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With the Samui market now in the grip of a severe downturn, agents and developers are taking time out to embrace new online tools.

With the Samui market now in the grip of a severe downturn, agents and developers are taking time out to embrace new online tools, readying themselves for what they hope will be a brighter future.

Tough times require creative measures. On Koh Samui, as in other resort destinations around the region, the pressures of the slump are beginning to take their toll. A normally frenetic high season has thus far been characterized by fewer enquiries and reduced investment activity across the board. With tourism down, real estate agents report limited transactions as people hold off on discretionary purchases and caution rules the market. Staff lay-offs and cutbacks abound, and despite continued project development in many parts of the island, the sense of urgency is fading as developers focus on damage limitation in order to protect their cash flow.

Yet despite the many gloom and doom scenarios, a sense of optimism survives. Koh Samui remains one of the most popular destinations in Asia, and the general prognosis is that the slowdown is temporary. Looking to the future, a number of property sales and rental firms have already begun channeling their resources creatively in order to better position themselves when the market rebounds. One of the most noticeable results of this vision is a significant increase in the island's online presence. A web-frenzy is taking place on Samui, along with a diversification of approach to web-based marketing that sees local businesses attempting to reach more clients in the short-term and at the same time establish a greater brand image for the future.

Tools of the trade
Whether looking for a hotel, holiday villa or second home, tourists and investors now have a range of tools literally at their fingertips to help them make informed choices. Google is generally the first step in the search for satisfaction, which has prompted many companies to look at how their web presence impacts on the bottom line. The smart money is now increasingly being invested into intelligent redesign, search engine optimization and social media, all of which affect the way potential customers arrive at a site.

'When looking for a destination online, most people follow a similar pattern,' says Mark Currie from Deckchair Asia, one of the island's creative web specialists. 'They Google it first, then check what other people say about it on sites like Trip Advisor and travel blogs, compare prices via the online agents and finally, see what it actually looks like on You Tube.'

Such approaches to virtual travel and vacation investments are changing the way companies market their properties. It's no longer simply a question of designing an 'all singing, all dancing' website, but rather a question of making sure the products and services offered can be easily found, while also targeting specific client groups through a range of different online media. 'It's quite an involved process,' explained Currie, 'both technically, and in terms of the content needed. The most successful firms are those with clear web strategy that they implement on an ongoing basis. It's not about tricks and software, you have to be committed and constantly maintain your status to keep up with the competition.'

One Samui company that has taken the lead when it comes to online marketing is Samui Villas and Homes, the island's largest villa sales and rentals agency. The company's website is actually a series of independent sites, each focusing on a different product range with refined options such as 'Signature Collection Villas', 'Boutique Villas', as well as events-based products like 'Signature Weddings' that extend the range of options for potential customers. The site is content driven, with a huge database of photographs, villa descriptions and services. In addition, the company spends time and money maintaining and monitoring their web presence and continually adding new features. 'The work we do online has a direct impact on our business,' said John Birt, Managing Director. 'But the web is not only about gaining more exposure. It's also a tool for promoting Samui as a destination, creating a clear brand identity and actually giving customers practical information and support in order to make their choices easier.'

Visual Cues
Although information is king online, and quality content is one of the keys to successful web optimization, words can only carry so much meaning. Images often sell a destination and its properties. For this reason, photography and film have both become an essential part of the e-marketing process for agents and developers on Samui. Techniques such as stitching create seamless panoramic images that draw people in, while videos and montages add even more detail, allowing potential clients to literally walk through a property without leaving their desk.

Architectural renderings have also become more sophisticated, with designers creating near perfect representations of the properties yet to be completed. Gone are the days of sketches and stick people, Samui's off-plan property deals are often closed on the basis of a computer-generated image.

Perhaps the most significant web development to influence tourism and therefore the Thai resort property market in recent months has been the advent of online video sharing through sites like You Tube. A simple search yields literally hundreds of clips about the island and some agents are turning this to their advantage, either linking You Tube videos to their website, or in some cases, actually making their own films. The latter is a feature on newcomer Halcyon Samui Properties' site. 'We have made videos of most of our properties, which load on to our website,' explained the company's MD, Robert Honey. 'It's important to give clients an honest, complete picture rather than fob them off with a few sea views. Online videos allow people to really get into the property and have a proper look around.'

Honesty is certainly a differentiator when it comes to cyberspace. With online social networking now widely accepted as the global ‘word of mouth', recommendations through sites like Facebook and My Space may soon have a significant influence on resort markets.

Second home owners and their rental guests like to upload their holiday photos to these sites, as well as to image banks like Flikr and iweb. This means reality marketing is gradually replacing the kind of stereotypical gloss that used to blend one paradise destination with the next. The era of the virtual vacation has arrived and on resort islands like Samui, those with the skills and knowledge to exploit it stand to benefit during a time of relative crisis.

Written by Jules Kay for Asia Property Report - www.property-report.com.

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