of indicators. The construction process of this template is the main contribution of this article.
The analysis of positioning strategies in search engines of various Spanish tourism destination websites is carried out using the specific DigiDocSpider software, a spider type computer programme that automatically analyses websites. It takes as the programme input a host of URLs (websites) and a series of indicators and parameters to analyse. The output is a report in which the level of compliance of these parameters and indicators is stated for each URL.
Study of the recipient
No communication process is complete without a recipient. In this section, the behaviour of tourists who are also Internet users is analysed. To do so, two instruments are used: a sociological survey and an experimental test.
The sociological survey is addressed to end users (tourists who have visited a destination in the past year) based on a sample of 500 people in order to conduct a study from the standpoint of reception and interpretation on the part of consumers.
The experimental test shall be carried out based on the modification of websites. The control group will be able to browse a destination website while the experimental group will be subject to browsing the same website but with indicators affecting several study variables having been altered in each case.
We use www.marcasturisticas.org in order to disseminate and set out the project. It is a website that focuses on setting out information on the research project and offering knowledge and fostering ties between academic researchers and professionals with expertise in promoting and communicating territory brands on the Internet.
5. Analysis template for the assessment of destination brand websites
5.1. General approach: teamwork and group of experts
Our working methodology seeks to turn to good account the areas of knowledge and expertise of all the members of the research project and draw up an analysis template as all-embracing as possible adapted to the tourism sector to achieve maximum effectiveness in assessing destination brand websites.
The teamwork was carried out using online cooperation tools and two face-to-face meetings deemed to be expert meetings.
During the first meeting (held in April 2009) a consensus was reached on the working methodology, the subject areas that would make up the analysis template and the glossary of concepts. The idea of putting together a joint glossary stemmed from the evidence that, according to their respective areas of knowledge, each of the experts had different ways of understanding the same terms. Accordingly, it was necessary to conduct a prior task of establishing a consensus on and pooling what would be the basic concepts that would be used in the project and what would be the approach to them on the scope of our research. For each of the terms chosen, the glossary set out an operative definition (brief and direct), an overall definition, an expansion of the subject matter and a list of key bibliographical references on the issue.
In the second meeting (held in March 2010) the selection of indicators linked to each of the subject areas in the analysis template was addressed in greater depth. To do so, a number of workshops were held with two different groups. To attain a firm overview of the template in an interdisciplinary manner, each group was formed by a specialist member from each of the subject areas. Once the group workshop was concluded, the lead researcher supervised the pooling of proposals.
In order to finalise the details of the template and overcome the hurdle of distance, a wiki work format was chosen. Accordingly, all the experts were able to make consultations, provide contributions and engage in debate over a common platform with regard to the improvements considered.
This internal working methodology has helped us especially to detect and address overlaps or repetitions existing between indicators for differing subject areas and to achieve a template as comprehensive and operative as possible.
5.2. Subject areas and indicators
Following the idea of a specific methodology, we have developed our own template design for the analysis of destination brand websites based on a consensus reached by the entire work team. Furthermore, most of the recommendations for producing an excellent tourism website offered by the WTO/ETC in their Handbook on E-Marketing for Tourism Destinations (WTO, 2008) have also been available for consideration, along with the idea of establishing an interdisciplinary, all-embracing analysis as proposed by Law, Qi & Buhalis (2010).
The result of this line of work is demonstrated by the various subject areas of the analysis template which we will set out in greater detail below.
Each of the subject areas has specific indicators that cover the most important points of analysis. The template comprises a total of 154 indicators. Subsequently, for a more in-depth explanation, we will set out a brief definition of each of the subject areas, some of the aspects that will be dealt with for each of them and an example of an indicator:
Accessibility: accessibility refers to the host of strategies, recommendations and resources making a website accessible or not, taking into consideration people with visual and/or auditory impairments and access to website content through the use of devices with limited capacity, for instance, mobile telephones. In this section, aspects such as font size, font/background contrast, compatibility with different browsers and screen resolutions, plugins, alternative text labels and website suitability were all taken into consideration, among others. A total of seven indicators were considered.
Information architecture: information architecture refers to the art and science of structuring and classifying websites and intranets in order to help users find and handle information (Rosenfeld & Morville, 2002). This subject area addresses banners, structure and browsing, page layout and the internal website search application. A total of twelve indicators were considered.
Positioning: positioning refers to the process to improve the place held by the website in search engine results lists whether natural, organic or unremunerated, in an ethical manner. For this subject area we establish internal and external indicators that will assess the handling of keywords, that is, their choice, frequency and presence in various sections of the website (URL, links, titles, metadata, etc.); brightness; the quality of output links; the PageRank and the TrafficRank; and input links, among other aspects to be assessed. A total of seventeen indicators were considered.
Content quality and quantity: in this section we examine the various types of content that should exist on tourism destination websites and the assessment of their quality and quantity. To do so, we evaluate general tourism information (location, how to get there, how to get around, the weather, etc.), commercial tourism information (bars, rent a car, etc.), specialised information (oenology, conferences, etc.) and institutional information (contact). A total of twenty-four indicators were considered.
Interactivity: interactivity refers to a two-way communicative relationship with other individuals or with the information or message itself. For this subject area we looked into the various interactions taking place over the website: consumer-message, consumer-marketer, and consumer-consumer; the latter of which is related to WOM. A total of twenty indicators were considered.
Web 2.0 presence: this concept of “Web 2.0” which is also called “social web” is characterised by the social and communicative dimensions appearing on the Internet. Good examples of this are blogs, social networks, forums, wikis, and so on. For this subject area we address the presence or level of adoption of Web 2.0 (blog layout, accounts on social networks such as Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), manager-user-content interaction from a participatory and socialisation standpoint, issues such as user customisation, cooperation, creation and recommendation, and the level of technological innovation of the website (Huertas, 2008). A total of ten indicators were considered.
Brand image handling: brand handling refers to the way in which the brand image is managed, in other words, the mental representation of the perceived features and benefits of the brand formed by users based on their communications as a whole. For this subject area we focus on the presence of brand values and targets, the handling of functional and emotional elements of the territory brand, the brand logo, and the role of the website’s images in representing the destination brand. A total of fourteen indicators were considered.
Usability: usability refers to the user-friendliness of the website and whether it achieves the goals set in an effective, swift, pleasant, appealing error-free manner. To analyse this area, aspects such as the updating of the website, the suitability of the URL, the identity of the institution and the use of multimedia elements (image quality, icons or visual metaphors, etc.) were addressed. A total of eleven indicators were considered.
Distribution and marketing: distribution and marketing refers to the various booking systems offered by different tourism service providers over websites. For this subject area we address the level of marketing used on the website examined taking into consideration a host of booking and payment systems (pertaining to the site, external or both) for accommodation, events and catering/restaurants. A total of eleven indicators were considered.
Home pages: a home page refers to the web foundation from which all the content can be accessed by means of hyper-textual browsing. For this subject area the indicators established examine relevant aspects of home pages, for instance, the use of introductory videos, a language option before browsing the website or whether it is a destination brand website in itself. A total of fourteen indicators were considered.
Languages: this subject area addresses language management on the website, in other words, the language versions on each of the joint official and non-official/foreign websites deemed important to an official Spanish destination tourism brand web page. Depending on how many languages it has, the website will have a specific numerical rating. This area is based on previous projects such as those by Díaz Luque, Guevara & Antón (2006). A total of six indicators were considered.
Discourse, argumentative and rhetorical analysis (text and images): for this subject area a rhetorical, persuasive and qualitative analysis is conducted based on patent, immanent significant aspects from the various levels of textual and image-based depth of the website. The analysis is carried out by handling “possible realms”, a methodology particular to discourse, argumentative and rhetorical assessment of website text and images. A total of eight indicators seek to point out whether expressive language is verbal and/or visual, among other things.
In order to verify the reliability and applicability of the analysis template we envisaged the application of the study on an initial sample comprising thirteen national and international websites of varying types of territories. Specifically, the websites of five countries, an autonomous community, two province capitals, two country capitals, a county capital and two regions will be analysed. By way of example, some of the websites in the sample belong to New Zealand, Ireland, Florida, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona and the Valencia Community, which are considered as particularly interesting as a reference to successful destinations.
The complete template will be applied to all these websites. So there are no discrepancies between updates, the web pages in the sample were fully downloaded during November 2010. Accordingly, the sample could be analysed offline and the specific content of the website could be checked at will.
The analysis depth level for the 90 websites depends on each specific indicator and subject area and may be as follows:
For instance, within the subject area “Architecture”, in the indicator for gauging the length of the page “Is scroll used?”,the Home page, two first level pages and two second level pages are analysed. On the other hand, to gauge the suitability of the title with regard to the content of the website, the indicator “Is the title of the pages correct?, has it been planned?” is used, and the assessment shall be carried out by analysing the Home page, ten first level pages and ten second level pages.
One example of a search of elements to be analysed via the website would be the indicator for the subject area “Web 2.0”: “Does the website have a blog? ¿Does it have a channel on a video hosting service website (such as YouTube)?”. As an example of an indicator that should only be analysed on the Home page we could take the indicator for the subject area “Home pages”, which asks: “Before entering the Home page, strictly speaking, is there a presentation or introductory video?”.
5.4. Dissemination of results
As results are obtained, the team seek to establish a guide of best practices for tourism destination communication managers and for experts devoted to the online tourism communication sector. The guide will use exemplary cases to set out a host of recommendations and suggestions to help incorporate improvements to Spanish tourism destination websites.
Likewise, as a result of our project, consideration was given to preparing a general ranking of the quality of websites for Spanish cities and specific rankings for each of the subject areas of analysis considered in the template. These results shall be made available to destination brand managers and other researchers via the official project website.
We at the research team have identified the need to improve the virtual presence of destination brands and the major challenge faced by Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) in developing successful websites. Added to this, there is a lack of a broadly accepted definition of what the assessment of tourism websites is and should involve.
In order to meet the need for a comprehensive, operative interdisciplinary instrument consideration has been given to the design of a specific assessment template of our own encompassing a range of subject areas combining automated, qualitative and quantitative analyses with a total of 154 indicators.
The purpose of this research project and the design of the interdisciplinary template is not solely to establish a website analysis methodology for tourism destinations, it is also intended to afford resources and online improvements to destinations in Spain for autonomous, provincial and city locations, as well as smaller places with fewer resources.
Any researcher with interest in the issue can contact the members of the project team and obtain additional information at the following address: www.marcasturisticas.org.
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HOW TO CITE THIS ARTICLE IN BIBLIOGRAHIES / REFERENCES:
J Fernández-Cavia, P Díaz-Luque, A Huertas, C Rovira, R Pedraza-Jimenez, María Sicilia, L Gómez, MI Míguez (2013): “Destination brands and website evaluation: a research methodology”, at Revista Latina de Comunicación Social.
Article received on 26 July 2013. Submitted to pre-review on 28 July. Sent to reviewers on 30 July. Accepted on 5 October 2013. Galley proofs made available to the authors on 7 October 2013. Approved by authors on: 8 October 2013. Published on 9 October 2013.